How to Say Goodbye to the Tomatoes (The Lost Art of the Hot Pack)

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Each year before the first frost wipes out the tomatoes of the season — and preferably before colder days and diminishing sun start to zap their bright flavor — June Russell cans tomatoes.  A lot of them. Maybe not literally a ton, but close, or at least what feels like it to those of us unfamiliar to what a ton really feels like: Dozens of crates full of fruits, collected straight from farms who sell at GrowNYC’s Greenmarkets, where June works as a farm inspector and also as a manager of special projects like bringing local grains back to our foodshed.  Then to make it all happen, one Sunday afternoon she roasts a hunk of pork or makes some other friend-luring dish, and gathers up her Greenmarket colleagues for a canning party in her brownstone backyard.

It might seem like a new-fangled locavore thing to do, this kind of canning party, but it’s actually old-fashioned: In fact it’s how our great-great grandparents (okay, probably our great-great grandmothers) made things happen when heaps of tomatoes and chilies and cucumbers and beans were ready to harvest and would rot in the fields if they weren’t put by. In fact, this rural Ohio newsletter has tips on how to throw one, should you need some advice.

We didn’t, since June knew the score, in fact, what we were practicing that Sunday afternoon was the black art known as “hot packing,” a method no longer Kosher according to the USDA, because the acidity in tomatoes — which should be high, to preserve them — varies so widely. The gist is this, those skilled Greenmarket girls told me: High acid foods, like some tomatoes and many fruity jams, are naturally high enough in acids that if your jars are clean and your fruit heated above 185 degrees, you can pack them into jars — adding 1 T. of lemon juice and 1 t. of salt per quart jar, in the case of tomatoes so that the Ph is at least 4.3– then invert them upside down and presto! No boiling water bath processing needed!

It goes without saying that I — a canning amateur of the lowest level — was floored, just as you are, I imagine. Why have we not all been hot packing our peaches and our berries all along? Where is the hot packing chapter in our Ball Blue Book of Preserving? Because, as June would tell me, it isn’t really safe to do it unless a) you have a Ph meter and b) know how to use it. Which June did on both counts, even though she made sure to issue an OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER that following the hot pack method at home is not to be taken lightly, like mushroom hunting or eating pufferfish. Instead, she and we both counsel, follow a well-tested guide like Putting Food By.

But we had her and the trusty Ph meter reading 4.3 to guide us. So all we needed was man power (okay, ladypower) to score, blanch, quarter, boil and can — repeat 20 or so times — hundreds of tomatoes, our hands growing red and wrinkled from the tasks literally at hand. We formed a kind of tomato canning assembly line, complete with a runner to take a growing pile of skins to the ruby-red compost pile and a black currant margarita break. At the end of the day, somebody did the math, and we all pitched in a few bucks for each jar we wanted to take home.

And while it still took several hours — and a few Greenmarket tents, thanks to the rain that afternoon — it was a hell of a lot easier than if we’d all tried to go canning alone, and each of us went home with an increased sense of community and more importantly, some winter-brightening sauce… a few of us happily toting several still-warm jars.

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