Saturday, September 12, 2009

Preserving the Harvest

I'm sad to say that my tomato plants are not looking too good right now. After a promising start this summer, they are slowly succumbing to leaf blight. While they probably won't last until frost, in the meantime I have been harvesting a bounty of ripe, red fruit; so much, in fact, that even though we have been eating BLT's frequently and having fresh sliced tomatoes with nearly every meal, I still have more than enough to preserve for the winter.

After someone asked me how I froze tomatoes, it occurred to me while preparing a batch of juice for the freezer that with so many people planting vegetable gardens for the first time there might be some people out there who have no idea how to preserve tomatoes. This post is for you! Veteran vegetable gardeners who have been canning or freezing tomatoes for years may want to skip this post . . . or you might have a tip or two to add to my method.

Most people can tomatoes, either diced, as juice, or as sauce. But after an unfortunate canning experience many years ago that resulted in a bandaged arm with second-degree burns, I swore I'd never use a pressure cooker to can again. (Don't let me discourage anyone else from canning, but let that be a reminder to always check your canning jars beforehand for possible cracks.) Tomatoes, though, can be safely canned using a water-bath process or even simply ladled into hot, sterilized jars. However, I have plenty of freezer space, and the freezing process is so much simpler; besides, you don't have to worry about a jar that doesn't seal properly and losing some of your hard work.

Follow these easy steps to preserve some of those extras from your garden this year:

1. Wash and stem the ripe tomatoes.

If you are making sauce or juice, as I do, there's no need to peel. Cut out any bad or "mushy" spots. This is one advantage to freezing over canning: generally, you should use unblemished fruit for canning to avoid spoilage. Ensuring the tomatoes are completely ripe is also necessary so that they have a high enough acidic content for preserving without using a pressure cooker. This isn't that important with freezing. You can use tomatoes that aren't quite as ripe as you'd like, and you can simply cut away bad spots and use the rest. I use the "sniff" test to ensure I've cut away enough--your nose knows if a tomato is spoiled or not:) "Waste not, want not," as my mother always taught me.

2. Cut the cleaned tomatoes into halves or quarter sections and place into a saucepan or stockpot.

The most time-consuming part of the whole process is now complete!

3. Mash the tomatoes down somewhat--I use a wooden spoon--so that some juice accumulates on the bottom. Place on very low heat to avoid scorching.

Once the tomatoes have begun to cook and enough juice has formed, you can turn up the heat somewhat to a simmer. Occasionally, stir and mash the tomatoes to ensure even cooking. At this point, you can walk away for awhile and read some blogs, or do as I did last Saturday--watch the first half of the Illinois-Missouri football game . . . As it turned out, my time would have been better spent reading blogs:)

4. Simmer tomatoes until the tomatoes are the consistency of "mush."
Cooking time varies, but I usually allow 1-2 hours.

4. Puree and strain the cooked tomatoes into a large bowl or pan.
You can use a blender, food processor, or colander to puree the mixture. However, last year when I was making so much applesauce, I purchased a stainless steel food mill. It's well worth the investment if you are going to be preserving tomatoes, applesauce or jam. A few quick turns of the handle, and the contents were easily pureed and strained. In fact, steps 4-6 were all accomplished during halftime of the football game!

At this point, if you prefer to make any kind of sauce with the juice, return it to the same pan and cook until it reaches the desired consistency and add any spices you wish. If you are making juice, continue with step 5 . . .

5. Pour the juice into suitable freezer containers, leaving at least 1/2 inch of space at the top for expansion. Allow the juice to cool for a short while before sealing the tops to avoid the formation of ice crystals later.

6. Label the containers, including the date, and place in your freezer, making sure containers are level until completely frozen.

That's all there is to making your own homemade tomato juice!
This particular batch made approximately 10 pints of juice. While it may seem a little more work than picking up a can off the supermarket shelf, you can be sure this is 100% juice with no additives or preservatives. I do not add salt to mine, and last year my husband and I agreed the homegrown juice was sweeter than the commercially canned and made the best-tasting chili and vegetable soup ever. Besides, the tomatoes are free, and they would surely go to waste if I didn't preserve them in some way. I was raised by a very thrifty mother who did not believe in wasting food--or anything for that matter. She, as well as my grandmother, spent many hours each summer canning or freezing the bounty of their gardens so that their family could eat healthy meals throughout the winter.

