Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Homemade Pressure Cooked Tomato Sauce Is Vermillion Red

Bright, vermillion red probably best describes the rich colour of our latest product from the home canning factory. It is also the description of Farrow & Ball's 212 'Blazer', a close sister to Benjamin Moore's 2171-10 'navajo red'.

Long after the seals were on, we found we were constantly returning our glances to the rows of glassy 'red', fixating on 20 beautiful jars of home canned tomato sauce.

One does not make and can homemade tomato sauce for the cost savings. Not even close. Even if the tomatoes were free, there was some pretty high priced talent working tirelessly in the kitchen on Tuesday.

Happy as clams? Yes we were! And a most satisfying day it was.

My culinary partner, JK, is also a book club buddy of some 10 years. We know each other well. As much as I am full of Viking blood, she is pumping high octane Lebanese through hers. A potential for conflict over those steamy pots? Nope. Luckily we tend to have similar epicurean passions.

Deciding On Technique:
To get ready for our big work day, I dabbled in prep and canning techniques. Ah, the many combinations. I have skinned, not seeded, then stewed. Not skinned, but seeded, then stewed. Not skinned, not seeded then stewed. Eventually pushing it all through my food mill. All these ideas came from reading books, Internet sourced how-to's, and other food bloggers writing about their seasonal experiences.

But JK had already picked our path through the tomato patch. She was hyper-focused on EXACTLY how these luscious Romas and plums would be prepared. And why not? She went to a highly reputable and undisputed source. She phoned Mom, back home in Lebanon up in the hills in the small town of Bentaël, near Byblos on the west coast. How could I argue with that? I come from a land imaged as icy and covered in lichen and tundra. She from the warm regions of the middle East on the Mediterranean Sea. Now, had I been Italian....

Mama Antoinette's secret to effortless tomato sauce? The pressure cooker.

Sourcing The Tomatoes:
We put a lot of thought into purchasing our tomatoes. So this part may seem a bit long winded. Partly because our decision wasn't just price-based and we had to come to terms with what we would spend and why. Both in agreement. Both of us happy.

We were leaning to local and also organic.

I had spent some time looking at plum tomatoes at the Parkdale Market. Some sell local product but not necessarily organic. Many of the stalls are resellers where the produce can be coming from further afield. I did buy a 'tester' batch there.

I also checked in with Waratah Downs Organic Farms from Iroquois, Ontario. They sell at the Ottawa Farmers' Market at Lansdowne and also the Main Street Farmers' Market at St. Paul University. They had a couple of varieties of Roma/paste type tomatoes. Owner, Colleen Ross, recommended mixing the San Marzano Romas with another variety to make sauce.

Together we headed to Saturday's Main Street Farmers' Market to make our purchase. The people at Waratah were able to put together a 3/4 bushel mix of Romas and plums that were reasonably ripe.

As we cruised the market, we found 'the veggie underground'. They say they use organic growing practices but are not certified yet. They are located in Vars.

We picked up two baskets (10 pounds), again mixing Romas and plums.

Although not quite a full bushel, with the two purchases we sure had a lot of tomatoes.

The value proposition when buying food is constantly a tricky one. What are the criteria going into the decision? Price. Quality. Organic. Local. Ease of access. Use. Everyone puts a different weight on each. And we ourselves may not necessarily make the same decision every time.

So some people went to Pearl Jam this week. Bought new outfits for the occasion. Ate out beforehand. Paid for special transportation. Had concert refreshments. But us? We bought local, organic tomatoes. And in that light, the purchase doesn't seem so dear.

Caring For The Fruit:
Canning day was 3 days away and the tomatoes would need some TLC.

Some things to consider when caring for the raw ingredient:

First, wash the fruit well as soon as you get it home. Then lay them out on a tea towel for a few days to ripen to their full potential. Close to a sunny window if you can. 2 or 3 days will make a big difference towards increasing the rich tomato flavour.

Prepare The Jars And Lids:
The jars need to be sterilized before being filled. It is good to read up on this process with a reputable source before you do it.

We put the jars in the canning pot covering them in water. Once the water came to a boil we let them bubble away for 10 minutes. We turned off the heat and then added the lids and screw bands to scald them.

Once your are ready to fill the jars, using jar tongs, place jars upside down on a clean tea towel. Do not touch the opening of the jar with your hands. Do not touch the under side of the lid. You can use a magnetic lid lifter to minimize contact with your hands.

Starting Production:
JK looked after cutting the tomatoes into chucks in 10 pound batches. This amount fits in most dutch ovens. In our case we were using a pressure cooker as our primary heat source. No need to peel the tomatoes or remove the seeds. Do take off cores if they are notably woody.

JK's mom swears by using the pressure cooker to 'stew' the tomatoes. With her cooker it took about 3 minutes once the pressure was up. But a dutch oven works well too. Start off on low heat to tease the moisture out of the fruit and cook away until the pulp has softened and is malleable. Don't over cook. The intent here is to draw out the 'water' and to make the fruit soft enough to put through a food mill with ease. Because of our volume of fruit, we used both methods for stewing. The pressure cooker was definitely faster.

