It's hard to beat homemade tomato sauce or salsa in the middle of February. Tomatoes usually ripen in the Rogue Valley during August and September, so if you want homemade salsa on Superbowl Sunday, you'll want to get your canning started soon.
To get the best flavor and consistency, choose the variety carefully.
The tastiest eat-them-right-out-of-the-garden slicing tomatoes have a high water content, which means more time on the stove to boil the sauce down to a thick consistency.
"The slicing tomatoes are better for canning whole or crushed tomatoes," says Carol Evans, a certified Master Food Preserver. "You can can any tomato, but Roma types will have less juice and seeds."
The cylindrical Roma-style tomato is generally on the smaller side — an exception is the banana-sized San Marzano Gigante — and more tomatoes equal more prep time for blanching your tomatoes if you want to remove the skins.
If you're after a visual panache, however, you might want to try something yellow.
"The Golden Plum stays yellow when you can it," says Evans. "I'm using it for a yellow pasta sauce. I'm also trying Yellow Icicle."
As when canning any fruit, use slightly under-ripe pieces and cut out any bruised spots to avoid spoilage and the associated health risks.
Most tomatoes have a high acid content, which makes them ideal for canning. Sauce and salsa recipes, however, call for low-acid additions such as onions, garlic and peppers. While this is not a problem if you'll be eating your sauce fresh, if you're canning it, you must have the proper acidity to avoid spoilage.
For this reason, it's best to stick to recipes that have been tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lemon juice, vinegar and citric acid are specified in these recipes to achieve the proper acid balance. Make sure you follow the recipes carefully. If you use lemon juice, use the bottled kind, not fresh lemons, to get a consistent acidity.
OSU Extension sells a three-dollar booklet, "Canning Tomatoes and Tomato Products" at its Central Point office. The booklet contains tested recipes, along with instructions and tips on all stages of the canning process.
Another good source for recipes and directions is the Ball Complete Canning Book. But no matter what source you use, says Evans, make sure it was published in 1989 or later. In 1987 the USDA changed its recipes after extensive testing because of a lowered acid content in commercial vinegars.
Even with strict measurements of ingredients in these recipes, there's still room for experimentation if you want to turn up the heat in your sauce or salsa.
"You can mix any peppers as long as you use the correct proportion," says Evans. "If it calls for jalapeño, you can use serrano, or habañero for the hottest."
If your learning style is more watching and doing than reading, consider attending the class "Water Bath Canning "… The Saucy Tomato!" taught by the Master Food Preservers at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center on Hanley Road on Sept. 13. Beginner or advanced, you'll want to sample the dizzying variety of tomato dishes they'll have on hand, including pizza and barbecue sauce and green tomato sauce.
To learn more about canning tomatoes, call the OSU Extension office at 541-776-7371 or see http://extension.oregonstate.edu/community/food-preservation.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. He and his wife have been canning tomato sauce and salsa for more than 20 years.