Category Archives: Tomatoes

Which tomato should I buy? The economics of canning tomatoes

About 100 pounds of tomatoes, canned

According to conventional wisdom, you should always buy paste tomatoes (such as Romas) for canning. The reason given is that paste tomatoes contain less moisture, and so take less time to boil down to a thick sauce. Also, you’re paying for tomato flesh, rather than sauce.

So how true is this conventional wisdom? We decided to find out.

After our first tomato buy this year, I ended up with about a hundred and twenty pounds of tomatoes. About half were cases of “mixed heirlooms” from Art Heinneman. The heirlooms were beautiful, and represented a variety of different flavors. Of these, we ate about 20 pounds fresh, slicing them on sandwiches or into salads. The rest, we canned.

Two 10-pound batches of heirloom tomatoes. Those in the foreground have been blanched.

San Marzanos

The other half of our boxes contained San Marzano paste tomatoes. San Marzanos are actually an heirloom paste tomato, famous for having a rich, deep almost chocolatey taste. But I tasted none of that richness in these tomatoes. I assume the flavor referred to is in the sauce, rather than in the fresh fruit. Because compared to the heirlooms, I found them incredibly bland and tasteless. My 3-year-old daughter Luella however showed no such scruples.

Paste tomatoes: Not for eating fresh

It’s clear the mixed heirloom tomatoes from Art had vastly superior flavor for eating fresh. And you can tell, just from biting into these tomatoes, that the paste tomatoes had lower moisture content. So does the economic advantage of those lower-moisture paste tomatoes outweigh the superior flavor of the heirlooms? Again, conventional wisdom suggests that for canning purposes, we should always choose paste tomatoes. But how true is that maxim?

The Results

I like a thick, cloying tomato sauce. I like it to cling to your pasta, almost like a paste. And so I boil my sauces WAY down. For every 10 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, I got 4 pints of sauce. For every 10 pounds of paste tomatoes, I got 4.5 pints of sauce. That means you get easily more than 10 percent more sauce from paste tomatoes.

Tomato Sauce yield from 10 pounds of mixed heirloom tomatoes over yield from 10 pounds of paste tomatoes

The difference becomes more apparent when we cold-packed tomatoes with no added water. In this recipe, after putting 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid in each piping hot sterilized pint jar, you pack the hot jar full of blanched tomatoes, squish them down to eliminate air pockets and then put them in the hot-water bath for 85 minutes.

Cold-packed tomatoes after processing: paste tomatoes on the left, mixed heirlooms on the right.

During processing, the solid tomato flesh separates from the water and floats to the surface. The resulting jar looks something like a black-and-tan, and makes it easy to discern exactly how much more water is in the heirlooms. Again, the paste tomatoes appear to easily contain at least 10 percent less water.

If you’re performing a strict economic calculation, paste tomatoes give you at least 10 percent greater value (in tomato flesh), and probably also take about 10 percent less time to boil down. That’s a significant savings.

But what about taste?

Heirlooms taste better, and I haven’t decided yet whether heirlooms result in a better-flavored sauce. Certainly the bland flavor of our San Marzanos improved dramatically when sauced. But the heirlooms were outstanding. I haven’t tasted the sauces next to each other, and now I may never know, as my jars of sauces from the two types have become hopelessly confused. But as we open a jar of tomato sauce every other week this year, I’ll taste carefully, looking for that extra something.

saucing San Marzanos

Saucing San Marzano paste tomatoes

Cost Analysis

Because my sauces are so extremely thick, I consider one of my pint jars to be the equivalent of a quart jar of tomato sauce from the grocery store. A jar at the grocery store might cost anywhere from 3 dollars to 6, depending on its quality, whether it was organic, and whether it was on sale. I paid $42 for most of my 20 pound boxes of tomatoes, both paste tomatoes and heirlooms. These were essentially wholesale prices, as we purchased large quantities of these top-grade tomatoes directly from the farmer and sold them to friends and neighbors without markup in one of our annual Bulk Tomato Buys. For the paste tomatoes, the cost works out to: $4.60 per jar of sauce. Yikes! For heirlooms, that works out to: $5.25 per jar. Double yikes! So this was not a money-saving venture, either way. The quality of my sauces is WAY higher and I know they’re free of unnecessary chemical ingredients, such as the thickeners they use in commercial sauces to get more sauce out of less tomatoes. I know the farmer who provided my tomatoes, and I love the way he farms. But when I go through all this work, I’d still like my sauces to be cheaper too!

