I have learned more about cooking from Gluten-Free Mama, than I could ever have learned at any culinary school. As everyone knows who has ever dined at one of her sumptuous feasts, GF Mama is a gifted culinary engineer. She not only cooks superbly, she has created countless dishes for our enjoyment, many for which she has recorded the recipes for her success.
When I say GF Mama “cooks” superbly, I am covering an expansive field of play, from hors d’oeuvres through desserts, and all points in-between. It includes a wealth of sauces, gravies and accoutrements of a successful kitchen, including the baking of pastries and the creation of frostings.
One of those areas of expertise is the preserving of fresh fruits and vegetables, for our enjoyment over the long winter months. Though my experience with canning tomatoes predates my meeting of GF Mama, my range of abilities was fairly narrow. Having worked alongside her in the trenches for decades now, I have figured out a thing or two-or maybe three-that stand out as being guideposts for anyone who desires to succeed at anything related to tomatoes.
First, it all tastes good, unless you get careless with the flame beneath your stockpot, and scorch your batch of sauce, in which case it’s a treat for the chickens. There are no comparison taste charts to determine if what you have created is up to snuff with the rest of the universe. You are your own judge and critic: you and those who are dining with you.
If everyone agrees it’s tasty, then it’s a great success. Go ahead and follow a recipe, or even better, use a recipe as a guide and then adjust it to your specific tastes. Do you think there should be more black pepper? Less garlic? And you’d like to add some basil? Go for it!
The one thing you can’t tinker with too much is the level of either vinegar or lemon juice that a recipe may call for, because these are elements that pertain to the preserving process. If there is not enough of whichever the recipe calls for, then your sauce may not be safe to eat once it is all done in the water bath.
Conversely, if you put too much of either in your recipe, it will not taste right.
The second rule of thumb that I learned is that there can be great variation when it comes to consistency. Granted, catsup should be thick enough to adhere to your French fries, but it’s not the end of the culinary world if it isn’t.
Likewise, marinara sauce does not want to be too watery, or it loses some of its appeal, but it can also be cooked down at the time you are getting it ready for dinner, if you start a little earlier than usual. Both situations can be corrected in subsequent canning, by simply letting it cook down longer before putting it into your jars.
|Nephew Jay, manning the strainer.|
Whether you are making catsup or sauce, you can start by running your [washed] tomatoes through a sieve to remove the skins and seeds. If you do not have access to this device, you can always cook whole peeled tomatoes down, and then run an immersion blender through the mixture to smoothen it out, or even a conventional blender, which will accomplish the same thing.
You just have to remember that if you are dealing with tomatoes that have been simmering on the stove, then extra caution should be exercised to ensure that no blender or sieve can splatter hot sauce in an unsafe manner.
Thirdly, there are a finite set of rules that must be followed, but they are consistent and easy to access online. They are only inconvenient if you find out about them at the last minute, which might mean a trip to the store; otherwise, they are basic guidelines that can be used in any area of canning to ensure safety.
Jars: If you have purchased new jars with lids and seals, then you are good to go. Of course, you may be reusing jars, which I do over and over. I make sure I examine them for ANYTHING not perfectly normal, like cracks or chips, and discard them if they are not perfect.
You cannot reuse seals, but you can reuse the rings that keep them in place, if they are spotless with no rust stains. You can buy the rings/seals by themselves in lots of twelve without the jars. So before you start to cook tomatoes, do a survey to find out what you need to pick up from the store.
|Getting ready to add the hot catsup to the sterilized jars.|
Though the rules now say that water bathing for the prescribed time also sterilizes everything, GF Mama still insists that jars and seals/rings be sterilized in advance, something that is easy to do because you use the same pots for both this and the final water bathing.
The times for either pressure cooking or water bathing are easy to access on-line. You might be doing half-pints or you might be canning half-gallons, so check out how much time is required to seal the deal. I have found that pressure cooking only works with plain tomatoes; as soon as you start to thicken matters up, the book wants you to go to a water bath method of processing your tomato sauces and catsups.
If you pressure cook, then you have one set of rules. If you water bath, all you are doing is covering the sealed jars with water until you have an inch over the top of them, bringing the canning pot to a rolling boil, and then maintaining it for the prescribed amount of time. You will always add some sort of preservative such as lemon juice or vinegar, and you will generally use salt for taste, though it is not essential if you are on a salt-free diet.
Finally, there is the matter of what kinds of tomatoes you are going to use. If someone has kindly dropped off a box of tomatoes, then you do not have the luxury of a choice. In small quantities you really can do anything with any kind of tomato. It’s only when you start to get serious that it pays to have the best possible option, when there are so many.
|Ace tomatoes are slicers.|
On-farm I grow table tomatoes (Ace), which are slicers, and sauce tomatoes (Heinz), which are almost devoid of juice in lieu of a meaty tomato. I process the table tomatoes in a cold-pack only, skinning and quartering the Aces no matter what size they are.
I use the Heinz for everything else. Even trying to use the table tomatoes for salsas, produced a far more watery rendition than that which was my goal. So I grow more Heinz tomatoes than I do Ace, and have plenty for putting up the sauces and catsups that I do.
Here is my recipe for marinara sauce with an emphasis on basil:
12 lbs Heinz tomatoes
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup fresh packed basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons, each, assorted fresh herbs, such as oregano, thyme and rosemary
lemon juice (1 teaspoon per pint of sauce)
|Heinz tomatoes for sauces|
Peel/strain tomatoes and place in thick-bottomed cooking pot along with sugar, salt, pepper and herbs, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the mixture has thickened to the desired consistency. If you have the flame too high under the cooking pot, you run the risk of scorching your sauce, so it may take two hours or longer to achieve the desired thickness.
And guess what? I sample as I go. While the mixture is cooking down, if I determine that more basil is required, I add it. I especially like rosemary, so I am usually going to supplement it with additional reinforcements, but you might feel just the opposite. You might cut rosemary right out of your plans. It’s your recipe.
|This is a diffuser.|
I use a diffuser between the flame and my saucepan, which I think cost around twenty dollars. It’s insurance against having to throw away a whole batch of sauce because it got scorched, but is not crucial to the mission.
Once you are ready to process the sauce, place it into sterilized jars, approximately six pints, or any size jars you choose. Simply google for relevant water bath times. For these pints, process for 35 minutes in boiling water bath, with an inch of water covering the jars.
Once they are done, remove from the heat, allow to cool, and store appropriately. The thing I like best about this sauce is that it serves as pizza sauce or a base for any sort of meat ball/Italian sausage sandwich extravaganza. Again, if it is not thick enough, cooking down a pint of sauce does not take very long, and can be done in advance of making pizza or pizza bread.
Next: Let’s talk catsup