Do not disturb the tomatoes once they have completed stewing in the pressure cooker. If you use a dutch oven, really try to minimize stirring. Again, if you are starting the tomatoes on a low heat, the juices will come out and prevent the tomatoes from sticking.

Over a large pot, put stewed tomatoes in a large colander to strain out excess juice. Reserve this juice to be canned later.

Put the drained stewed tomatoes through the food mill. My food mill is made by Frieling. I used the finest disc (3 millimeter diameter holes). I like that this model has two brackets that stabilize the mill over just about any size pot or bowl.

It works quickly and sorts out the seeds and skin. It is important to work it until the seeds and skin seem 'dry'.

JK used her food mill as well with her 'medium' disc. The brand name is RSVP. We had similar results.

Once all the tomatoes are milled, simmer the sauce on the cooktop and reduce to the desired thickness. Add some salt. For our 10 litres of sauce we added 3 or 4 tablespoons.

Canning The Sauce:
Using a wide mouth funnel, fill jars to near the top. It should have 1/2" of head room. Add lemon juice to help increase the acidity. We added 1 tablespoon of lemon juice since we were using the 500 mL jars. It helps to keep the colour bright. More importantly, acidity in canning helps to decrease the chances of botulism and San Marzanos are one of the tomatoes with a lower acidity. Put on the lid and screw band. Do not twist the screw band too tightly. (It is both important to not overfill or under fill the jars. Both can decrease the chances of a successful and safe seal.)

Never reuse lids. Screw bands can be reused as long as there is no dents, rust, or bends.

We followed the recommendation from JK's mom and canned the jars of sauce in the pressure cooker. Her cooker holds 4 of the 500 mL jars at one time. A cloth at the bottom of the pot minimizes the 'knocking'. When canning in a pressure cooker, the jars are only halfway submersed in water.

The length of time in the pressure cooker depends on the size of the cooker, how many jars are in the cooker, the size of the jars, what your are canning and the altitude of your kitchen. It is best to go to reputable books and websites to find the right length of cooking time for your situation. There are guidelines available from reputable sources such as canning supply companies, university food sciences programs and government food safety agencies. What you will see in these guidelines is that using a pressure cooker takes less time than the conventional hot water bath technique. The trade off is that the big canning pots can usually hold more jars at one time.

When the process was done, we placed the hot jars on a tea towel to cool. Within minutes we were hearing the music of the lids popping and completing their seal. It is important to not tip the jars. Always keep them upright.

Let the jars rest for 24 hours. Before storing, check the seals. If some jars did not seal, they should go to the fridge to be the first used. Treat as you would the contents of an opened jar. Check the screw bands and tighten if loose. Store in a cool, dry location in your home. Many sources said that canned tomatoes are safe for up to a year if their seals are still intact.

End result:
I am guessing we started with about 40 to 45 pounds of tomatoes.

We ended up with:
20 jars (500 mL) thick tomato sauce.
10 jars (500 mL) tomato juice.

What I Learned and Why I Now Feel Smarter:
The pressure cooker worked really well for cooking up the tomatoes for the sauce. It was so fast. Also, it seemed to leave more flavour in the pulp and curtailed flavour seeping out to the separating juice. (This is why it is important to minimize disturbing the stewed fruit before straining.)

The food mill created a wonderful consistency to the sauce. It nearly eliminated the seeds and skins. Because of this, it seriously cut down on the prep time - no skinning or seeding required beforehand.

Using the pressure cooker for canning required less time (although it meant working in smaller batches). Using a pressure cooker for canning is considered more safe because of the high temperatures it can create.

Straining the juice off the lightly stewed tomatoes before running them through the food mill had two pluses. First, it gave us another product to can for later use, instead of having the excess juice vaporize and drift out my hood fan. Secondly, it took less time and gas to reduce the sauce to the desired consistency. When canning, time is gold.

500 mL jars are easier to handle and not too tall in the pressure cooker when canning. They suit our family size for most cooking needs.

The bonus jars of juice will make great additions to soup and also for cooking Spanish rice.

I have canned tomatoes before and will likely do it again. I do struggle with the idea though, because of the time involved and knowing how cheaply you can purchase a can of tomatoes. On the other hand there is great satisfaction that comes from knowing the farmer who grew my tomatoes. So was it worth it? It won't be until we taste the tomato sauce this winter that we will know for sure.

I have become a pressure cooker convert and have shed my feelings of intimidation. I am now looking longingly at Kuhn Rikon's website.

Although canning tomatoes is serious business, going into it understanding proper food safety, it is easy to do.

Canning tomatoes with an epicurean enthusiast is WAY more fun than doing it alone.

[Notice the 3 square jars in the front row. My VERY old Mason jars still in circulation.]

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