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Canning Tomatoes, What did I do wrong?

18 years ago

I'm kind of a newbie, so please bear with me.

This past summer I put up about 70 quart jars of canned tomatoes. (Gosh it sounds like a lot when I type that! As you can tell, we love maters. I use them for everything.)

The problem is, I lost about half of them!

It has made me soooo mad! All the money and time I spent went down the drain. (Well.... actually in the woods, but you understand.)

I'm still losing jars! Every now and again I hear that dreaded popping sound!

I don't know what I could have done wrong! I put up tomatoes the summer of 04' and they did great, didnt lose a jar.

I do them the way my Mom and Grandpa taught me. Their canned tomatoes turned out fine. We picked our tomatoes from the same place/day/and time.

Their way is to wash the ripe tomatoes, dunk them in boiling water, peel, core, throw them whole or half depending on how I cut them, into a large pot. Then they are brought to a boil and boiled until they stop foaming. (The foam is skimmed off during the cooking.) Put them into sterilized hot jars that have 1 tsp. or 1 tbls. of salt (can't remember which at the moment) in the bottom. Leave headspace. Wipe jar rim and place hot seal and rim on and tighten. We do not pressure can or boil them after that.

I honestly can't think where I went wrong. Other than I let my husband help with some of the canning. Maybe that's really what happened!

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!



Comments (33)

  • 18 years ago

    I am sorry for your misfortunate experience. However, you can learn from your experience.Well, what you did was an old timey method called "open kettle". It is not safe at all, as you can see by the spoilage of your tomatoes. With the tomatoes being improperly done, you put yourself at a risk for botulism. You should not taste any of the tomatoes, and you should throw them ALL out. One taste can be deadly.It is that serious. You cannot see, taste or smell botulism. It can cause paralysis or death.
    Nothing was done to preserve the food. It takes proper heat treatment, plus bottle lemon juice to bring the acid level up in the tomatoes. All foods, even jams and jellies, pickles, etc. need to be processed.
    For homecanned tomatoes you need to either process in a boiling water bath canner for 85 min. or in a pressure canner for 25 min. at 10 lb. pressure for a weighted gauge or 11 lb. pressure for a dial gauge. Either 2 T. bottled lemon juice or 1/2 tsp. citric acid needs to be added to each quart of tomatoes before processing.
    TOMATOES--WHOLE OR HALVED (packed in tomato juice)

    QUANTITY: See whole tomatoes packed in water.

    PROCEDURE: Wash tomatoes. Dip in boiling water for 30
    to 60 seconds or until skins split, then dip in cold
    water. Slip off skins and remove cores. Leave whole or
    halve. Add bottled lemon juice or citric acid to the
    jars. (See acidification instructions) Add 1
    teaspoon of salt per quart to the jars, if desired.

    Raw pack -- Heat tomato juice in a saucepan. Fill jars
    with raw tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Cover
    tomatoes in the jars with hot tomato juice, leaving 1/2-
    inch headspace.

    Hot pack -- Put tomatoes in a large saucepan and add
    enough tomato juice to completely cover them. Boil
    tomatoes and juice gently for 5 minutes. Fill jars with
    hot tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Add hot tomato
    juice to the jars to cover the tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch

    Adjust lids and process.

    Recommended process time for TOMATO JUICE AND WHOLE
    TOMATOES in a boiling-water canner 85 min.
    Or in a pressure canner for 25 min.

    I would recommend you buy a current Ball Blue Book for about $6. It has great info on safe canning of foods, plus really good recipes.
    You can also go to this site and find information.
    There are other good sites online, too. Be sure to use a source that is from one of the University Extensions or the Ball website for reliable info. There are a lot of sites online that do not have safe recipes and guidelines and same for books. Just because the info is out there, it doesn't make it safe to follow. (I work at my local county extension office providing safe methods of food preservation.)

    Here is a link that might be useful: Safe canning of tomatoes.

  • 18 years ago

    Yep what Linda Lou said...Any other way is just not safe....

