Canning tomatoes - Preserving a surprise harvest

It has been an interesting gardening year to say the least.  Although things may not have gone as I had planned with the garden, I was surprised to be able to get a garden harvest like I did. Enough in fact, that added to the gifted tomatoes I received, I needed to can tomatoes and spent time preserving a surprise harvest from the garden. 

Growing tomatoes - the harvest

I live in a Canadian plant hardiness zone 3b and so although the winters can be rough, the equally important thing to consider when gardening is how many frost free days there are.  On average for my area, the average frost free days is 88 days but we can also get up to 123 days depending on the year.  So when planning out the varieties of tomatoes and garden vegetables to plant I need to keep that in mind.  Some years it works, and some years it does not. 

As with most plants that are grown in short seasons, paying attention to the "days to Maturity" on seed packets is a crucial step in planning and planting the garden.  But as I explored in an earlier blog post Fall planting of cool weather crops for fall gardening in Zone 3b, "Days to Maturity" does not necessarily mean what one would think it to mean.  However, it is definitely a guide in deciding on varieties.  Although I like to push the envelope, I do try to stick pretty close to the average frost days with a few "experiments" thrown in.  I plant some tried and true tomatoes such as Early Girl and Bush Beefsteak, but I also like to trial new varieties.  I like to have a large percentage of paste tomatoes and although I planted Roma for years, I found their small size to be frustrating.  So I have been on the quest for a different variety and have been trialing a few varieties for a couple years now.  The following varieties have been trialed a couple times in previous years and were trialed in 2022:

  • Red Stalker - indeterminate heirloom slicing variety with days to maturity at 105 days;
  • Opalka - indeterminate heirloom paste variety with days to maturity of 90 days after transplant;
  • Amish Paste - indeterminate heirloom paste variety with days to maturity of 80 - 90 days;
  • Prairie Pride - determinate heritage slicing variety maturing in 50 days.

And for new varieties to trial, I tried:

  • San Marzano - indeterminate heirloom paste variety that matures 78 - 85 days after transplanting;
  • Ropreco - determinate heirloom paste variety that matures in 70 days;
  • Arbuznyi - indeterminate rare slicing variety that matures in 75 days.

But one thing is for certain, tomatoes need to be started indoors around end of March, beginning of April depending on variety and even then, a vine ripened tomato is a welcomed surprise. As I explored in In the garden - When Garden Planning does Not go as Planned, the 2022 garden was interesting to say the least.  Although some of the varieties did produce vine ripened tomatoes, some varieties simply died. But others such as the Amish Paste did super well.  So when I picked all the tomatoes due to a looming frost on September 14, I was surprised at what the plants produced after only 89 days of growing.  Granted for 70 some plants, it was not a good harvest, but none the less I was happy.  I was surprised by the squash harvest as well.Canning tomatoes - 2022 garden harvest

I was impressed with the different varieties and although some are smaller than I like, I am not sure if it is the variety or the year.  And so, I will be trialing all of them again for the 2023 garden year. Left to right: Opalka, San Marzano, Amish Paste, Arbuznyi, Ropreco, Early Girl.canning tomatoes - tomato varieties

A true test of garden suitability is how a plant does when not babied and this year was definitely a true test of that.

Being that Arbuznyi are a very rare tomato I decided that despite the difficulty in determining ripeness visually, they are a very unique and flavorful tomato and so I decided to save seed from them.  Seed saving tomatoes is quite easy and using the great resource book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth I was able to save quite a few seeds from this variety.  

As I mentioned earlier getting tomatoes to vine ripen is always a surprise.  So as is the normal here, tomatoes are ripened in a box or piled on a sheet on the floor.  This allows me to pick out the ones that decide to rot and to pick out the ones that are ready to be canned or preserved in some other way.canning tomatoes - box ripening tomatoes

Canning tomatoes

Typically, I like to blanch my tomatoes to peel them.  Blanching involves submersing them in boiling water for a couple minutes and then putting them into cold water to stop the cooking process.  The skins on most slicing varieties just slip right off. But the paste type tomatoes can take a little more effort.  Some people will freeze them which when you run the tomato under hot water, the skin slips off.  I have never done this way as I usually have enough ripe ones at one time that building up a batch in the freezer has never seemed necessary.  I did give it a passing thought this year with the small harvest I had, but then I was gifted two big boxes of tomatoes.

