By Kari Kesler
Kari Kesler is a Texas transplant who has been living in Seattle this time since 2000. She, her partner and their 5 children live in White Center, where they raise chickens, make soap, attempt to grow a garden, and make great use of other people’s fruit trees. She loves to cook and is always up for a new food adventure.
I have been trying my hand at canning these past few years. Like many people, I started with pickles. I thought about trying my hand at jams and jellies, but haven’t yet. I started with these items, like others, because they can be canned in the simpler (and less scary) hot water bath canning method, as opposed to the pressure canning method. The problem, though, as I see it, is that I only really need so many pickles, and my family doesn’t eat much jam. I was interested in canning as a way to more affordably offer my family organic, local, healthy foods. If all I was canning were essentially novelty items, it seemed to me that I was practicing a hobby more than realizing my goal. I assumed this meant I would need to venture into the world of pressure canning, but I had not yet decided to learn those skills and sort out the buying or sharing of the equipment required.
This all led to a discussion with a friend and fellow farm co-op member. She had been concerned about eating commercially canned foods because of exposure to the BPA that lines the insides of commercial aluminum cans. When we thought about what we eat most often out of cans, we realized that we eat more canned tomato products than anything else. Tomatoes can be canned using the hot water bath method, so we decided that would be our summer project. For a price comparison, we looked in the stores for an organic tomato sauce in a BPA free jar. We found only one brand, which I can no longer find. At the time, a 32 ounce can of the store bought sauce was just over $3. This would be the price point we were shooting for. We needed to find an affordable source of organic tomatoes and canning jars, and we needed to located BPA free canning lids.
I thought at first that my only option for BPA free lids would be the reusable plastic lids. I didn’t like the idea of plastic, although I did like that they were reusable. They are also more expensive, of course. It turns out, however, that Ball’s canning lids are now BPA free. It just requires that you look closely at the date they were manufactured to ensure you are not buying older lids. I found this blog post to be very helpful. Finding affordable jars was much easier. The Co-op has them for a great price, as do many other retailers. I purchased regular mouth quart jars for $1 a piece (with the BPA free lids).
Next the hunt for affordable organic tomatoes. Even in a bulk buy, I could not seem to find organic Romas for less than $2-$3 a pound. Although this is certainly a fair price to pay for organic tomatoes, it was more than I could afford to pay, especially on an ongoing basis. I started looking for a U-pick farm, and didn’t have much luck. There weren’t many U-Picks that offered tomatoes! I did eventually find Kruger Pepper Gardens in Wapato, Washington (just outside of Yakima). Since I had planned to take my kids to Yakima for a summer trip anyway, it was a great match. U-Pick Roma tomatoes were 69 cents a pound, a price that was much more reasonable for me. I will certainly be back next year, as they have a great variety of affordably priced organic U-Pick produce. If you decide to go, learn from my mistake and go on Sunday – they are closed every Saturday.
Finally, we were ready to can our tomatoes! We followed the recipe and guidelines from the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), with one notable exception; every tomato sauce recipe out there tells you to skin and seed your tomatoes. That is a lot of work, and I hate to lose all the nutrients and fiber in the seeds and skin. I had recently splurged and bought a long coveted Vitamix for my kitchen. Because the Vitamix is such a powerful blender, I was able to sauce the whole tomato, and did not have to do an skinning or seeding. This sped my process up considerably, allowed for healthier sauce, and allowed me to stretch my tomatoes much further. Based on the figures from the NCHFP I should only have been able to can about 15 quarts. Instead, I canned 26 quarts of thick sauce from my 100 pounds of tomatoes.
We have been using our sauce in chili, as a base for enchilada sauce and in soups. It is delicious and we feel so good about eating it. Success!!