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  • 18 years ago

    I also agree, you need to process those tomatoes. Just because something got done that way for 100 years doesn't make it the best way. We aren't driving the same cars or using the same equipment, we've learned a lot in 100 years. I think you're fortunate the lids are popping, instead of someone getting sick.


  • 18 years ago

    Jessie, I'm sorry about your tomatoes...we love them too. But just this one time :) don't blame hubby. And trust Linda Lou when she tells you your hand-me-down method isn't safe.

    Tomatoes can be safely preserved by the boiling water bath process, pressure canning or freezing. Period. The problem with maters is that they vary so much in acidity - even your growing conditions that year can alter how acid they are - hubby wasn't in charge of the weather. :)

    My elderly neighbor started me on canning tomatoes (no one in my family canned anything) and I pressure can them with additional lemon juice for acidity. This same neighbor could tell you how when she was a child, her job was to add wood to the fire under the copper kettle holding jars of clams and crab for hours and hours...she ate seafood preserved water bath then since it was the only option available to the family, but I can assure you she wouldn't put a fork to anything preserved that way now!

    It's hard to let go of some of the old ways some times; I put up a delicious green bean recipe handed down from a friends grandmother for many years without making anyone sick. Then one year I did some reading trying to figure out if the ingredients might be safe in their combination (bacon, tomato, garlic, onion) but processed as for beans alone - and quit making them...better safe than sorry. Same with your tomatoes, but if you follow the processing given here, you won't ever lose them again.

  • 18 years ago

    Absolutely, they do need heat processing. In fact, from plant to plant, area to area, and season to season, tomatoes can have all kinds of acidity or lack thereof. The salt added is usually a teaspoon per quart, or less if you prefer. BUT, they MUST be ensured of a proper acidity to properly can them. If they had no added acid, a BWB would be required for at least an hour, pressure canning can also speed this up some, but for the actual safety, they need an added acid. Lemon juice was mentioned, but I prefer a tasteless citric acid instead. In the many years I have canned, I lost just one single quart jar of peaches, due to a bad seal, and not from fermentation or other bacterial action taking place during long term storage. I believe that ALL your jars are now at a point of spoilage or will be poisonous in some form, so you should NOT use any of them for any reason. Sorry for your loss, but 'grandmas' recipe isn't, and has never been safe to begin with, its pure luck that no one was getting sick from their canning.. Be caeful!

    If you want to eliminate the dunking and peeling, the use of a food strainer is a great tool. The tomatoes just get placed in a hopper, and all the pulp and juice are pressed out, whereas the skins and seeds are seperated from the rest, and tossed into the compost pile.

    No steam canner there!

  • 18 years ago

    I know I am going to get chastised for my comments but her goes anyway.

    Tomatoes were the first thing I canned way back in the early 80's with my husbands grandmother's tutilage. She did the open kettle method for tomatoes and I've canned then that way for years. Never had botulism or any go bad. But, the method I've used always cooked down the tomatoes till alot of the liquid had evaporated which most likely killed anything bad. Plus, once the tomatoes were put into the hot jars (kept in boiling water until filled) and sealed I would turn the jars upside down for 15+ minutes. Once turned back over they would seal, if not I would reheat and start over or freeze the contents.

    I have also canned jams that way too, until I had a batch start to unseal after I had given some away as gifts.

    I know everyone "has" to say that you have to do things the safe way, I just ask myself how did our ancesters ever survive before knowledge brought safety measures into existance? When I say ancesters my husbands grandfather just died at 90 this past year and it wasn't from botulism.

    Just so you know now I do process in hwb just about everything. And I've thought of stepping up to pressure canning so I can process veggies & meats.


  • 18 years ago

    Well, I'm not "chastising" because I have several much-loved family members who take the same position. Fortunately, we can disagree in good spirit.

    However, I do think there's a common misunderstanding about the trustworthiness of personal experience.

    One individual's or one family's experience with a procedure does not prove it's safe. Your grandfather may have been lucky (just like the lottery, someone has to "win" even if the odds are not in any one person's favor). He may have had a very hardy constitution. The fact that he lived to 90 would seem to indicate that was the case.

