Monday, October 15, 2012

Salsa - My First Water-Bath Canning Experience

Finally, canning again

I started canning in 2008. For practice, I canned a couple dozen quarts each of pinto beans (which were delicious, I must say), turkey stock, and applesauce. I bought an All American Canner model 925, used, which I've been delighted with (and also used to pressure cook whole chickens and some other things).

Back then the problem was that our kitchen was a shambles. Our house was a duplex, and the downstairs kitchen had literally no counter space apart from the foot or so on either side of the sink. Julie and I did these canning projects on folding tables, and it was pretty tough going. Thus began a project to remodel the kitchen, which is a long story for another day. The conclusion of that story is that we had a contractor finish the kitchen remodel for us, this past April, and the kitchen is now gorgeous. Every available foot of wall has cabinets and countertops. Ironically we still wish for more space, but we're much better off now than we were in 2008. I wish we'd done this four years ago.

Since May I've been meaning to resume canning, which was after all the original motivation for finally doing something about that kitchen. Finally, this weekend, we did.


Yes, salsa. We actually go through a tremendous amount of it. We use it for chips, but also over rice (Spanish rice in minutes!), on baked potatoes, on scrambled eggs (or in our case, Egg Beaters™), etc. I'm vaguely dissatisfied with the stuff we buy, so making some might be the first step toward the perfect salsa, and it sounded easy enough to make. I was wrong about that.

So on Saturday we stopped at a nearby farm stand and bought a crate of tomatoes (I'm guessing it was about a half-bushel), some onions, jalapeños, garlic, and green peppers. Then I took a ten mile bike ride to Walmart for some lemon juice, tomato paste, and cilantro.

Sunday evening (after another 17-mile bike ride with my son), Julie and I optimistically set to work at almost 9:00 PM.

Prep Work 

Prepping the tomatoes wasn't hard work, but there was a lot of it. Before starting, I put 24 pint jars into the dishwasher for a quick wash and heated dry--the jars need to be hot. I also put a sauce pan full of jar lids into the oven at 200°f, to keep them hot; it seemed like less work than simmering them on the stove, since they need to be watched to prevent boiling. I put about 4 gallons of water in the All American™ canner, and set it to boil (which takes forever!). Then I put a 12-quart stock pot on the next burner with about a gallon of water. When the stock pot was boiling, I cut an X in the bottom of four tomatoes at a time and dropped them in the pot for 1 minute. When the timer expired, I switched them into a bowl of ice water, and Julie peeled and cored them. It took perhaps a half hour for this operation.

When the tomatoes were all peeled, Julie minced about 8 cloves of garlic and 12 jalapeños (without seeds!) in a little food processor, followed by 6 cups of onions and 2-3 green peppers. I removed the seeds and jelly from the tomatoes. At first I cut each one in half, and gently squeezed each half into a strainer; before long I tired of that, and found by experiment that it works nearly as well if you simply squeeze the whole tomato. The seeds and juice come out the hole where the core was. That took a solid half-hour as well.

When the tomatoes were seeded, I ran them in the big food processor until they looked like salsa to me. I like salsa on the less chunky side, and Julie likes it more, so I tried to split the difference there. The crate of tomatoes came to almost exactly 6 quarts. Then into the (washed out) 12-quart stock pot went:
  • 6 quarts of tomatoes (processed)
  • 6 cups of onions (minced)
  • 12 jalapeños (seeded and minced)
  • 2 green peppers (seeded and minced)
  • 8 cloves garlic (minced fine)
  • 24-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 24-oz can puréed tomatoes
  • 4 cups bottled lemon juice (natural strength)
  • 2 tbs salt
  • 2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs ground cumin
  • 1 tbs black pepper
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, minced
It took a good while to bring that to a boil, and then we simmered it for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Once the salsa was cooked, we set up an assembly line. We put pot holders on one end of the countertop, about 4' from the stove, and set the pot of salsa on that. Next to that we set the pan full of lids and the lid lifter; next to that the bands (which came with the jars); then next to the stove the jar lifter.  The water in the canner was gently boiling.

The process was pretty easy from that point. Julie took a jar from the dishwasher, filled it with salsa, leaving 1/2" head space, and wiped the rim of the jar with a damp cloth. I fished out a lid with the magnet, put on a band, and lifted the jar into the canner.

As we worked, it became clear that a couple things weren't working out as I'd planned. The canner is supposed to hold 19 pint jars. However, (1) that depends on the size of the jar, and (2) that refers to pressure canning, not water-bath. The wide-mouth Ball™ jars we used only fit 8 to a layer, or 16 total. And the second layer of jars comes near the top of the canner: when pressure canning, you only need a few inches of water in the bottom, and the work is actually done by steam that fills the canner; when water-bath canning, you're supposed to cover the jars to a depth of a couple inches. So technically the canner is only supposed to process one layer of jars when water-bath canning. And we ended up filling not 16 jars, but 23 2/3.

We plowed ahead anyway: we put two layers in the canner, with less than 1/2" water above the top, and gently set the lid. We had to scoop out a little to prevent it boiling over. Then we got out the water-bath canner and used it for the last seven jars. Getting both to a boil took a while--pro tip: on a normal kitchen stove, a giant canner will never get to a rolling boil with the lid off. Once both were  boiling, we set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes in the water bath, I set another timer (Julie having gone to bed at this pint, since it was nearly 1:00 AM) for 15 minutes and turned off the heat. When they'd cooled just a little, I pulled them out with the jar lifter and set them on towels to cool and seal.

The Results

All the jars sealed, so that's great. We haven't tasted the canned salsa yet. The extra 2/3 jar tasted awesome--I had some on my eggs this morning--but it didn't go through the water bath, so it had about 1/2 hour less cooking time. The processed jars will no doubt taste different. I'd expect the cilantro flavor to be less vibrant in the processed salsa. So the jury is still out, but it looks very promising.