One of the 20 pound boxes I picked up were #2 heirlooms. That #2 grade means they had too many blemishes to be sold in a supermarket. These I picked up for a mere $22 a box, and got the same yield as the heirlooms. That works out to $2.75 a jar. That’s a much better deal!

Conclusions

To save money, choose #2

In the end, the debate about whether you get more value from heirlooms or paste tomatoes appears to be a bit of a wild-goose-chase. This discussion distracts us from the most obvious savings. For the most value, I should be buying all #2 tomatoes! The blemishes don’t matter when you’re canning them. So long as you can can them within a couple of days (beyond this, those blemishes turn to rot) you’ll be fine.  Whether they are #2 heirlooms or #2 paste tomatoes makes but a small difference to your pocketbook. The important thing is that they’re #2!

A secret that will save you time

Now that you know which tomatoes will give you the most sauce for your money, let me leave you with one tip that will cut down on your time commitment dramatically.

Saucy!

After cooking 10 pounds of tomatoes for a little while, place the tomatoes in a food mill or colander and let the clear liquid drip back into a pot. Once most of the liquid has drained out, place that pot on the stove and blast it with heat, stirring constantly. With no solids to worry about burning, you can reduce that liquid to a syrup in no time at all. Give it a taste: it will taste like a cross between tomatoes and chocolate. Then, mill the tomatoes right into this syrup, removing the seeds and skins. Once you stir them back together, you’ll have a huge jump start on the long job of reducing a sauce.  I discovered this method on my final batch of sauce. So I’ll have to wait to enjoy the labor savings until next year!

Joshua

Digging out of My Ketsup Filled Hole

Would you believe I’m still canning? It’s true but I’m nearly done. I know I said I was trying not to can this year but in September when I open up the door to bags of ripe fruit and see the tomatoes making their last gasp in the garden I always panic.

I must have been a squirrel in a former life. You would think I starved as a child but food is my baseline – it reassures me and comforts me. It’s not the food for me so much as the thought of my family wanting for something that I could have provided them at one point but now it’s too late because that fruit is no longer in season.

So while I was a lot of talk about more fermenting and less canning this year I’m still canning enough food to feed a small army. A tomato army perhaps….

I’m finally up for air long enough to load image software on my new yet again computer following the laptop virus two weeks ago (followed by the dead car then followed by the full body blistering hives.) So I apologize that it’s taken me this long but then it’s been one dousie of a month in which one month felt like six.

photo by Joshua McNichols

This is a shot a few hours into the produce pickup. Imagine that two hours of tomatoes have already left this picture.

photo by Joshua McNichols

We recruited even small children to unload the trucks. I hope no one from CPS is reading this blog.

photo by Joshua McNichols

The lovely Jess carrying more than her fair share of tomatoes.

photo by Joshua McNichols

Tryouts for the strong man competition.

photo by Joshua McNichols

And the most adorable garlic-eating-baby competition.

photo by Katie Dodsley

Pictures of Katie’s tomato treats that warm the cockles of my heart.

Hopefully in the next few days I can get my canning tally and harvest tallies up here as well as post pictures of processing tomatoes with those of you who came and processed with me. I had a blast and feel so strongly convinced that supporting small farmers like this – and enticing as many of you as possible to participate in this buy rather than buying canned tomatoes at the store this winter – is the next wave of the real food movement. Thanks for being a part of it!

