Earlier this year, our spring tomato plants continued growing toward the heavens until they just collapsed onto themselves. “Finally,” I thought. “They’re done.” But they kept going—out over the huckleberries and bee balm and squashes, and back down toward the earth. They stubbornly produced new flowers and fruits at a rapid pace, and I was too tired and too pregnant to even think about harvesting them. What I did manage to collect I was too nauseated from morning sickness to enjoy, so I considered hauling the crop over to our neighbors. I’ll ask them to make me jars of tomato sauce, I thought, so that I can enjoy them later. It sounds like a big ask, but that’s exactly what they had done the year prior, when my then-fiancé and I invited them to pick from our garden while we were off getting married. We expected them to keep what they gathered for themselves, not to spend hours turning it into a gourmet gift for us. Their sauce was that rare kind of present—as enjoyable as it was thoughtful—that I always aspire to give, even to myself. So this season, before our fall fruits and vegetables mature, I’m learning to make my own canned goods.
You could say preserving produce runs in my family. For my grandmother, who was born and raised in Japan before moving to Kingsville decades ago, fermenting foods is just part of feeding the family. Nana keeps cabbage in a large container on the kitchen counter until it’s pickled to perfection and ready to enjoy with a bowl of rice. Later this fall, she’ll quick pickle the one hundred white Japanese turnips (“kabu”) she’s growing in her backyard, a treat for my uncle. And soon she’ll turn her attention to the laborious process of pickling vegetables in rice bran (for “nukazuke”), simply because my aunt over in Canyon Lake is craving some.
My mother inherited the same do-it-yourself sensibility, but I don’t recall her canning anything until the year her fig tree produced more fruit than she and my father could comfortably eat before it rotted. Now, making jams is as much a practicality (to avoid garden waste) as it is a hobby for them. I’ve gotten colleagues and in-laws hooked on their fig jam, and delighted guests with their strawberry and blueberry compotes.
Feeding others, it turns out, can be incentive enough for some to begin canning their own foods. “It enables me to be more hospitable,” the Victoria-based recipe blogger and pressure canning expert Angi Schneider told me. “I’m capable of taking a meal to a new mom or someone who is sick at the drop of a hat.” When her book The Ultimate Guide to Preserving Vegetables came out early in the pandemic, when we were all still baking our own bread, her publisher asked for another book just a few months later. “I did not think they would ever want to do a pressure canning book, simply because it’s not super popular,” she said. But a canning craze took hold last year—it’s one of many dying arts that have enjoyed a renaissance recently—resulting in a canning lid shortage. Schneider’s timely new title, Pressure Canning for Beginners and Beyond, hit shelves this month. And just before its release, Schneider shared with me her tips for getting started.
I’ll be honest: even armed with her expertise, I dragged my feet. Pressure canning, I quickly learned, has very many steps, all perfectly orchestrated to prevent foodborne illness. One wrong turn, and boom! Botulism! But Schneider put my fears to rest. “I’m of the opinion that if you follow the recommended guidelines that they have set forth, there is zero risk of botulism in your home-canned foods.” She’s referring to the safe canning instructions issued by the CDC, which come complete with a USDA-issued guide to home canning, including recipes and instructions for preparing every kind of food. Sweet relief, and more good news: the recipes in Schneider’s new book, which do indeed follow official guidelines, are easy to follow.
On a recent weeknight, I dived into making her Garlic-Herb Tomato Sauce, which was as easy as throwing everything into a pot and letting it simmer. I already knew I could do that part. What surprised me was how relaxing, almost meditative, it was to get the stuff safely into jars. I followed Schneider’s clearly articulated steps, which talked me through everything from how to prep the pressure canner to what to do if I end up with a half-empty jar, checking off each one as I went. Just before bedtime, I was done—and hooked.
Though it’s often referred to as “canning,” this process has nothing to do with cans. You just need standard glass jars with lids, either a large pot (for water bath canning) or a pressure canner, and a few small tools that make the activity a little easier. Some days prior to getting started, I did a test run with my new Presto pressure canner, following the manufacturer’s instructions. It gave me confidence, and I highly recommend this extra step.
A few days after my successful foray into pressure canning, my same thoughtful neighbors invited me over for dinner in their backyard. We talked about our gardens, and I left them with a jar of tomato sauce. It reminded me of something Schneider had told me: “I think that pressure canning helps me be a better person and community member.” She shared jars with neighbors in need in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and enjoys knowing that she can crack several open whenever her childrens’ friends want to stay for dinner. “The goal is not to have a pantry full of home-canned jars. The goal is to make your life easier or more hospitable in some way. ” With a baby (and fall tomatoes) on the way, and a queue of family members eager to stay with us while meeting him around the holidays, I’m looking forward to the rewards of this new hobby.
