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Canning can be a cure for imperfect tomatoes

I started water bath canning while working on a farm and we had imperfect tomatoes that customers wouldn’t choose. The tomatoes still tasted great and with a bit more prep work to cut out blemishes, I preserved them in jars with a boiling water bath. At the time, I had a saucepan that was only deep enough to hold pint jars and didn’t own any true canning equipment. I secured canning lid bands together in the bottom of my pot, filled it with water one inch above my pint jars, and started processing the tomatoes.

Katharine Wilson

I’ve since upgraded to a larger canner with a perforated rack. Though some equipment will make your canning process simpler and more efficient, you can safely water bath can with just the basics of a large pot, tight-fitting lid and method for keeping jars off the bottom of the pot.

The tools I find most useful in canning kits are the rack, the jar lifter and the headspace measurer. Though you can improvise with a round cooling rack or canning lid bands, the rack is key to circulating boiling water all around and under the jars in the canner. I broke several jars using an assortment of tongs and utensils to remove them from the canner before I bought a jar lifter. It’s a safe, easy way to transfer the jars from the canner to a towel on your countertop to cool.

The headspace tool is used to measure the space between the top of the food and the jar’s lid. Each recipe indicates how much headspace is necessary, and it’s an important instruction to follow as it’s based on how much the food expands during processing and the space needed to form a vacuum. The same tool can remove air bubbles from filled jars before securing their lids, but I’ve also used wooden chopsticks or plastic spatulas (metal utensils may scratch your jar). By poking the tool into the jar to release air, you prevent excess air from altering your carefully-measured headspace and potentially pushing some of your product’s liquid out of the jar during processing.

Most canning lids come in two-pieces: a flat lid with a sealing compound around its outer edge and a screw band to secure to the jar. You can reuse the bands, but have to use new lids each time you process jars. The sealing compound softens during the water bath, allowing air to escape and forming an airtight seal as the jars cool outside the canner.

Whether you’re starting with basic equipment or a full canning kit, I recommend reading USDA’s “Complete Guide to Home Canning” online before preserving this season. It’s helpful to know why each step of the canning process is necessary for making safe foods. Feeling confident you canned safely will make the chorus of popping, sealing lids on your countertop sound even sweeter.

You can find more gardening and food preservation resources on Virginia Food Works’ website: www.virginiafoodworks.org/Home-Canning-Resources.

KATHARINE WILSON is the director Virginia Food Works. She can be reached at info@virginiafoodworks.org.