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The tomato train was late, but is rolling now

Tomato Processing Tips for the Home Grower

First, let me toss out a disclaimer.

I’ve only been doing this for a little while and am definitely learning as I go; I had no aspirations to do anything other than this little garden I installed in June 2009.

The first stab at growing my own food circa 2009
The first stab at growing my own food circa 2009

Today this is my view from the sun room, and I sometimes feel like I have a tiger by the tail.

The same backyard in August 2013, a food growing carnival
The same backyard in August 2013, a food growing carnival

I am a little overwhelmed with tomatoes (again) at the moment and, as I have been processing them, I put together this list of tips.  I had to learn these on my own, usually the hard way.  This doesn’t mean nobody told me, or that I didn’t read them along the way; it is likely I just forgot or was too stubborn to listen if someone did offer any of these up for consideration.

Tomato processing tip #1:  You better have some big pots, with one of them at least 16 quarts, with a decent copper or aluminum disc base (big batches are easier to scorch/burn and the disc distributes the heat more evenly across the base).  If you are even moderately successful in your production, small pots mean a lot of smaller batches; which means less time for things like garden tending, family, and sleep.

While I’d love to have some $300 top shelf AllClad pots (but only if someone wishes to give them too me), I found a decent enough 16 quart stainless pot at WalMart for under $50 bucks that had a good disc underneath, as well as a nice fitting glass lid and insulated handles.

16 Quarts of $49 WalMart stainless steel
16 Quarts of $49 WalMart stainless steel

Tomato processing tip #2:  Get a pressure canner, a big (see big pot explanation above) 21 quarts one.   Pressure canners allow you to put up more types of food (meats, low acid vegetables).  If hot water bath canning is all that is needed in a situation, then you can use the big pot as a hot water bath canner.  It won’t work the other way around.  I opted for the “All American” brand vs the Presto (built like a tank, 6 locking lugs, no gasket to align/maintain).  I bought the 15 quart, not the 21, and there have been times I would have liked a single double decker batch of pint jars, instead of a single layer in two different batches.  I wish I had gone with the 21, even though the 15 covers most needs.

Heavy Duty All American 15 Quart Pressure Canner (On my NG grill side burner)
Heavy Duty All American 15 Quart Pressure Canner (On my NG grill side burner)

Tomato processing tip #3:  Have a conveniently located and sheltered outdoor heat source.  Canning is a humid, heat producing process, that can really make your kitchen unpleasant.  It is also messy (for 95% of us anyway) and noisy.  Even though my canner is built like a tank, it is a little unnerving to have it hissing and wobbling inside on our range, because the kitchen opens into the family room.  Note the location of the canner above, outside.

Tomato processing tip #4:  Get a tomato/vegetable press or strainer.  This is a huge time saver with all things tomato, plus you can make apple butter without skinning the apples, and a batch of thornless blackberries can be seeded and cored in no time.  I chose the Victorio due to good reviews and a substantially cheaper price.  It was among the least expensive and was the only one at the time that had a bunch of user reviews on Amazon.  It definitely has been money well spent.  I also picked up the extra accessories that include different sieve cones for different applications.  The Victorio’s product page gives a pretty decent idea of how it works.

Victorio Strainer and accessory kit
Victorio Strainer and accessory kit
Victorio Strainer doing its thing
Victorio Strainer doing its thing

Tomato processing tip #5:  If you are growing a lot of tomatoes, then you’d better come up with a plan, i.e. a “ripening system” and find space to bring in your tomatoes for sorting/selection, both for fresh eating and processing.  I try to get them off the vines when they begin to turn and let them finish inside, where they are safe from the tree-rats, mockingbirds, and other vermin that conspire to destroy or damage them if left on the vine. This leaves me with a wide range of ripeness among the tomato herd in my sunroom; so (as difficult as it can be) I still have to pay attention.

Why was this a priority this year?  First, consider how I did it last year.

Tomatoes ripening, just one bad tomato away from a ruined tabletop finish
Tomatoes ripening, just one bad tomato away from a ruined tabletop finish

Now here is the same table, as it stands, as I type this article, upstairs in a spare bedroom, in the middle of being refinished.

