Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Danger in the Kitchen

Canning tomatoes is a little like having a baby. There’s lots of preparation, sterilizing instruments, and hard work involved and one tends to forget how strenuous it is. Each September, when it is time to teach someone new how to can tomatoes, I convince her to try by saying, “It’s easy!”
It isn’t.
There’s something so wonderful and satisfying about lining my pantry shelves with fresh tomatoes preserved in clean jars that I tend to forget what is involved. I realized this deep truth this year when some friends came over to preserve the 3 bushels of tomatoes that Andrea found for a total of $12.00. She called saying, "the back of my van is overflowing with the most gorgeous tomatoes!" She was not exaggerating!

We got busy.
Jars, lids, huge pots and tools were brought up from the basement. I borrowed my friend Wendy's pressure canner and I set about washing all these things. Clean rags, towels and pot holders must be set out. Cutting boards, knives bowls and ladles must be gathered.
The jars have to be sterilized and pots of water set on the stove to boil.
This is when my helpers came in. It’s fun to talk while accomplishing something as useful and delicious as keeping tomatoes for the winter. I actually think that tomatoes canned while fresh taste better in January than the pale never-ripe ones available at the grocery store. Here is what we used:

Use ripe tomatoes. Roma tomatoes have more body, fewer seeds, but often the regular tomatoes, which contain more water and seeds, can be purchased in bulk at the end of the season (September in Maryland) as less expensive “seconds.”
Lemon juice
Salt To Prepare:
Wash and core the tomatoes
Cut out any bad spots and discard these
Boil water in a large pot
Prepare jars, lids and hot water bath:
Wash and sterilize the jars, lids and rings
Fill the hot water bath with water and bring to a boil
Fill a large pot ( or the sink) with ice water
Here is how we did it:
Cold Pack
When the water boils, fit a sieve into the pot of boiling water. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for about one minute. Lift the sieve to take them out and plunge them into the ice water. When they can be handled, slip off the skins.
Stand jars in a low rectangular pan into which you’ve poured steaming water. Press tomatoes into jars (large tomatoes can be halved) until fruit and juice come to within ½ inch of jar rim.
This is actually fun and it is surprising to find how many tomatoes can fit in a jar!
Do not add liquid. Add 1 teaspoon lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon salt…Keep the jars standing in the hot water while you are filling them and placing on the lids. Process in hot water bath for 30 – 80 minutes (depending on which source you consult).
Hot Pack
Wash and core tomatoes. Blanch and peel by dropping tomatoes into boiling water for 1 minute, then plunging into ice water and slipping off the skins. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and bring them to a boil in a sauce pot. Crush a few tomatoes to form juice and stir frequently during heating to prevent sticking. Ladle hot tomatoes into hot jars, leaving ½ inch head space. Add 1 teaspoon lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon salt. Seal with lids and process for 30- 50 minutes.
Pressure Canner
In the pictures, the ginormous, heavy-looking pot is the pressure canner I borrowed from Wendy. I did this because we did have 3 bushels of tomatoes to preserve and all the info says that using one of these requires less processing time. A pressure canner has a big weighty lid that clamps on with those black knobs all round the rim. It also has a pressure valve to keep steam in or let it out, and a pressure dial that indicates how many pounds of pressure is mounting furiously inside the pot. While I appreciate Wendy’s generosity, this tool is scary and not suited for my personality. Here’s what happened:

Once the jars and hot water were in the pot, I fastened the clamps down tight as directed. You are supposed to flip a valve to keep the steam inside the pot. This builds pressure. When the pressure dial reaches 10 pounds, you set the timer for 30 minutes of pressure processing time. This worked fine the first two times. The dial pointed to ten pounds, I set the timer, then watched the boiling pot. Wendy had cautioned me not to let the pressure get so high that the dial registered pressure over 20 pounds – which is considered The Danger Zone. This is why I watched it. I don't like danger when young people are in my kitchen.
At the end of 30 minutes, I flipped the pressure valve to let the steam out (as Wendy had directed). Steam came whistling out of there like the top of a volcano had blown off. When this cooled to a spit, I moved the pot over to the counter where it was supposed to cool down for another 10 minutes. This was fine and when we finally loosened the clamps, and lifted the jars out, they looked fine.

We kept filling the pot and repeating the process until it became almost automatic… too automatic.
Maybe it was getting late, or maybe I was talking as I always am, but during one pressure canning session, when I was supposed to be watching the dial reach 10 pounds of pressure, I forgot. When I did glance at it, the dial showed DANGER ZONE!

What did I do?
I said very calmly, as I turned the burner off (ask anyone who was there) “Okay, you all get out of the room. This thing is going to blow!”
Did they listen to me?


They all stood there. No one even backed away for their own safety. Instead, they tried to help me pull the pressure canner (which weighs twice as much as a young elephant) off the burner to help it cool at least to the safety zone.
They all survived.
Then someone had the bright idea of flipping the pressure valve to let off some pressure in a safe way, which I did. Though the steam release was more like a rocket taking off, the pot did not explode and no one in my kitchen was hurt. Though the goal at the start of the night was to can tomatoes, my goal became to make it through without anyone getting hurt.
Therefore, I was panicked and nervous. So the next batch I was determined to watch with a careful and relentless eye. And I did. But this time, the pressure would not rise to 10 pounds.
This went on for probably 40 minutes, me staring at the pot, waiting, fuming internally at the stupid pot. Karlene stood patiently beside me saying, things like, “are you sure you have that valve right?”
“Yes, yes,” I might have sounded impatient because after my scare I thought she was just standing too close to that horrible pot. “I’ve got it. You can go relax. Go sit down. Go read a book in safety.” (I probably just thought the last part of that statement in my head and didn't say it aloud).
But she didn’t go, she stayed there and finally said, “If you’ve got the valve set right, then why is all the steam escaping from it?”
I looked at her, then I looked at the valve –which was actually open letting all the steam escape, preventing any pressure from building up.
That’s probably why Tara and I were still in my kitchen at 1:30 in the morning processing the last of the jars.

We also made salsa with hot peppers from Tara’s own garden and sweet yellow tomatoes that Maggie grew in her garden!
4 cups peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes
3 cups variety of seeded and chopped peppers including bell pepper and chiles
1 cup chopped onions
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 ¼ cups vinegar (5 percent)
¼ cup lime juice
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves
1-½ teaspoons salt
Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Place in hot, sterilized pint jars, seal with lids and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes
In the end, I learned what competent, good-hearted and fearless young women are in my circle of friends, we got to know each other a lot better, enjoyed being together, worked really hard, made some good memories and each person took home priceless experience and knowledge, 6 quarts of tomatoes and several pints of salsa!
Canning tomatoes is not at all easy, but it’s worth it!


  1. We all made it out a live by the skin of our teeth. Gosh!

  2. I wish I lived closer :(

  3. I really want to come next time... danger and all. :-)

  4. Mrs. Nebbia, I'm so jealous that I never went to your cooking club a few years ago that my sister went to. Your blog entries never cease to amaze me with your skills in the kitchen.

  5. You are right about it being a lot of work. Thank you so much for your sacrifice. The pictures turned out great! sorry I haven't been reading your blog lately. i am glad I signed on today! This is a long entry! I am glad you are writing so much these days.