With the ripe tomatoes from the garden and a couple boxes of gifted tomatoes ready to process, I decided that this year being I wanted more sauce than anything else I would save myself the work of peeling and simply run them through my hand food mill thereby eliminating skins and seeds.  But first, I needed to cut them all in half and cook them up.Canning tomatoes - process tomatoes for tomato sauce

Once the tomatoes are completely cooked and are essentially mush, it was time to run them through my hand food mill.  I have found that running them through the hand food mill while at least warm really makes things easier.  Canning tomatoes - processing tomatoes with hand food mill

As identified and rated in the article The 6 Best Food Mills for Making Smooth Purées With Ease, there are all kinds of food mills on the market, from electric to hand operated.  And each person will find what works for them.  For me, my hand operated food mill that I picked up at a flee market years ago is exactly what I need.  I have tried a cone colander with pestle but find that this style does a better job and I can whip through a large batch of tomatoes or apples in a very short time frame.Canning tomatoes - processing tomatoes for sauce

You can dry the puree of seeds and skins from milling your tomatoes for use in soups and such, but I chose to compost to the garden.  The juice that is extracted from the tomatoes is then prepared for canning.  Depending on the variety of tomatoes used and what you want for the end product will dictate whether you boil it down to thicken it or simply add some tomato paste.  Because the tomatoes I used were a combination of slicing and paste tomatoes, I chose to boil it for a few hours and then added a couple cans of tomato paste to finish thickening it to what I was looking for.  The variety of tomatoes I used certainly adds a nice flavor profile to the sauce.

Tomato Acidity (pH)

Prior to starting this project I started wondering about the pH of the various tomatoes I grew.  Generally speaking, most ripe tomatoes have a pH or acidity level of 4 to 4.6 and green tomatoes are slightly more acidic. However, as there is much discussion about the pH of the currently in favor heritage varieties, a few extension services have done some checking to see where their acidity level falls.  As the article Heirloom Tomatoes: Were they really more acidic? identifies,  research conducted by 3 separate Universities in the USA determined that the pH levels actually varied in each of the 3 studies, due in part to the varieties tested.  And as such, supported by the evidence of the Universities, the author makes the following statement " The takeaway instead is: the acidity of tomatoes will always be all over the map, even with the same variety, just based on growing conditions and year alone. Heirloom varieties were and are no magic bullet, nor are modern for that matter. A tart or sweet taste is no indication of the right or wrong pH." and further purports that "You want a pH of 4.6 or less in that jar. The only way to ensure that kind of safe product for your friends and family is to properly acidify that jar of tomatoes.".

Finding the acidity of various varieties is a challenge to say the least and so I decided that I would start by testing some of the varieties I was canning using Oakton pH Indicator Strips I ordered from Cole-Palmer.  As the USDA recommended acidity level to hot water bath can products is 4.6 or higher (more acidic), I wanted the strips to turn yellow to yellow orange.  I tested the Arbuznyi and Amish Paste varieties and found them to be well in the desired range.  And in fact, the tomato sauce made from all varieties was also satisfactory. These results made me comfortable in the fact that the acidity levels would be sufficient to supply a safe hot water canning of my tomato sauce. 

However, the USDA recommends adding a tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint of tomato product. I have never done this because I felt that the varieties I was growing were some of the more acidic ones.  But I decided that I would try one pint to see what it did to the acidity levels.  It definitely made it well within the safe range for hot water bath canning as indicated by the yellow-orange color of the test strips.  With my new digital pH meter I recently got, I will be able to supply more specific acidity levels as time goes.Canning tomatoes - determining pH levels of tomatoes

With this information in hand, I decided to not add the lemon juice.  I filled the jars with the hot tomato sauce, attached the snap lids that I had preheated in some warm water, and then processed the tomato sauce in a hot water bath for 40 minutes as per the National Center for Home Preservation recommendations.  I did reuse some canning lids for this project that met my criteria for reuse as I explored in Recycle canning lids, upcycle canning lids and repurpose canning lids....but can I reuse canning lids for home canning?.  For more information on canning, be sure to check out The Abundant Pantry: Canning course offered by Homesteading Family.  Despite my years of canning, I have taken this course and found it to be quite valuable.

After the 40 minutes had passed, I turned the heat off, took the lid off the canner and allowed the jars to sit for 5 minutes or so and then set them on the counter to cool.  I now have a number of jars of tomato sauce to use as a base for spaghetti sauce, pizza or in my vegan beans as I explored in Vegan Beans and Odd shaped glass jars - pressure canning with reusing glass jars and reusing canning lids.canning tomatoes - canned tomato sauce and reusing canning lidsWith the number of tomatoes I had to process, there was another batch of tomato sauce to be made.  In addition to the tomato sauce I also made a batch of Chili sauce, a family favorite, but I also decided that I would try a batch of dehydrated tomatoes.Canning tomatoes - preserving surprise harvest into chili sauce

Dehydrating tomatoes

A year ago I bought the Excalibur 9-tray food dehydrator after doing research into the various dehydrators on the market.  I have been playing with it quite a bit and drying fruit, medicinal herbs and greens for green powder.  I had seen quite a few people dehydrating their tomato slices for grinding and making pastes and such so I thought I would give it a try.  I sliced all the tomatoes about 1/4 inch (6 mm) and layed them on the dehydrator trays.  I dried the sliced tomatoes at 140F (60 C) for what seemed like forever, but in reality it was probably only about 16 hours.  At the end of it, the tomatoes were more like a leather than a crispy dried product I felt I could easily powder.  But I placed the dehydrated tomato slices in a jar to make sure they were dried as any condensation on the inside of the jar would indicate that they needed more drying time.  Once I was sure they were completely dried, they were ready to go on the shelf for me to use in my cooking and various experiments over the coming months.canning tomatoes by dehydrating tomatoes