Summer Salsa – Year Round

Salsa is one of those things that so easily spices up those dreary February days when it feels like summer will never, ever come.

Last summer I canned a batch of tomato salsa and a batch of peach salsa. We loved the flavor of both before canning but after canning? Ho hum.

I have to tell you though, by February when we cracked open the jars we were dancing with joy. I’m not sure if the flavors improved after melding for a few months, or if we just had one of those camping experiences where you taste canned beans and wieners and proclaim them to be the most delicious food on the face of the earth, clearly because of the situation and not the substance.

I can tell you that I’m taking no chances this year. I’m canning lots of salsa. I’ll skip the peach salsa but the tomato salsa I will make several batches of. Use the best quality apple cider vinegar you can get your hands on – preferably Rockridge Cider which you can get at any fall Seattle farmer’s market.

Adapted from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

Summer Salsa

Makes about 12 – half pint jars

  • 10 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes (I use my Roma mill to do all that work for me.)
  • 3 cups chopped, seeded green bell or sweet peppers
  • 3 cups chopped onions
  • 3 cups chopped, seeded hot peppers or a mix of mild and hot
  • 1 1/4 cups Rockridge Cider Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 15 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 6 Tablespoons finely chopped cilantro and/or shizo
  • 6 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 2 – 3 teaspoons ground cumin

 

Sterlize jars by placing in the canner pot with a few inches of water and steaming for 10 minutes. Place metal lids in warm water for 5 minutes to soften the seal. Keep the jars in the pot until you are ready for them.

In a large, stainless steel or porcelain stockpot combine everything and bring it to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and stir until slightly reduced and the vegetables begin to soften.

Carefully ladle the hot salsa into hot jars up to 1/2 inch of headspace. It’s nice to have a ruler handy to measure the headspace since too much of it can leave you open to food spoilage and too little can compromise your seal. Remove any air bubbles in the jar by gently tapping it on the counter. If bubbles remain use a clean knife to dislodge them. Wipe the rims clean then place the lid on the jar and screw the band on tightly.

Place the jars in your canner, filling with water to an inch above the top of the tallest jar. Bring to a boil and process for 15 minutes at a rolling boil. Remove the canner from the burner and let the jars rest in the water bath 5 minutes before removing. Always lift the jars straight up when removing. Cool them on the counter overnight or during the day then check for seals once they have cooled and store in a cool, dry place.

Guest Post – How to Grow Tomatoes that Look Like HERKIN’ TREES!

I asked my friend Joshua, master composter, writer, stained glass artist, father, gardener extraordinaire, architect and builder of beautiful garden structures just how he gets his tomatoes to resemble HERKIN’ TREES.

You see, earlier in the season when we both had starts of similar size and his were actually even yellower than mine, we discussed having a tomato off. He said he was only planting 6 bushes, I was planting 9. I had a smaller space than he did. I bet him I would get more fruit off mine. The jury is still out on the quantity of fruit although we are comparing notes this summer but I have to admit to you that his tomatoes look like HERKIN’ TREES compared to mine. He has a jungle o’ tomato vines and I, I have 9 tomato bushes.

Sure, we’ve been eating from the 4th of July bush for nearly 6 weeks now and Joshua is just now getting his first ripe tomatoes but he just may surpass me by next month in tomato output. So I asked him to tell me just how he had grown his tomato forest and here, in his own words, is his answer.

How to Grow Tomatoes That Look Like HERKIN’ TREES!

In most matters related to the garden, I still consider myself a novice; but when it comes to tomatoes, I am the master. This method might not work everywhere. But in the Pacific Northwest, it results in massive plants that churn out buckets of tomatoes from late August through mid October.

Here’s how to grow tomatoes that, in Annette’s words, look like Herkin’ trees!

First, pick up starts at Seattle Tilth’s spring edible plant sale in late April or early May. This is too early to plant tomatoes unprotected. But late enough that they’ll thrive inside a WALL O WATER. The wall-of-water is manufactured by several companies under different names – I buy mine at Fred Meyer the summer before for around 3 or 4 dollars each (there must be a cheaper place to get this).

