I just heard off-season tomatoes are seriously bad news — what am I going to eat all winter?!

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I hope these guys are not tomato slaves. Photo by thebittenword.com, used under Creative Commons license.

Hannah needs to know:

I have a question regarding canning tomatoes.

I recently heard a story on NPR about the tomato industry in Florida, which is surprisingly evil. The fact of the matter is that tomatoes we eat in winter that aren’t hydroponic are probably from Florida, where they were probably picked by actual slaves. My problem is that in winter I really like to make my own spaghetti sauces and soups that require tomatoes.

Since it’s tomato season here and lovely, non-slave grown tomatoes abound, I was wondering if I could can my own diced/stewed tomatoes. Do you have any advice?

Short answer: Absolutely.

Slightly longer answer: I will probably just go for freezing tomatoes. I’m also starting a new tomato plant for indoors now — we’ll see if it survives.

And a slight aside: If anyone is interested in learning more about the industrialization of tomatoes, check out Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

Homies who can: will you help Hannah out with her need for tomato guidance??

Comments on I just heard off-season tomatoes are seriously bad news — what am I going to eat all winter?!

  1. I’m sure that you’ll get lots of awesome advice with links or specific details on canning, so here are my two notes.

    1) You’ll have to choose between a normal canner and a pressure canner. The advantage of the former is that you can use your own home pots to do the canning, with relatively little special equipment. The advantage of the latter is that, because of the higher temperatures involved, you don’t have to worry about the acidity question.

    Basically, non-pressure-canned food needs to have a certain level of acidity to be considered safe. Tomatoes are kind of borderline; homemade diced tomatoes might be acidic enough, depending on the tomatoes you use, but official recipes these days will make you add some lemon juice or vinegar. The result is a different flavor than you might be used to with regular canned tomatoes — more sour, which is not always great in certain recipes.

    (Side note: There are lots of canning recipes out there, some of them more reckless than others. Because I was paranoid about safety when I started canning, I stuck with officially verified recipes. YMMV.)

    2) A third alternative: good tomatoes canned by someone else. (This is less relevant if the “abounding tomatoes” are in your own garden, rather than in farmers’ markets!) I’m very fond of Muir Glen tomatoes, personally. They’re organic (which means that at least the farm workers aren’t breathing pesticide fumes) and grown in California, and although I don’t know really in-depth details about the situation of their workers, they seem to be better than some. Plus, they’re really delicious. Anyone know more?

  2. YES! Canning stewed tomatoes is one of the easiest canning projects you can undertake. Get yerself to a hardware store and pick up a boiling water bath canner, box of jars, and a copy of the Ball Blue Book (important!). The book is wonderful and even has a step by step fully illustrated two page spread for whole canned tomatoes.

  3. Reading about the conditions under which cocoa is grown in Africa drastically reduced my chocolate consumption – worked way better than wanting to drop a few pounds. Hence – almost everything we buy, unless it is actually marked “organic” and/or “local” and/or “fair-trade”, is produced by making other people suffer. (And don’t get me started on all those cheap “made in Bangkok” clothes.)

    • I’m not sure that “organic” labeling requires that the people involved be treated decently, ditto local. If you happen to live in Florida, you could be getting local, organic slave-framed tomatoes. It’s nice to imagine that the sort of principles of organic farming would include treating humans decently, but there’s no requirement to do so. Especially at a moment when “organic” is so highly marketable as a labeling system, and therefore very appealing corporate interests, I wouldn’t feel confident that human workers were treated well; Whole Foods, the first “certified organic” grocer in the U.S. is notorious for union busting. Fair-trade is the certification to look for to ensure decent working conditions and wages for laborers; it’s particularly useful for assessing coffee and chocolate.

  4. Ball Blue Book (giggle, giggle, snort, snort). I’ve started canning last year but did my first batch of tomato sauce two weeks ago. It takes a little while to do (give your ‘maters a couple of hours to cook down, at least), but it’s super exciting to know that I can just pop open a jar and my sauce is mostly made. I did mine with just tomatoes and citric acid so I could add any spices later (that way it’s most versatile for me).

    Get thee a Ball Blue Book (*snorfle*) and get canning! You don’t necessarily have to can the amount of tomatoes they suggest in the book. I did 20 lbs, not 45 as it suggested. Small batches are fine!