I'm not only preserving produce, I'm preserving a family tradition.


  1. Delicious way to preserve & freeze tomatos.
    Though I don't have room to grow then in my overflowing garden, I did find one growing from a pip and it was looked after like a baby. No time to fruit now though, so it was all for nothing!
    I think it needed a hot house.

  2. That's what is so lovely about preserving. My mother made jam as did her mother and yesterday I made some strawberry and also raspberry jam, having done the blackcurrants earlier in August. There is great satisfaction in preserving, especially just looking at it all when it is finished!!

    Thanks for your recipe. It looks lovely. One thing I'm bad at though is the labeling. I haven't labeled my jam yet (though I will label the pots I give away) but most of my stuff in the freezer remains unlabeled! It makes life interesting, especially when you get out stewed apples for pud, and when it's defrosted, you realise it is mashed potato!!!

    S x

  3. Hi Rose, Sorry Illinois didn't do so well last week (my husband is a Mizzou alumn) I freeze my tomatoes semi whole. Peel, squeeze and pack into containers- add a squeeze of lemon juice and pinch of salt. Yours would be good for drinking juice! I love my food mill, don't you?

  4. Rose girl ! You are a woman of many talents : ) That looks so inviting .. can you mail me some ? LOL .. If I grew tomatoes I think I would have to choose your method of freezing that liquid gold for sure ! : )

  5. As (a cute little boy exclaims discovering an Oreo Cakester in his lunchbox (in a Canadian commercial), "JACKPOT!" My tomato crop is so small this year it won't be enough to preserve, but I love this method. I have never canned; it never appealed to me but I do love tomato juice and this method is great way to make it. I bet a crockpot would also work, and I love my crockpot. It's the centerpiece of bachelor cooking!

  6. Thanks for sharing another method of freezing with us Rose. I'm new to the veggie gardening thing but it is getting quite additive. ;)

  7. I don't can, but I probably should. My grandmothers canned all summer long, I've heard. But my mom had some unfortunate incident with a pressure cooker and tomatoes which ended up with tomato stuff dripping from the ceiling. The details are kind of sketchy...

    I only freeze bell peppers, but you make tomato juice look pretty easy, so I might try it.

    Boiler up! When does Illinois play Purdue?

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  8. Just like watching a Food Network show! :) And remember those cooking demos we had to give in Home Ec and 4-H?

    Really you did a great job of explaining and the awesome pictures showed great detail. Bravo!

  9. This is how I preserve my tomatoes too-that is when I have enough to freeze. It has been such a bad year for them here in my garden. Scary on the pressure cooker!

  10. Maggie May, I have lots of little green tomatoes, too, that will probably never get a chance to ripen.

    Suburbia, Raspberry and black currant jam sounds delicious! The labeling is funny. I'm good about things I've preserved like this, but not leftovers. I often find "mysteries" in the freezer:)

    Janet, We have high hopes for the Illini this year, but Mizzou made them look pretty bad:) My mother often freezes chopped tomatoes this way, too; we just happen to use more juice and sauce than whole tomatoes. I don't know how I did it before without the food mill!

    Joy, I don't know about talent--I spent many a summer afternoon watching my mother preserve so many fruits and vegetables, a little of it just rubbed off:)

    Monica, I freeze whatever I have enough of; canning is just too much work! A crockpot would be a great way of making sauce. Now that we're empty nesters, I need a smaller crockpot, though:)

    Racquel, I grew up helping my mother in the vegetable garden, and I grew vegetables long before I ever tried flowers. Flower gardening is definitely more fun, but you can't eat them (most, that is)!

    Carol, That sounds like a messy incident; I would have given up on canning after that as well. Oct. 24 at Purdue--glad to know you're a Boilermaker and not a Hoosier:) We Illini like the Boilers.

    Beckie, Oh yes, I do remember; who knew then I would be blogging about vegetables:)

    Tina, My tomatoes looked so good earlier, I am heartbroken! They're still producing a lot of ripe ones for now, though; I have enough once again to make juice this weekend.