Tilth also has an EARLY spring plant sale for cool season crops, so don’t show up at that one accidentally.

The key to my success is this: the wall-of-water allows me to get an extra month of luxuriant growth out of my tomatoes. Unprotected, the plants would be stunted by the cold nights. Unlike a simple greenhouse, the wall-of-water contains thermal mass. The water inside absorbs heat from the sun during the day and radiates it back to the tomatoes at night.

After amending my garden soil with compost and organic fertilizer, I plant my starts as deep as I can, breaking off all but the top 4 to 6 leaves. The remaining leaves will be an inch or two above the soil. The rest of the plant will become a giant root.

Then I place three short bamboo stakes in a sort of tee pee, to protect the plants from any collapsing walls-of-water.

I wrap the wall-of-water around a 5 gallon bucket and fill it about half way. Then I carefully feed it over the bamboo stakes, watching out for sharp points that will pierce the wall-of-water.

During May and June, I make sure the tomatoes get water about once a week. The rain usually takes care of this.

Around the fourth of July, when nights are consistently well above 50 degrees, the tomatoes will be sprawling out of the top of the wall-of-water. With the help of a friend, it’s time to carefully lift the wall-of-water off the tomatoes. You’ll notice the tomatoes have put out aerial roots, since the environment inside is so warm and moist.

The tomatoes, now unprotected, collapse into a tangled heap on the ground. I select between 5 and 9 major branches and tie these up, as high as they can be stretched, to 8 foot bamboo poles, arranged in a circle around the each tomato. After successfully staking my major branches, I prune most of the remaining branches away. For six plants, this process takes a few hours. At this point, the plants should be around 5 feet tall.

This is the last time I step on the soil around the tomatoes. Soil compaction hampers root growth. I make an exception for my kids, who at 2 and 5 years old are lighter than I.

In July, I water my plants deeply once a week. You must be careful not to pamper them, or they won’t grow deep roots. By using tough-love on your tomatoes, they’ll be ready for the drought when you stop watering them in early to mid august. That’s right, not a drop. A stressed tomato is a ripe tomato. In my yard, the mulched paths ensure the ground around the tomato beds will retain some moisture. But the tomatoes must find this moisture themselves – I won’t give it to them. I might act differently if the soil were compacted or low in compost.

By mid August, the tomato plants will be Herkin’ Trees,loaded with green tomatoes. Now it’s time to hope for dry weather. A rainy week can delay ripening by half a month. You might consider protecting the soil with plastic to prevent water infiltration.

There are some drawbacks to this method. Although fruit set is amazing, other gardeners succeed in getting ripe tomatoes earlier, though not so abundantly as I. You might consider planting another tomato elsewhere in your yard, perhaps a cherry tomato, and following a different method to get cherry tomatoes for your late July salads.

Another drawback is that the high stress can cause blossom end rot on the most tender Roma tomatoes – the disease is a symptom of inconsistent watering. I’ve learned to favor Romas less susceptible to that disease, such as the Polish Linguisa.

Were my tomatoes smaller, I’d probably put clear plastic over them in October to extend their season further in the other direction. But they’re just too huge. Instead, I do a little early October pruning to increase air circulation and avoid tomato blight. Around mid October, the cold is just too much for them, and I take them out. By this time, it’s too late to get good coverage from a cover crop, so I pile the empty bed with fall leaves. In the spring, I’ll dig in the rotting leaves and use this bed for peas, rotating the tomatoes to another bed.

Most tomatoes respond well to this regimen. I always plant a sungold for the kids, a brandywine for myself, a hardy Roma for saucing, and a couple other breeds I’m experimenting with. I love old breeds, like Cherokees. Besides Brandywine, my favorite is Purple Calabash, though with this lobed tomato you have to pick ripe ones quickly or their deep folds trap moisture and rot. This year I also planted a stupice, though I’ve been underwhelmed by that breed in the past.

