Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Making Salsa and Not Canning Tomatoes

Probably just like everyone else, we used the tomatillos to make salsa verde this week. (What else do people make with tomatillos?)

The recipe world seems to be a bit divided about whether you boil the tomatillos, roast them, or use them uncooked. I chose this recipe because it had a roasting option (we broil pretty much everything around here) and because it matched the ingredients already in the house.

(Recipes also seem to differ quite a bit in whether you need to add water. This recipe has no additional water, while the recipe in the Enterprise newsletter called for adding 2 cups. Ours was fine without when I made it, but it's solidified a bit over a couple days in the fridge.)

Making salsa got us started thinking about canning. It seems like I've been reading about the resurgence of home canning everywhere recently, often tied to the idea that it's a money-saving thing to do in tough
economic times

We use a lot of canned tomatoes in our house, for pasta sauces and soups and pizza, so the idea of jarring a bunch of the beautiful heirloom tomatoes we've been seeing at the farmer's market to draw on through the winter was pretty appealing.

The USDA has very comprehensive canning resources available online. My enthusiasm for the project was damped a bit by all the OMG YOU WILL DIE OF BOTULISM (though this is not really a concern if you can follow a recipe -- always a question for me -- and stick to high-acid foods, like tomatoes, if you don't have a pressure canner).

But it was really the mathematics of the thing that put the kibosh on canning for us. The USDA told me that for crushed tomatoes, no liquid added, I would need about 2 3/4 pounds of tomatoes per quart. I didn't make it to the Davis Square farmer's market on Wednesday, but at Copley heirloom tomatoes were $3 or $4 per pound. So about $8 to $11 worth of tomatoes in each quart. Jars and lids looked like they'd run about another $1 per jar.

So figuring a cost of about $10 per quart, canning 12 quarts of tomatoes would have been an upfront investment of $120. (By comparison, we buy fancy canned Muir Glen organic tomatoes for $2.69 for 28 ounces, or about $3 per quart.)

Are people really saving money canning? (I think it's a bit of a cheat to say that the produce is free if you grow it yourself -- at least on the scale that I grow tomatoes, they're about the farthest thing there is from free.)


  1. Hi there. As someone who cans tomatoes each year, I can say that I tend to accomplish two separate goals in doing so. The first is saving money, though generally that's actually the least of the reasons we can our tomatoes. Not only have I have found over the years that no commercial tomatoes are ever as tasty as our home-canned toms., but we like to believe that we meet some of our environmental life-goals by doing it ourselves as well. We may well be kidding ourselves once you add in the energy costs, etc, but we can certainly see the difference in our waste stream caused by using home-canned or home-frozen produce.

    It might also be helpful to realize that while the initial investment can certainly seem high, you have to realize that the jars are used over and over and over again. Many of the jars I used this year I bought as much as a decade ago and they are still going strong. We can and do also use them for literally everything, including as a plastic-free alternative for storing leftovers, taking our lunces to work, etc. So to count the cost wholy into your first batch of tomatoes is a bit misleading. The only new cost to us each year are the wee lids, aprox $1\doz. Another thing to consider is that for canning tomatoes, using perfect, high-end heirloom eating tomatoes is the least cost-effective, and honestly possibly the least flavorful, way to save the tomato harvest. Most farmstands will offer 'seconds', or imperfect tomatoes of many varieties, generally the best paste or canning varieties, at much reduced prices. I was able to get 'bulk' seconds from a local market this year (the single most expensive year I've ever done this, which I am attributing to the late blight losses at many farms, generally I get organic tomatoes at peak season in bulk at about $1 per pound, and standard tomatoes from IPM farms for even less) at $30 for 20 lb boxes, and we put up tomato puree and quartered tomatoes. Generally, based on my records from previous years, I can put up tomatoes for somewhere between $2-$2.50 per qt and all-in, not counting the cost of the jars, my cost for tomatoes this (again, the most expensive year I have ever done so) averaged something very close to $3 per quart. So, while I might not save much this year (and who's to say that the tomatoes won't be more expensive later this year if the blight effects Muir Glen's access to organic tomatoes this year), I have accomplished my other goal in canning, which is to keep my food sources local, 'clean', and with the lowest transportation footprint I can, short of growing them myself. Nor do I have to throw away\recycle my containers after using up the tomatoes, but am reducing our waste stream as well.

    This is a heck of a long-winded way to say that yes, often we save a fair bit of money in home-canning, but that this is not the only 'cost' consideration other folks might use in determining if it's a good idea.

  2. Kellee -- Thank you so much for your lengthy comment! This is fascinating to me, and you've given me lots to think about.

    We're definitely still interested in doing a canning project, if folks have suggestions for recipes and sources of produce.

    -- Teresa (author of original post)