    But as the first commenter suggested, please to be reading the instructions so you don’t get ill. The instructions are EASY-PEASY, so don’t fret about it, either. Don’t add your own ingredients to the jar, as it’ll mess up the acidity ratio, but if you follow a tested recipe (Ball Blue Book, USDA guidelines), you’ll be smooth sailing.

    Also, my most favorite intro to canning was found here: foodinjars.com. Love that site.

  5. The situation with tomatoes last year, in which Florida workers were looking for a TWO CENT pay raise (and were being denied) really opened my eyes to how horrible and ridiculous our agriculture system really is, especially in relation to the fast food industry. $1 burgers with meat, bread, tomatoes and lettuce… somehow, the ingredients and production have to cost less than the final price. Weird to consider.
    Uhvryone around here cans tomatoes. As such, it’s pretty easy to get locally canned tomatoes (and other fruits and veggies) if you prefer that route. Our farmer’s market is always chock full of canned goods, so there’s a great place to start. If you have any Mennonite/Amish shops nearby, they’ll probably be a good place to look, as well.

  6. You might look into local greenhouses, too. Some will have summer fruits and veggies through part or all of the winter. They won’t be in season, but they aren’t grown and shipped halfway around the world, either. Might not keep you stocked all winter but could shorten the time out on tomatoes and other summer harvests.

    Also, having grown up in FL, I remember boycotting tomatoes every couple of years because of the stuff going on with the farms there. Grrrrr.

  7. Seconding all above advice and adding that it’s also super easy to make tomato paste for later use. Peel (or not) and core tomatoes, throw them in a big pot with a little lemon juice, boil until soft and juicy, puree, and keep on heat until rendered into a paste of the desired consistency. Can, with the help of the Blue Book, or just freeze. If you have a jar in your refrigerator, keep the top of the paste covered in a thin layer of olive oil to prevent mold. Guaranteed tomato fresh umami goodness taste even in the worst winter months.

  8. My husband has invested in a pressure canner, and I’ll admit the thing is really useful–no more worry about the acidity of the item being canned. So we have canned soup, chili, tomato sauce, green tomato relish, etc. all winter long. (We grow a lot of tomatoes!) That said, I don’t use the pressure cooker or canner because they scare me and I haven’t taken the time to learn to use them properly.

  9. Read animal vegetable miracle by barbara kingsolver ! It’s how to live just off local food. Sure, she makes it look easy because she has a farm, but it does challenge the way one thinks about eating food in different seasons. Well worth the read.

    • There’s a great tip in this book about freezing tomatoes. You just need to put them on a tray in the freezer until they’re frozen solid, then pack them into freezer bags. I’m going to try freezing some tomatoes for slow cooker recipes this winter.

  10. If you don’t want to can tomatoes and actually want to have fresh ones during the winter, you could look into purchasing an AeroGarden. It is an indoor hydroponic growing system that is pretty easy to use. I’ve only grown herbs in mine, but they do make tomato seed kits. It may not produce enough at one time to make sauce, but it might be worth a try.

  11. This might not be the smartest thing to do, but with tomatoes I have never worried about the acidity level. I just peel them, stuff as many in a jar as I can, top with boiling water and process for 45 minutes. Easy-peasy!

    Also, I would ask around to see if any of your friends or family have a canner/pressure cooker that you can borrow. If you have never processed food before, it might be a good idea to borrow before you buy.

  12. It’s not home-canned or anything, but I’ve definitely seen Jamie Oliver use whole [store] canned plum tomatoes to make ‘fresh’ tomato sauces. His suggestion was that most tomatoes you get during the off-season probably aren’t going to be as good as the whole canned ones, so if you’re in a pinch and don’t mind some-level of store bought, I’d go that route.

  13. Canned tomatoes are AWESOME, but frozen are good as well! I either roast and then puree, or just puree raw or stewed tomatoes, stick them in pyrex containers (good for keeping out freezer burn) and pop them in the freezer. Frozen pureed tomatoes are good for a year, and are much easier than canning for what I use tomatoes–sauces and in chili.