Fermenting tomatoes

Another way that I wanted to use up some of the tomatoes was by fermenting them.  In the blog post In the garden - When Garden Planning does Not go as Planned I explored how I had tried a fermented tomato salsa.  I try to eat a ferment of some sort with each meal and the fermented tomato salsa is a really nice addition to my collection of ferments.  And so, I decided to make another one.  The salsa can be made with pretty much what ever ingredients you like such as peppers, celery, cilantro, etc..  But for this one it was basically just tomatoes, a bit of celery leaves from my homegrown celery, onions, and a few spices.

For my ferments, I like to use Redmond Real Salt for the added mineral benefit.  After I add the salt (about 2% by weight), I let it ferment on the counter for a week and then put in the fridge.  I have been warned to watch it as it will sometimes turn alcoholic but I have not yet experienced that. In the meantime, I will be enjoying this fermented tomato salsa. Canning tomatoes - fermented tomato salsa For a more in depth exploration into fermenting, be sure to check out the blog I did on Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - the Process, the Benefits.  But on to more of preserving a surprise harvest.

Growing Tomatillo for first time

I had seen quite a few people growing tomatillo's and thought I would give it a try.  For those that are not familiar, Tomatillo's are native to Mexico and are often referred to as "little tomatoes" or "husk tomatoes".  As explained in the article What are Tomatillos, Anyway? they are "slightly more acidic, slightly less sweet flavor than ripe and unripe tomatoes. Overall, the flavor is more vegetal and bright, and the interior texture is denser and less watery. ".  Sounds good to me, so for the 2022 garden year I decided to trial 3 varieties:

Although the purple did not produce, the other two performed well and will be planted again.  Not only did I enjoy the flavor right off the vine, they were quite good in cooked foods as well.  But what surprised me is how they handled the light frost of September 14.  They continued to grow and flower after the frost and gave me another gallon less than a month later.

So with a gallon of tomatillos to process I decided to make the Salsa Verde AKA Tomatillo Salsa in the Ball Complete book of Home Preserving edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren DeVine.  Although it will need some tweeking for my taste, I quite enjoy it, much the same as I enjoy the pickled coleslaw and the extra jars of tomato sauce I made that day.  My experiences with Tomatillos in 2022 has confirmed in my mind that I will be planting Tomatillos in the 2023 garden.   

The cabbage harvest

The real surprise for me this year was the cabbage harvest.  As I explored in In the garden - When Garden Planning does Not go as Planned the DIY Floating Row cover Tunnel I use for my brassica's definitely made for a successful cabbage harvest this year in that it prevented competition, reduced evaporation and prevented bug infestations.  All of this allowed me to make numerous batches of cabbage based ferments, can some pickled coleslaw and make a number of jars of sauerkraut in one of my crocks which I later jarred up and put in the fridge.  I never process the sauerkraut as it will kill the lacto-fermenting bacteria and reduce the health benefits of it.  canning tomatoes - making sauerkraut - fermenting

Final thoughts

Although the 2022 garden was not what I had envisioned when I sat down to plan it out in the spring or when I planted it, there were a number of surprises.  Adding to that,  the little bits of harvest and the gifted produce all helped to generate quite a lot of produce to can and freeze. Every little bit helps.  Even when it is just a little harvest, such as this non bumper crop of celery, it adds something to the freezer for later use.canning tomatoes - freezing celery - celery harvest

The Woven Landscape Fabric - A Homemade Woven Weed Fabric DIY project really allowed the squash and zucchini to grow well.  The squash produced surprisingly well allowing me to cure some spaghetti squash, buttercup squash, sugar pumpkins and Canada Crook neck squash to enjoy over the winter months.  Not bad at all for 89 days from planting to harvest.canning tomatoes - curing squash harvest

And with the non existent weed pressure, the zucchini out did itself as per usual.  This allowed me to dehydrate some zucchini slices in the Excalibur 9-tray food dehydrator for zucchini chips, allowed me to make up some zucchini relish and do some baking.  Quite tickled with its production.Canning tomatoes - zucchini harvest - relish

So all in all, the 2022 harvest was really quite a surprise and a huge reminder of what can be accomplished if given the chance.  Little by little, I put up items I harvested from the garden, foraged for, and in some cases purchased and/or traded for.  It all helps stock the pantry shelves.

If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site. 

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.

Additional Resources:

Canning tomatoes, Preserving the harvest, cabbage harvest

Leave a comment