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It’s time for tomatoes

July may be brutally hot, but the bounty of tomatoes this time of year helps compensate for the heat.

I eat a tomato sandwich almost every day, grateful for the amazing flavor and another meal that doesn’t require turning on the oven or stove. As tomatoes are in their growing peak, I start to plan days for preserving them.

Tomatoes are incredibly versatile to preserve since you can freeze, water bath can, pressure can, and dehydrate them. You can make marinara or pizza sauce, salsa, soup, or tomato jams, or simply peel them whole and water bath process them in glass jars. I prefer to set aside water bath canning days to process as many whole, peeled tomatoes as possible. That way, I have plenty of options when cooking with the tomatoes during the winter. Frankly, it’s too hot in my kitchen to make several different sauces and products over multiple days. Knocking out a large batch of simple tomato jars is enough of an accomplishment.

For great tomato canning and dehydrating recipes, check out www.foodinjars.com and National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Tomatoes are naturally acidic, which is why you can preserve them in a water bath like other acidic fruits. Acidity is key to canning food safely, because Clostridium botulinum bacteria (what causes botulism poisoning) can’t grow in food with high acid levels of pH 4.6 or less. Growing conditions and tomato varieties affect the fruit’s acidity, and their acidity can range from pH 4.3 to 4.9. One season an Early Girl tomato may register as less acidic than it was the previous season. Therefore, it’s important to add an acidifying ingredient to your tomato jars before processing in the water bath. Lemon juice is most often used. Adding two tablespoons of lemon juice per quart jar has never impacted the flavor of the tomatoes when I’m cooking with them months later.

Using bottled lemon juice is the best choice since fresh lemons can also vary in acidity. The bottled products are more consistent in their acidity, so you can rest assured that your jars of whole tomatoes are safe for consumption. Other acidifying options include citric acid and vinegar. Vinegar has the strongest flavor, but if you’re planning to make vinegar-based sauces with the jars of tomatoes it would be a good option. Citric acid is a naturally-occurring acid in citrus fruits, and has a light citrus flavor (even more mild than lemon juice). It’s important to make sure the citric acid you use for preserving is food grade.

I hope you’re enjoying tomato season as much as I am, and that your tomato preserving days are productive and quick so you beat the heat.

You can find more gardening and food preservation resources on Virginia Food Works’ website: www.virginiafoodworks.org/Home-Canning-Resources.

KATHARINE WILSON is the director Virginia Food Works. She can be reached at info@virginiafoodworks.org.