    In other words, the sampling is too small to have much significance.

    You ask how our ancestors survived, but the truth is that lots of them didn't. One reason the average lifespan was much shorter a hundred years ago is that so many people died young. If you survived to middle age you were a pretty tough cookie, and the odds were good that along the way you'd developed some immunities to a lot of the things that might kill "weaker specimens."

    And who knows precisely how many individuals died a hundred years ago from tainted tomatoes or any other food? It happened with my great-grandmother's twin toddlers.

    Jam is very low-risk; I've never heard of anyone dying from open-kettle canning of jams. Europeans and Commonwealth members routinely follow the method you describe. Tomatoes, however, are another matter.

    If we were that set on tradition, we'd still be processing foods by the standards used for Napoleon's army.


    Here is a link that might be useful: Home Canning Recommendations - 1919

  • 18 years ago

    Those old timey tomatoes were probably a lot more acid than the ones grown now, even the 'heirlooms.' Yup, we did it that way too, when I was a kid - and every once in a while a jar would mold or have 'flat sour' or... My mother was always careful to boil the canned tomatoes for at least 15 minutes before serving them. Or put them in tomato sauce which was cooked even longer. One of our winter favorites was tomato aspic - cook the tomatoes 15 minutes, add the 'aspic' mix (it came in a box like Jello) and then pour into a bowl and chill in the fridge. That was our idea of a winter salad.
    A hot water bath is vry simple once you get the hang of it. And water bath canners are cheap. You'll find it takes even less time than the hot kettle method since you don't have to cook them before ladling into jars.

  • 18 years ago


    Botulism?? I never dreamed that I could be endangering my family by serving them tomatoes I back breakingly put up for the past 2 years.

    I will be doing it the way ya'll have discribed and the way I have seen it on reputable websites. Thanks for all the great advice!

    I have told Mom about this and she said the way I explained is the way they have always done it. She had only lost 1 jar from the tomatoes she canned last year, so I'm not sure I have convinced her to change her method. There is still months before tomato season hit's so I will keep working on her.

    As for dear Grandpa......he's 75 and set in his ways. Wish me luck.

    Thanks everyone,

  • 18 years ago

    Good luck, Jessie. My Dad still open kettle cans his tomatoes, and I'll never change his mind in spite of my lectures.


  • 18 years ago

    The Ball Blue Book that Linda Lou mentioned was very helpful to me when I canned my first batch of tomatoes. It also has some great canning recipies for other things. Very inexpensive. It might also help to convince your relatives to change their ways if they see it in print from Ball.

  • 18 years ago

    When cooking down the tomatoes, your removing water mostly, but acidity can increase due to the amount of water that was boiled out of the tomatoes. Flipping the jars over on their lids was a practice that my parents used when they canned, using the all glass jars and lids, with wire bails years ago. The flipping over of the jars after capping can have a 50:50 chance at making the seal area sterile. If the BWB was done with 2 inches of water above the tops of the jars, that would make them safe enough, even if the cover was left off the canner, but they would really produce a lot of evaporation of the BWB, so a watchful eye must be kept on the process. If after 20 minutes the water level drops quickly, be careful not to add cold water to the boiling water as you could crack the jars.

    I agree that there are nearly no true heirloom varieties of tomatoes that are grown today for a high acid content. Most people want complex sweet flavor, so they tend to breed out the acidity. A good example of a hybrid is sweet corn. They now have corn that grows so sweet, that the true flavor is almost non existent. Its meant for longer storage after picking. Regular corn loses a lot of its sweetness just hours after picking, where the enhanced and high sugar types can sit around for several days.

  • 18 years ago

    Dear Grandpa has survived this long, so I wouldn't worry about trying to "change his ways." If he's like my grandfather (who lived to 107), he's probably a tough old bird.

    You're still miles ahead of my neighbor. He wanted to "can" his tomatoes by heating them, putting them in jars and then sealing with his FoodSaver. I finally convinced him that wasn't a good idea, but he still didn't want a Ball Blue Book, even when I offered him a free copy.