Below are some of Schneider’s helpful tips for newbies, followed by the Garlic-Herb Tomato Sauce recipe from her new book. (It’s intended for topping pizzas, but Schneider said it’s also great for soup or pasta. She’s not wrong: I’m enjoying some as I type, over a heap of premade raviolis, and looking forward to using it as a lasagna base in the future.)
“The best tip I have, I think, is to start small and make sure that you like a recipe before you can tons of jars of it,” she said. “A lot of these recipes you could take and cut down and make just one serving for your family.” Think of it as a taste test that doubles as a meal.
Skip a Step When You Can
Garden fruits and vegetables don’t always ripen at the most convenient times. Schneider often finds she is busy in the summer months when her tomatoes need to be picked, so she stashes them in the freezer until she has more time to work with them in the fall. “It doesn’t work if you’re trying to do whole tomatoes because it doesn’t end up being very pretty. But for everything else, it works great: I just take the stem out and freeze them whole or maybe I’ll cut them in half. When you pull them out and thaw them, the skin just slips right off. There’s no need to blanch them to get the skin off, so I’ve saved a step there.”
For more convenient shopping, plan ahead. “Check your farmers’ market. A lot of farmers will allow you to call ahead and order however much you need,” she said. “And then if you can’t find what you need at the local farmers’ market, talk to the produce manager at your grocery store.” And, of course, try “to get your produce when it’s in season, so that you can try to get the best prices.”
Speaking of Tomatoes …
The below recipe calls for Roma tomatoes, but I wasn’t growing those and couldn’t find them in stores. Schneider said it’s no problem. “You can use any tomato in any recipe that calls for tomatoes. . . . Slicing tomatoes have more water in them than a paste tomato like a Roma does, and so you may just have to cook it down longer.”
Spice Things Up
Though you should otherwise follow pressure canning recipes to the letter, Schneider said, “you can add any dried herbs and spices to any canned food safely.” Have fun making the dishes your own.
And Don’t Sweat the Salt
Schneider’s recipes call for non-iodized salt, which she explained is just a fancy way of describing “any salt that doesn’t have iodine added to it. So if you look at the back of a salt shaker or container, if it just says salt or sea salt, then it doesn’t have iodine or anticaking agents added.” There are canning salts on the market, but Schneider just uses the same variety that her family keeps on the dining table: Redmond Real Salt.
Garlic-Herb Tomato Sauce
This sauce is fantastic on pizza, but it’s also handy for using as a quick pasta sauce or dipping sauce. It takes a little extra time to simmer so that it is a thick sauce with deep flavors, but do it anyway. Your family will thank you.
Yields 9 (1 pint or 500 milliliter) jars.
20 pounds peeled Roma tomatoes*
3 cups chopped onions*
8 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons dried minced basil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
4 teaspoons dried oregano
4 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons non-iodized salt
2 teaspsoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
2 ½ teaspoons citric acid
*You’ll need approximately 22 pounds of unprepared tomatoes and 1 ¼ pounds unprepared onions.
- Prepare the pressure canner, nine jars, and lids. Fill the canner with a few inches of water, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and put the canner on the stove over low heat with the jars inside to stay hot. This is a hot-pack recipe, so the water needs to be about 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Put the tomatoes in a food mill to remove the seeds and puree the tomatoes. If you don’t have a food mill, you can puree them in a blender and either leave the seeds in or strain the tomatoes through a fine mesh strainer. Put the tomatoes in a large stockpot with all the other ingredients except the citric acid. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer.
- Simmer for 1 to 2 hours, or until thick; the sauce should reduce by about one fourth. Stir occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. If you like a smooth sauce, you can use an immersion blender to blend it, or, working in batches, carefully ladle the sauce into a blender to blend.
- Remove the sauce from the heat and ladle it into the prepared jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Add citric acid to each jar at the rate of ¼ teaspoon per jar. Stir in the citric acid and remove the bubbles with a bubble removal tool. Recheck the headspace. If you need to, remove a little sauce from one jar and use it to ensure all the other jars have the correct headspace. If you end up with a jar that isn’t filled properly, you can refrigerate and use it within 1 week, or you can add hot water to it.
- Wipe the rims with a clean, damp cloth. Put the lids and bands on the jars and load them into the pressure canner. Process the jars, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, at 10 psi for 15 minutes, adjusting for altitude if necessary.
- After processing, allow the canner to depressurize naturally, then remove the jars and let them cool on the counter for at least 12 hours. Check the seals and store the jars for up to 1 year.
For serving, Garlic-Herb Tomato Sauce can be used to top pizza crust, spread on flour tortillas to make pizza wraps, added to soups for an Italian flavor, or enjoyed as a dipping sauce. It can also be heated in a small saucepan for 10 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling, then served over pasta or rice.