  11. Wish that I had enough tomatoes to preserve but I think mine will disappear in a couple of blts :) A most informative post Rose. I bet that your tomato juice will taste like liquid gold in the depths of winter :)

  12. If adults could compete at state fair with a demonstration, yours would win the blue ribbon. I love this post, and I'm going to bookmark it. If I ever get a decent tomato crop here in Florida, I will have your directions close at hand. Great job, Rose! Hey, I wonder if you could make tomato wine. You've got a great start there with the juice.

  13. What lovely tomatoes, Rose! I put out 24 plants this year, and got only a smattering of tomatoes even with watering! The heat was as damaging to my crop as lack of water.

    I share your phobia of pressure cookers. My mother and grandmother canned all summer, but I personally have had a fear of the canner even though I haven't had any unfortunate accidents.

    I'm with your husband--there is just no comparison in the taste of store-bought tomatoes. That's what keeps us gardeners going even after crop failure. ;-)

  14. Your tomatoes look lovely...and make me want to kick myself for being such a slug this past spring...I didn't put any tomato plants in because I just couldn't seem to make the time....boy do I ever regret it now
    Guess I will have to be statisfied with buying at the farmers market this year.
    Thanks for the photos...very nice.
    Jackie at Meadowsweet

  15. Thank you for this informative post, Rose! I am hoping to have a tomato harvest next year that requires freezing and saving. Your method looks simple and efficient! And wasn't that Illinois/Mizzou game ugly?! At least they bounced back this week...

  16. Yum, that juice looks divine Rose! It's been a rough year for tomatoes all over it seems. Ours are finally ripening and they're coming out my ears.

    My mom dehydrates a lot of her tomatoes - they are delicious for snacking and make wonderful sauce without all the simmering. I don't have a dehydrator, so I use your method too. It's about time to start cooking - there are way too many here now to eat them all before they spoil. I know I'll be glad I did it come winter.

    Cooking tomatoes is supposed to make the lycopene easier to absorb. Those antioxidants in the freezer will come in handy during flu season!

  17. Anna, I know this winter I'll appreciate the time spent on making juice right now.

    W2W, Actually, I used to do lots of demonstrations in 4-H; guess I haven't forgotten those. Tomato wine--now, there's an interesting idea:)

    MG, That must be so disappointing! I put out about 20 plants, and I'm sorry to see them all dying right now, even though I've gotten a lot of fruit from them.

    Jackie, I do understand--I had plans for planting some other vegetables that I never got around to either. Thanks for visiting!

    Rose, I hope you have a bumper crop next year! Yes, last night's game was much better--we have tickets, but we go with my son & daughter-in-law and two "wiggly" grandkids, so I didn't see every play:)

    Linda, It does sound as though many people didn't have a good tomato crop this year, so I should be glad I have what I do. You're right about the lycopene; I hope this means Hubby and I are getting some immunity built up right now!

  18. Nice and easy Rose..I think I could do that! I too am afraid to preserve in year we did and it was a disaster!

  19. I remember the good old days when I canned for days at a time. I miss the delicious results but just will not commit to that much work anymore. I've heard freezing is easier and as you say, not as dangerous.

  20. It sounds delicious Rose. I've never had fresh tomato juice, but I can see that this would be a wonderful, healthy and tasty drink.

    How different your mom was from mine!
    Bernice loved convenience foods more then anything!


  21. Your tomato juice looks delicious! What a fun and easy (relatively) way to preserve the harvest. My mom was a "waste not, want not" woman too.

    I love your shiny copper kettle that you are cooking all those fresh, ripe tomatoes in.

    Thanks for the recipe. I don't have any tomatoes in my garden this year ( I do container gardening and did not do any tomaotes in pots either), but I will go to the market and buy some in a basket.

  22. Oh and yes, you are preserving a very important tradition!

    I remember my mother making relish, jam and other fruit. Those were good days.

  23. I usually chop tomatoes, put them in freezer bags, and freeze them raw. I use them for soups in the winter. I may have made some spaghetti sauce with them, too. Last night I made some spaghetti sauce with a bunch of chopped fresh tomatoes, zucchini, yellow summer squash, onions, garlic, all from my gardens, along with spinach from the farmer's market, and ground turkey breast from the grocery store. It wasn't thick enough, so I had to add a can of tomato paste and a can of tomato sauce. I also used fresh basil, oregano, rosemary, and parsley from the garden. I thought about posting on it, but it took me longer than I thought it would, and I was worn out.

    I like your idea. May I put a link to this post in my sidebar so I can find it again easily?


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