Capture Summer Flavors in a Jar
From the loving way I look at them, you’d think these jars were filled with a fine red wine. But no, they are filled with fine red tomatoes. How satisfied and rich they make me feel!
The royal red color broadcasts richness through the sparkling clean glass. But it’s not just for show; I know from years past that these particular tomatoes will impart an especially rich, well-balanced and tomato-y flavor to sauces, stews and soups.
A GOOD VARIETY MAKES A GOOD SAUCE
It’s hard to reap such satisfaction from a jar or can that you “harvest” from a supermarket shelf, or even from tomatoes you purchase and then jar up yourself. One reason is variety.
A great deal of difference exists in cooked flavor from one variety of tomato to the next, even if both are billed as “paste tomatoes.” Most commercial paste tomato varieties are bred for such qualities as good yield and disease resistance, but too often fall flat when it comes to flavor.
Without delving into the nuances of flavors among the most savory varieties, suffice it to say that the variety San Marzano is among the best, and makes up the bulk of that slushy red heaven that fills the jars on my kitchen counter. In Italy, commercially canned tomatoes that are San Marzano tout that fact on the label.
So my first bit of advice: Make yourself a note to get some San Marzano tomato seeds for planting next spring. You can’t count on buying San Marzano transplants next year because the variety almost universally sold as transplants is Roma, a good-looking but sad-tasting paste tomato.
Perhaps you can buy some San Marzano fruits now, or fruits of some other good cooking tomato such as Howard’s German, Amish Paste, Anna Russian or Prudens Purple. If so, jar up your own for winter use. Not many people can tomatoes these days and methods vary, so let me describe my method, which is simple and relatively quick.
I’m ready to begin once I’ve accumulated a quarter of a bushel or more of tomatoes. I rarely harvest that many at once, so I’ll just toss thoroughly ripe ones into a plastic bag in the freezer without any further preparation (beyond cutting off any bad spots) until I’ve accumulated enough for a batch. Then I put a half inch of water into the bottom of a large cooking pot, dump in the frozen and any new fresh tomatoes I have, and start cooking. My goal is to slowly simmer the mass to concentrate it.
Once the tomatoes have cooked down to about half their volume, which takes about a half a day on low heat with occasional stirring, I could jar them up. But I like to first blend my tomatoes, an easy job with an immersion blender that you dip into the cooking pot. A quick rinse cleans the blender, and then I ladle the now slushy tomato heaven into washed, one-quart canning jars, filling them to within an inch of their tops.
To each quart jar add 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid. This is to make the mix more acidic, which prevents growth of the bacterium that causes botulism.
Canning jars are sealed with special rings and lids. I ready the lids by putting them into a small pot of water, bringing it to a boil, and then removing the lids and placing one on each jar. A threaded ring holds each lid down firmly but not too tightly.
Now you need one special piece of equipment: either a pot large enough to completely submerse the jars under 2 inches of water, or a pressure canner. A rack that fits into the bottom of either pot keeps the jars off the directly heated metal. After 45 minutes in boiling water or 15 minutes under 10 pounds of pressure in the pressure canner, the jars are finished. Remove them immediately from the water bath, but the pressure canner needs to sit unopened and undisturbed until the pressure drops back down.
Among the most satisfying aspects of canning tomatoes is looking at the finished jars cooling on the counter. Once they cool, press on each lid to confirm that it’s been sucked downwards and a vacuum seal has formed.
Those tomatoes can now just sit on a shelf indefinitely. But they won’t — because I’ll eat them, the other satisfying part of canning tomatoes.
Lee Reich, Ph.D., writes this gardening column for the Associated Press. He is the author of a number of gardening books, including “Weedless Gardening,” “The Pruning Book” and “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.”