    Also, I started dehydrating tomatoes this year since I had SO MANY cherry tomatoes. Slice in half, stick in the dehydrator for 12-16 hours at 125, then pack in old jelly/pb jars with olive oil. Good for four months and taste like candy!

  14. This is the best link I have found for some of this stuff: http://www.pickyourown.org/

    It has state-by-state lists of pick-your-own and farmers stalls, as well an hundreds of government tested canning recipes for all sorts of stuff. Most recipes have pictures of all the steps as well. It’s a bit disorganized, but totally helpful.

  15. If you don’t want to mess with canning and you have room in your freezer, make your sauce now and just freeze it! I’ve made several batches of stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce over the course of the summer and thrown it all in the freezer for this winter. I have a chest freezer – it’s been one of the best investments ever. Good luck!

  16. Heres the thing- how does you not buying tomatoes help those workers? You go to a lot of trouble and don’t get to eat the tomatoes, and the workers continue to suffer and be slaves. Yes, you aren’t eating that particular fruit grown by slaves, but where does your sugar or coffee come from? Its not about purity, its about ending human suffering. The best way to help the workers is to donate to a campaign that protects workers rights and human rights, like Amnesty International (mainly human rights) or the ACLU or a migrant workers organization. I know the migrant workers orgs in Ontario but not anywhere else so you will have to google them yourself. But if workers have the right to organize unions, or at least organize to get minimal workplace laws and/or minimal not be held in inhumane conditions as slaves laws then they will free themselves and be able to get higher wages and better conditions. Its not about your table being ‘pure’ its about helping the workers to escape their horrible situations.

    • This is an important suggestion. I think the original poster’s determination to stop putting money in the pockets of the companies using slave labor is also important.

      None of these issues have a single solution. We need to live our ideals on a day-to-day basis, as well as supporting those organizations that are fighting for them.

      • I think it’s important to keep in mind that you as an individual can’t make a huge difference by not putting money in the pockets of these corporations that use this kind of [evil] labor, but if you talk to your friends and family about it and raise awareness, they might be encouraged to also think about where their food comes from… they might then talk to their friends and it grows.
        Even if that doesn’t all work out like that, it’s better than doing nothing and accepting the status quo.

  17. Are there any safe brands of canned tomatoes that don’t use slave labor? Or is that a pipe dream?

    • The Tomato industry as a whole is bad news- for example they raised the wholesale prices of tomatoes so that they could get more to the workers, but the Tomato industry is fining any contractor who passes on those raises to workers- so even if individual tomato pickers who were interested in paying their workers better the industry association would fine them (i think its like a million dollars too- can’t find the video and i have to stop procrastinating) So again, the best thing to do is to donate to a group that helps tomato workers fight for their rights – for example in Ontario Justicia for Migrant Workers is a really good group that I know, you can email them at [email protected] , they sell and ship some cool looking bracelets and tote bags to support their work- if you want i can help you fine an agency in your state that helps migrants workers, like a workers action centre or something along those lines.

  18. It just so happens that I picked up this book earlier this year that I feel will help me at the end of the summer and start of autumn:

    http://www.amazon.com/5-Minute-Microwave-Canning-Preserves-Chutneys/dp/1742484778

    Oh yes. That says 5-Minute Microwave Canning: Includes: Fruits, Preserves, Chutneys, Sauces, and Much More!

    It’s by Isabel Webb and I cannot WAIT to try it out. I am seriously intrigued. I have never canned myself, though some of my relatives do it quite extensively. I have a feeling I am going to love it to pieces once I start. I’m thinking pears for the first bout, mostly because there’s a sale on them at the local grocer– actually, get this: They’re doing peaches, pears, roma tomatoes and navel oranges @ 10lbs for $10! I must say, I am very tempted. I’ll let y’all know how my microwave canning adventures turn out.

    • I should include this note:

      “NO VEGETABLES:
      NEVER attempt to preserve vegetables in your microwave. Government health authorities warn that this could be fatal because vegetables do NOT contain the acid content (found in fruit), which inhibits the growth of botulism.”

      Webb, Isabel, 5-Minute Microwave Canning p. 12

  19. You can also just simply boil your tomatoes, peel them and store them in ziploc bags to freeze. We do this every year and use the tomatoes for soups and macaroni-n-tomatoes.

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