  • 18 years ago

    Even though I do can my pepperonicini in vinegar/salt brine, I would never use that vacuum process for tomatoes..

  • 18 years ago

    My Ball Blue Book(it was new year before last) says to water bath 40 minutes for pints and 45 for quarts. Don't have 85 minutes in any of my canning books for tomatoes.
    Jessie I do suggest you water bath but also want to suggest that you make sure you keep them some place cool. The tops will pop if they get too warm.

  • 18 years ago

    Bananalover,the Ball Blue Book method you are looking at is for those packed in water or juice, not just tomatoes in a jar. If you don't add water to the jars, then it is 85 min. for quarts. Check the method on page 22 in the 1999 book and you will see that the first one for whole, halved, or quartered is in water and is 45 min. for quarts. The one below, with NO water or juice added is 85 min. The same info is on page 22 of the more current one. It says Tomatoes- packed in water, 45 min. for quarts. Below it says Tomatoes- Packed in own juice and is 85 min.

  • 18 years ago

    Wow, 85 minutes. I was hoping to can tomatoes this year, but I'll have to find someone with a gas stove so I can use a bigger pot than my little elements can handle. How long do you guys keep a jar open in the fridge? Quarts would be easier to can, but can I use them for a week like I do with commercially canned tomatoes?

    Does anyone know about what weight of tomatoes it would take to fill a pint jar? Commercial cans are about 7/8 of a pint, so I could figure out which is cheaper using the sale price of cans and the summer price of tomatoes. Yes, I know home-canned is more delicious. :-)


  • 18 years ago

    Linda_Lou provided an excellent link earlier. I'm providing another really good and safe resource.

    They also offer a very useful home-study course in canning.

    Melissa, to answer your question about tomato yields, depending upon the tomato recipe (obviously a sauce recipe requires more tomatoes than plain canned tomatoes in water), you'll need 2 1/2-3 1/2 pounds of tomatoes per quart.


    Here is a link that might be useful: National Center for Home Food Preservation

  • 18 years ago

    Melva,almost any food has a safe storage time in the fridge for 2-3 days. After that, there is enough bacteria growing in there to possibly make a person ill, even if there are no signs of spoilage. The fridge only slows down the bacteria growth in foods. A week is too long for even store bought tomatoes to be kept in the fridge.
    I often open a jar of something and if it isn't used in a day or two, I pop it in the freezer. You can freeze in your canning jars.

    The canning time for a water bath is so long that I only use my pressure canner for tomatoes. I actually have 2 and I start one, then when I get a second one ready, I start it, too. I get done faster that way. Plus, both of my pressure canners hold two layers of pints or three layers of half pints. Too bad I can't stack quarts. Now, that would be some tall canner, not to mention the weight of it.

  • 18 years ago

    Oh my 85 minutes for quarts!! I don't know if my electric stove can handle that kind of pressure! I might have to talk DM into letting me can over at her house on her gas stove! But WHEW it sure gets hot over there!

    I might just talk myself out of canning tomatoes this year. Yeah, I think I just might.....


  • 18 years ago

    If you can buy or borrow a propane burner (see if a relative or neighbor has one - maybe with their turkey fryer), you can process your tomatoes outside. That's not a bad idea in really hot weather anyway.


  • 18 years ago

    Carol I already own a propane burner, for the turkey fryer of course. I never even thought about using that! The frying pot is way too small to hold more than 4 or 5 jars safely I think. I wonder if putting my "big blue pot" that I can in, (I it got from DM years ago) would be okay. It's about the same thickness as the frying pot, just wider. HMMMM......something to consider. Thanks Carol!


  • 18 years ago

    Jessie, you can get a special element for a regular electric stove. It sits up higher off the surface of the stove, and it is stronger, too.
    I "killed" my stove from canning on it. I didn't know there was a special element at the time. Now I have a great gas stove with no worries of canning on it.
    My friend loves her canning element so much she leaves it on her stove all the time. She says it is really great for stir frying. She is Vietnamese and makes a lot of stir fry dishes.
    Here is a link that shows them.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Canning elements.

