Step 1: Find a dish soap that you enjoy the fragrance of...
Yes, that should be the first step to all canning recipes, because at the end of the day when ginger-vinegar essence of chutney is just a memory, that Ivory dish soap will be fresh in your mind.
ALWAYS use canning recipes from reputable sources. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a good online resource for safe canning. (Their recipe for Standard Tomato Sauce is what I used today.) I've made a handful of recipes from their site all with more than satisfactory results. You know I like to tinker and adjust recipes, but this is NOT the time to do it. ALWAYS stick to the recipe when canning to ensure a safe end result. A safe product relies on the right acid and/or sugar level, so stick with commercially packaged lemon juice or the specific type of vinegar called for in the recipe, and do not reduce or exchange the quantities of sweeteners or fruits.
Honestly, I thought I was going to use "having an active toddler" as a reasonable excuse not to do any canning this summer. I mean millions of people live as if there's some sort of outlet just miles from their home that contains virtually every imaginable food for purchase... But I've read the literature, I've watched the documentaries, I've tasted and I've seen, and it's just gotten in my blood: this sense that we must 'put up' preserves for winter, this joyful satisfaction in investing in the local food system. And today it got the better of me; I came home from the farmer's market with a 20-lb box of San Marzano tomatoes that my former biology teacher had grown on his one-acre farm in Durham.
Chicoans, have you visited his stand at the Saturday Market? I used to avoid it, simply because he and I didn't see eye-to-eye on so many issues so long ago. I hated biology, but botany's kinda cool. And fruits and vegetables, that's botany, so maybe we'll find some common ground after-all. I do enjoy his stand, because he seems to have things that other stands don't. He has a good selection of herbs, for instance, and long swirly summer squash. Last fall and winter he sold dried fruits and dried chiles. And he was the first vendor to have pears this year. Today he had some beautiful figs, all sorts of peppers, and about four or five varieties of tomato. I really appreciate his passion and knowledge about the varieties that he grows. He seems like an okay guy after all.
I had done my research online: 21 pounds of tomatoes should yield 9 pints of thin tomato sauce. Twenty eight pounds would yield 9 pints of a thick tomato sauce. I had considered buying 25 pounds, but the vendor already had the tomatoes measured in 20-pound quantities, and twenty pounds is a large box, so I got 20 pounds.
This would be an appropriate use for your largest stockpot, if it hadn't been sacrificed years ago in a cross-country move... So I used my large spaghetti pot. I scrubbed it out, because the last time I made yogurt the milk scum had kind of browned and hardened on to the bottom of the pan. I'd washed it a couple times since then, but man was that stuff stuck on! For canning everything must be super-clean, so I scrubbed and scrubbed and finally it was shiny and clean.
I started chopping tomatoes. The recipe I was referencing advised that I should chop up about a pound of tomatoes and get them boiling in the pot, and then continue quartering and adding tomatoes at a rate so as to allow the pot to continue boiling. Simple enough. I liken this step to knitting. I don't knit personally, but a lot of people seem to find the repetitive motion somewhat therapeutic. Otherwise, why would one spend a week or more making something they could go buy at the outlet down the street? So it is with chopping tomatoes and stirring pots of steamy vegetable mixtures. It's relaxing. After about a half hour or so of this therapy, the pot was bubbling about an inch from the rim. It was time to let it boil and reduce to the desired consistency. Time for my second round of dishes: washing the cutting board and knife, the glass jars and lids, and for good measure, all the parts of the fruit and vegetable strainer attachment to my KitchenAid mixer.
Then time to wait, and stir or crush the tomatoes occasionally. And wait. And wait. I really hadn't expected it to be over two hours of cooking. Finally the tomatoes had reduced by about a third. Oh, and did I mention that I had only used half of my 20-pound box of tomatoes? Meaning that I am anticipating a repeat performance tomorrow. At this point I assembled the fruit and vegetable strainer attachment. Then I searched my cupboards for a big vessel to catch the sauce. Using a ladle, I scooped the cooked tomatoes into the food tray, and pushed them into the grinder (thanking God all the while for my mother-in-law who so kindly gave me the attachment. If you've ever strained berries or apricots for jam by hand, you know what I am talking about!) A thin puree came out the other end. I strained all 4 1/2 quarts of the tomatoes and determined that more reduction was necessary. I poured the hot strained tomato sauce back into the original (washed) pot and let it bubble away another hour while I washed all the KitchenAid parts, heated the canning kettle and got started making dinner.
I reduced the puree to what ended up being seven pints (three and a half quarts). The consistency would have been thicker and more satisfactory if I had let to boil longer, but my patience was getting thin and I needed that burner to finish making dinner. At this point the rest is easy; well, one could get some pretty significant burns, but in terms of clean-up, all one has left to wash is the stockpot, ladle, tongs and spoon rest.
This is where having the right canning equipment is imperative. A jar lifter, a magnetic lid wand, a wide-mouth funnel and long heatproof gloves are all a worthwhile investment if you plan to can more than once. And it is at this point in the process that I always wonder why I've failed to make that investment. I use some good tongs, a small funnel and rubber gloves and I get through it: filling hot jars with a tablespoon of commercially prepared lemon juice, a teaspoon of canning salt and finally the tomato sauce. Then I carefully place the seven hot pints into the hot water canner.
One last load of dishes and the work is done. Yes, once the water is boiling again, the jars need to be timed to bathe for 35 minutes and then removed (without scalding oneself), but that's hardly any work at all...
Photo credit: Jason Powers Photography
Photo credit: Jason Powers Photography