Tomato table refinishing project (oops)
Tomato table refinishing project (oops)

Yes, if a single bad tomato is missed and manages to take a dump on a table finish, that table finish is done for.  I learned the hard way.

This year, I’m using a handful of tray inserts for the larger Rubbermaid bin; these are only a couple bucks at WalMart and they nest together for easy off season storage.  One improvement I plan is to add, a layer of plastic garden fencing (the ½ inch mesh stuff) to elevate them from the bottom of the bin slightly.  It would make for a lot less tomato inspecting and washing if one goes bad and oozes.

Plan B, using cheap Rubbermaid bin inserts to manage ripening tomatoes.
Plan B, using cheap Rubbermaid bin inserts to manage ripening tomatoes.

Tomato processing tip #6:  Plan just a little ahead of time and come up with a good way to store canning jars, both empty and full.  I never dreamed we’d have so many in the rotation at this point.  I am not sure what my “right way” to store empties is yet, but I’m pretty sure this is the wrong way:

The wrong way to store empty canning jars; fixing this is a future project.
The wrong way to store empty canning jars; fixing this is a future project.

Tomato processing tip #7 :  Remove the rings when you are checking the seals after the jars have cooled.  As a new canning enthusiast, this was difficult to do as it seemed counter intuitive.  They “can” stay there, but you might miss it if a seal breaks and I promise you they will become cemented to the glass within a few days if left.  And, when you do remove them, wash them.  Tomatoes are acidic enough to corrode them to ruin in just a season if any residue is left in them.

Clean rings drying for their next assignment
Clean rings drying for their next assignment

Tomato processing tip #8:  Spend a little more and get some good knives, especially a chef’s knife of some sort, and a good paring knife.  I never knew what I was missing until I was given a good German steel chef’s knife (Zwilling JA Henckels Twin Four Star line). A hollow edge, Santoku style, one that was sharp and well-balanced for handling all the chopping that I was suddenly doing.  You will be chopping and slicing and peeling continuously, so you might as well be properly equipped with safer and more effective tools.

Quality assortment of kitchen knives makes life much easier during harvest season
Quality assortment of kitchen knives makes life much easier during harvest season

Tomato processing tip #9:  If you are going to invest in good knives, you’d better learn how to care for them.  Do yourself a favor and invest in a sharpening system and some wooden or bamboo cutting boards.  The cheap, hard plastic/acrylic boards are hell on knives.  I didn’t realize this until I really had done a number on the edge of the Santoku knife previously mentioned.

The battered edge of a what was an excellent knife, thanks to sustained use on an acrylic cutting board.
The battered edge of a what was an excellent knife, thanks to sustained use on an acrylic cutting board.

Bamboo boards are cheap at outlet and liquidator stores like TJ Maxx; they wear like iron, look nice, and don’t ruin the edge of your good knives.  As for sharpening, I have a quick double “V” sharpener from Henckel that is good for a three-pass freshening up of a cutting edge in the middle of a big chopping session.  I also invested in a GATCO 10006 diamond system that does a great job on all blades, but is mandatory for serrated and single edge blades.

A quick and effective knife sharpener and a blade pampering bamboo cutting board
A quick and effective knife sharpener and a blade pampering bamboo cutting board

 

These aren’t earth shattering revelations by any means, but hopefully one or more will help someone get ahead a little faster than I did.  Good luck.

 

 

About cohutt

Profile photo of cohutt
Cohutt has spent the last quarter century deep within the investment business; it has chewed him up on occasion it hasn't spit him out yet. He grows most of his family's produce on his 65 foot wide downtown lot, owns more than one firearm but less than Russia, is an experienced reloader and bullet caster. He's self taught in carpentry and other trades via ongoing (since 1987) renovation and maintenance of his 140+ year old home. He's a tinkerer and maker, project over-reacher, long time husband of his first spouse, father of brilliant adult children, proto-Aspergerian, longtime "Friend of Bill", and a favorite target of his own ridicule. (cohutt's frequent updates of his urban food garden folly at can be found at cohutt.com)

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