  • 18 years ago

    Thanks Linda lou I see it now. I have a gas stove but I also have a gas grill with a regular stove-like burner so I can use that during the summer and not heat up the house.

  • 17 years ago

    I have never personally canned tomatoes either, but have wanted to for years. My mom just recently gave me a canner pot with the rack and the whole nine yards! I'm excited about trying it this year. I'll be canning slicing tomatoes for soups, stews, sauces, etc., canning salsa with roma tomatoes, and I think try canning cherry tomatoes.

    Here's a link that Leigh (aberwacky_ar7b) posted in the Growing Tomatoes forum. I thought it would be useful to those of us that do not have a Ball book yet.

    Here is a link that might be useful: USDA Guide to Canning Tomatoes

  • 16 years ago

    There are a couple of comments on this thread stating that the acidity of tomatoes is not as high as it was many years ago. I'd be interested in reading more about this. Is there research available someone can refer me to to verify lower acidity in tomatoes now grown and what varieties ? Thanks !


  • 16 years ago

    Acidity has been lower for some newer strains and hybrids. The reason is simple, people want sweeter tasting tomatoes, so with less acid in them, the more sweet they seem to become. Also soil conditions, and all nutrients can affect the acidity too. Its safe to say that if added acid is put into every jar that you can, they should be much safer. The data on actual acidity is somewhat dependent on soil conditions as well as water, and sunlight.

  • 16 years ago

    Or they may be sufficiently acid but seem less acid due to higher sugar.

    Regardless, as ksrogers said, acidity does vary depending upon variety, growing conditions, hours of sunlight. Add to that degree of ripeness and you discover a lot of tomatoes can be marginal, coming in at or even slightly above that 4.6 pH level.

    Additional acid is definitely called for.


  • 16 years ago

    Harbor Freight has a 3 burner propane gas stove I want for canning, only about 60. borrowed one last year--loved it

  • 16 years ago

    Careful for that Harbor Freight. Make sure it contains a regulator and hose, as well as a shutoff valve. Northern Tool also sells some decent burners, with several rings and valves to control the heat better.

  • 16 years ago


    This topic has come up on the tomato forum several times, and Dr. Carolyn Male (author of the book _100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden) posted about a recent study that showed almost all varieties of tomato actually have almost exactly the same acidity --- hybrids and heirlooms both, of various colours. (People often say that many yellow tomatoes are lower in acid, but in truth it turns out that they have the same amound of acid, just higher sugar so they taste less acid, said Carolyn.)

    The only exceptions are a few hybrids developed in the 50s intentionally to be lower in acid. Most of them are very rare these days; the one that is still around to some extent is Jet Star.

    So unless you are growing Jet Star tomatoes, if they are fresh and ripe they are all about the same acidity, which is about the same as it has been for a long time.

    I wish I still had the source info for the study, but I have switched computer since then and can't find it. But if you ask Carolyn about it on the tomato forum she can probably point you to it.


    P.S. Jessie, good luck with those tomatoes this year! If it gets too hot to can, you know, you can throw them in the freezer and can them when it cools off. The skins are really easy to remove once they've been frozen, too!

  • 16 years ago

    It's ironic that you mention Jet Star, Zabby. My MIL and FIL operated a huge commercial truck garden on their farm and Jet Star was one of their standards. A very popular tomato - a consistent seller with a loyal customer base.

    I do agree that the perception of acidity from taste is no indication. A yellow Taxi seems not acidic at all because it's so high in sugar.

    I think the bigger issue is growing conditions, exposure to sunlight, degree of ripeness. Last year I mentioned one source that said even ripening tomatoes on the back porch will result in a tomato with a higher pH.


  • 3 years ago

    It's all about the cooking time. We are too quick to bottle it the same day when those tomatoes should be simmering at a low bubble for days to reduce and balance the amount of acid you need to preserve them. The less water in the sauce, the safer the batch. That's how they survived in the old days. Cooking it down improves the flavor immensely, too. I cook my sauces a minimum of two days. I also use steam canning (3 large jars or 6 small jars at a time only) and I've always had successful batches. I also use lemon juice in every jar.