Tomato Troubles

A First Attempt at Canning Goes Awry
We literally had a bumper crop of tomatoes this past fall, vining into our driveway. Lest you think you need a large, bucolic setting for growing stuff, most of our produce is produced in a long, skinny bed dug for that purpose along our side yard, and underneath a holly bush, and in a couple modest-sized raised beds. And in some big pots. I’ve never canned tomatoes (or anything else) but picked a load of them, the threat of frost in the forecast:

The tomatoes were Romas, an heirloom variety (Russian, maybe?) with marbled skin and dark innards, and some…um…regular tomatoes (pretty sure that’s their technical name)…They are all “indeterminate” varieties, which means they grow on vines and produce fruit throughout the season.

I read this nifty tutorial and realized I had none of the recommended supplies on hand except for some 16 ounce Ball canning jars that, until this moment, served as my family’s drinking glasses. I didn’t have a “water bath canner” so I flattened a vegetable steamer basket into the bottom of the biggest pot we have. It’s technically a lobster pot but I don’t think anything more sentient than several ears of corn have lost their lives in its watery grave, at least not since we’ve owned it. I loaded in as many jars as would fit, filled it with water and got the whole thing boiling.

I boiled the lids and rings in a separate saucepan, one into which I could dump the tomatoes after fishing out the jar tops.

I gave the tomatoes just a quick dip, then transferred them with a slotted spoon into a bowl of ice water, which indeed made the skin slip easily off, just like the how-to guide said.

I left some Roma tomatoes whole and cut others into chunks, composting any suspicious parts. The mystery heirlooms were wicked juicy, so I drained them in a colander while assembling the other ingredients: lemon juice (to raise acidity and lower chance of spoiling), sea salt (for taste) and bay leaves (ditto)

At this point I was feeling pretty confident…but then came the canning part. I spooned or stuffed by hand pulpy bits or whole fruit into the jars, sliding a bay leaf into each. I added a shake of salt, then lemon juice, which I honestly just eyeballed at a couple tablespoons per jar. The instructions said to add hot water to the top, but there wasn’t room, but I like to follow directions, so I sort of fake-splashed some on the surface. I poked a wooden fork down the sides to let air out before putting on the lids.

Maybe I should have done more such poking, or perhaps I screwed the tops on too tight. In any event, when I ever so gently lowered the jars back into their sanitizing soup, they exploded. OK, “exploded” is an exaggeration. No one lost an eye; there was barely a spattering of tomato juice on the stovetop. But the jars did shatter, one after another, becoming a roiling stew of glass shards and garden guts. Four broke; four didn’t. I don’t know what I did right and wrong. (I think it’s more like what I did wrong and slightly less wrong.)

The photo above is my family’s winter store of vegetables. We’d be as screwed as those jar lids, or at least prone to scurvy, if not for refrigeration and retail grocers.