In late August, we’re usually giving away, canning and consuming tomatoes at every meal. I slice them half-an-inch thick and eat them on sandwiches. We make pasta sauce from scratch. We cut them up, toss them with mozzerella or feta, salt, basil and olive oil. In the end, we’re left with tons of green tomatoes which we might try pickling this year (I’ve never successfully ripened green tomatoes over the winter).

Guest Post – Lacto Fermented Salsa

A few weeks ago reader Brook mentioned her lacto-fermented salsa which I zeroed right in on. I’ve done some lacto-fermenting this year, namely beet kvass, carrots and dill pickles. But when Brook mentioned she had made tomato salsa last summer that was still good after 6 months I knew I had to have her do a post about it. My goal this year is to can less and put up more. Lacto fermentation is a great way to do that. Without further ado, here is Brook’s post.

Enough About the Salsa, Already!

Adding something from your summer garden to your winter meal is a treat. Whether pulling blueberries from the freezer, or opening a jar of honey peaches, it brightens your plate and your day. I feel this way about the salsa I have sitting in the refrigerator. Last fall I decided it was time to try lacto-fermenting something and salsa was my first try – and a successful first try, at that! I always have something fermenting in my kitchen – from everyday sourdough to beet kvass. My husband lovingly calls it the hippie tower – the dinner plates covering bowls and then stacked on top of each other to save valuable counter space. But the salsa, it really knocked my socks off! It is March! How can I still be eating something that has been hanging out in my fridge since September?

Lacto-fermentation is centuries-old practice of preserving food. Whey from milk or yogurt, added to fruits or vegetables helps to produce lactic acid, a natural preservative. This lactic acid prevents harmful bacteria from growing, allowing the food to be eaten months later. And unlike canning that actually depletes fruits and veggies of intrinsic nutrients, lacto-fermentation adds significant nutrient value to foods. This process turns an already vibrant condiment like salsa into a super food – adding beneficial enzymes and thousands of friendly bacteria that aid in digestion and help to boost immunity.
The nice thing about this salsa is that you don’t need a specific recipe. You can use your favorite fresh salsa recipe and just add a step to ferment it. I didn’t really have a recipe going into this – I used what I had around – generally what Fall has to offer. I had a pile of tomatoes ripening on the back porch and the rest of the ingredients came from my CSA. You can follow this basic method:

To your food processor, add garlic cloves, onion, and a generous bunch of cilantro and process until the garlic and onion are minced. Slice the tomatoes in half and squeeze most of the watery juice into the sink or save it for another purpose, leaving the meaty part of the tomato and the skin. Then, add these to the food processor along with a seeded (or not) jalapeño, the juice of a lime, and sea salt and blend until the tomatoes are close to uniform in size but still a bit chunky. Transfer all of this mixture into a large bowl and add the whey. I used approximately 2 tablespoons of whey per 4 cups of salsa. Stir the whey into the salsa really well. Now, pour the salsa into very clean jars and cap tightly, leaving about 1 inch between the salsa and the top of the jar to allow for expansion of the juices. Let the jars sit on the counter for 2-3 days and then transfer to the fridge. That’s it! One extra step, and now you have salsa to last through the dark days of winter.

Knowing what I now know about lacto-fermentation hasn’t stopped me from expecting a foul smell or to see mold growing each time skeptically I open the jar. And I think my husband is half smiling, half rolling his eyes every time I say “Look at this, salsa. I made this way back in September! No, really, come look at it. It’s still perfect!” He’s heard it over and over again. This is a simple, yet tried and true way of preserving what nature has given us and it continues to amaze me. It’s led to experiments with fermenting many other things like sauerkraut, kimchi, and beet kvass. I’m down to the last half jar and it feels bittersweet. The salsa is gone but, I’m excitedly anticipating the arrival of my tomato plants from Territorial so that I can start the process all over again.