Lillian Smith is ready for a bountiful crop of summer tomatoes.
She has 25 tomato plants growing in her Rio Linda, Calif., backyard, enough to keep her family in canned tomatoes through the winter. Plus her homegrown tomatoes will go into sauces, juices, soups and chutneys. Smith may dry some tomatoes, too.
Smith has the answer for any gardener/cook looking for ways to tackle that familiar dilemma: too many tomatoes.
Almost a lost art, canning has come back in style as more people get into vegetable gardening. The interest in farmers' markets and pick-your-own farms also fuels this trend as consumers want to preserve their own food.
"The food safety issue and economics; that's driving the interest in canning," said Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Food Preserver, who teaches canning and other preservation techniques. "People want to know how to do it themselves."
Smith experiments with different ways to keep her crop. Last summer, she tried pressure canning. She also made tomato leather. She's always perfecting her techniques.
"I grew up watching my mom do it," Smith said. "I took some food classes in college and bought the 1970s version of the USDA guide. I did a little canning on my own."
Since her days as mother's helper, Smith discovered a lot has changed in the approach to processing tomatoes, she said.
"Acidity; there's a lot more emphasis on how important that is to food safety," she explained. "Food needs to be processed a lot longer, too. That's why it's important to use up-to-date, reliable recipes."
Here are some basics to remember about processing tomatoes:
Picking the right tomato: Choose tomatoes that are ripe but still firm with good color and preferably with unblemished skin. They should feel heavy for their size.
Average yield: Three pounds of fresh tomatoes are enough to produce one quart of canned tomatoes. A bushel (53 pounds) will yield 15 to 20 quarts of crushed tomatoes or 10 quarts of tomato juice.
How to peel a tomato: The easiest method uses boiling water. First, score the tomato with an "X" opposite the stem end. Immerse the fruit in boiling water for 15 seconds or until the skin begins to crack. Lift out with a slotted spoon, then plunge the tomato into ice water. The skin will then slip right off in your hand.
Smith suggests freezing small tomatoes, up to 2 inches in diameter. When ready to use, remove the frozen tomato from the freezer and run under warm water. The skin will crack and slip off.
Acidity: Many modern, heirloom and yellow tomatoes have very low acid. That makes them sweeter, but also creates potential for bacteria growth in processing. For food safety, tomatoes need to be acidified during canning. It also preserves the tomatoes' red color.
Add 1 tablespoon bottled (not fresh) lemon juice per pint. Bottled lemon juice is used because its acidity is consistent.
Citric acid, available in supermarket baking sections, can be used instead. Use 1/4 teaspoon per pint, 1/2 teaspoon per quart.
No aluminum: Because the acidity in tomatoes reacts with aluminum, use stainless steel or enamel cookware when working with tomatoes.
>Basic Pasta Sauce
2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cored
2/3 cup chopped carrots
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped onion
Salt to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Chop tomatoes, retaining their juice. Put in a large saucepan. Add carrots, celery, onions and a little salt (about a half teaspoon). Cook uncovered over medium heat at a slow, steady simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Add olive oil, raise the heat slightly to a somewhat stronger simmer, and stir occasionally while reducing the tomatoes to pulp, mashing them with the back of the spoon. Cook for 15 minutes, then adjust seasoning, adding more salt if desired. Makes 1 quart.
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf, 1992).
>Range Fire Salsa
7 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled
2 1/3 pounds bell peppers, green and/or yellow
3 3/4 pounds onions
5 jalapeno chilies (about 3 ounces)
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon red chili flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Core and coarsely chop tomatoes. You should have enough for 3 quarts including juice. Stem, seed and coarsely chop bell peppers (enough for 6 cups). Peel and chop onions (enough for 6 cups). Stem and mince jalapenos (remove seeds if you prefer).
In a large kettle, combine tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, jalapenos, vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, salt, chili flakes, pepper and cumin. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, for 1 hour. Keep cooking over medium heat and stirring until reduced by half, up to an hour more.
Fill sterilized jars, leaving a 1/2 -inch headspace. Wipe rims and seal tightly. Process jar for 15 minutes in hot-water bath. Cool, check seals and store in cool, dark place. Makes 7 pints.
Adapted from "The Sunset Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 2010).
5 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced (peel can stay on)
2 tart apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
2 large onions, sliced
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 chopped fresh chilies or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons mustard seed
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
Combine all ingredients in a large enamel or stainless steel kettle. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 2 hours, stirring often, until mixture has thickened.
Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 -inch head space; wipe rims and seal tightly. Process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. Cool and check seals. Store in a cool dark place for at least three weeks before using to allow flavors to mellow. Makes 3 pints.
Adapted from "The Classic Vegetable Cookbook" by Ruth Spear (Harper and Row, 1985).
>Pickled Green Cherry Tomatoes
4 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 quarts green cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 dill heads
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon brown mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
Bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a boil in a medium nonreactive pot. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt.
Place garlic, shallot, dill and spices in each hot jar. Pack jars with tomatoes, being careful not to bruise them.
Pour boiled brine over the tomatoes, leaving 1/2 inch headspace and making sure the tomatoes are well covered in liquid. Check for air bubbles, wipe the rims and seal. Process for 10 minutes, adjusting for elevation.
Makes 6 pints.
Recipe from "Tart and Sweet," by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler (Rodale, $24.99, 226 pages).