The Multiple Problems Around Advice on Preserving Tomato Sauce
We’ve received multiple questions in the last several days about general safety questions – many of which were about tomato sauce and the issues of adding lemon juice or other acid. While this post will answer that question (sort-of), it’s important to me to share the context of many answers around safety-type questions that surround canning and the Internet.
Because today’s post is a bit more serious than most, I must also say that it’s not a rant. There is little more I like better than comments or questions – and little more I feel badly about than giving vague or generic answers.
It’s important for me to explain why our answers on safety are generic and why we come up with them. We’ll share this post in the future as our one-off explanation of how we come up with the answers we do and why we answer some specifically while being vague with others – and provide links to help you find answers to some of your own questions.
It took me a few years to convince my Mother that some of the recipes or techniques that she was using were considered less-than-perfectly safe. My Mother was raised in a family that gardened, had a cold cellar and preserved as a matter of survival and sustainability.
My Grandmother recently shared with me that when she was young every house HAD to have a garden and you wouldn’t have been able to provide for your family otherwise. Growing and preserving food wasn’t a luxury – it was a core requirement of supplying the kitchen. She lamented that she couldn’t find a single vegetable garden in her community today (and we found 1 farm in an 800-kilometer round trip specifically looking for farms). A lot of the knowledge had diminished.
The 1970′s were pivotal for preserving. A few things happened (these were not all related to each other – but you can see how significant pressure would have come to the family unit as well as our food structure):
- The family structure was changing and more houses were becoming dependant on dual-incomes and less time existed for domesticity.
- The economy was under tremendous pressure – gas prices soared, interest rates were massive (mortgages were 17% and higher).
- New crops for the home garden were becoming available (there was a particular boom in heirloom varieties which, while tasty, may not have had the same acidity as ‘traditional’ varieties that people had used for years).
- People became sick from home-produced and commercially produced preserves. In 1971 a couple in New York City became very ill after eating commercially canned vichyssoise - he passed away while she became very ill (source is here). A later case in 1978 became an international incident as people all over the world became sick on Alaskan Salmon that was preserved (same source).
- Reports of people dying from botulism from home canning emerged from California. There were many rumours on why – most revolving around the ‘fact’ that the people (I believe it was 2 deaths in total) passed away because of using heirloom tomatoes that were less acidified than typical tomatoes (you can read more about this in Putting Food By which is so valuable as a textbook/ resource more than as a cookbook). From the research I’ve done, it appears that the tomatoes were NOT water-bathed and instead wrapped in towels to ‘seal’ (an old-world technique that some still use but is not considered safe).
- It is amazing to me that one of the biggest celebrity Chefs in Canada has a recent cookbook that still recommends the towel method. In other words, you’re going to hear very different things from very different people.
- The FDA overhauled its safety standards – many of the practices that predated the 1970′s were now forbidden. The changes were so drastic that the preserving section of “The Joy of Cooking” was one of the few (and perhaps only) chapters that has been completely re-written from its original source).
The USDA changed it’s guidelines in 1988 specifically recommending adding acid to tomato (source). For many people who have canned tomatoes for longer than that (or have learned from those who did), this is largely unknown and asking their opinion will yield a very different answer than from someone who has been trained since that time.
There are also reports of our food changing substantially. Reports that mass agriculture (this is based more on anecdotal evidence/opinion than fact) has produced methods and produce that have changed tremendously over the years.
A mass-produced tomato can taste the same right across the continent even though there’s different soil, heat, sun, weather and water. Consider that a local restaurant in Toronto (Cowbell) conducted a taste-test of produce which started with the same seeds but were grown in separate areas of the province – diners were almost 100% in agreement that 1 region produced better tasting produce in the blind-test.
Regardless of preference, it was clear that two carrot seeds sent to two different locations did taste significantly different. This begs the question: if mass-produced tomatoes taste the same across the continent, what changes have occured to their chemical composition to accomodate?
Reports include that food is going through substantial changes – some of our tomatoes are far less acidic than they were 20 or 40 years ago.
Add a final complication to this whole mess: the Internet. Consider:
- In Italy it is still standard to preserve tomato sauce in any bottle you can get your hands on. A friend of the family uses glass sprite bottles and ‘seals’ them with wax (highly not recommended in North America).
- Preserving garlic in oil (typically left in the sun for weeks) is considered lethal in North America (we stopped putting a garlic clove in our oil almost 20 years ago after very real reports of botulism came out about this). But in India, this is still made – I have no idea of the safety record.
- In the USA, pressure canning meat and fish are endorsed by the FDA/USDA (source: NCHFP). Two different sources in Canada have two different views (Eat Right Ontario touches on that it can be done – although doesn’t mention pressure canning – here while I have a document at home that says there’s no safe way to do this at home). To further turn heads, meat is routinely canned with salt and no pressure in Newfoundland and most of Northern Canada. It is a staple of the diet, people would possibly starve without it and is simeltaneously NOT something I could endorse. It’s one accident away from certain disaster.
I’m not suggesting that guidelines are too strict – I am trying to point out that there are many sources, opinions, scientific fact and conflicting standards that contradict each other. People aren’t aware of how often things have changed – and how much has changed.
Sites like WellPreserved are love projects. Next Saturday will mark 1,000 days of consecutive posting. There are easily more than 2,500 hours of time put into this project (grand total of income from it, including gifts are around $500). 2,500 hours is the equivalent of 62.5 (based on a 40-hour week). This doesn’t include research, cooking, buying, and time spent dreaming and obsessing. Add vacation time and it’s easy to rack up a year-and-a-half full-time effort in creating something like this (and while so many more are worthy of note I must tip my hat to Marisa at Food In Jars who makes the scale of our project look tiny).
But does this make me an expert? That’s a tough question that I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer – certainly I have canned thousands of jars safely, know a lot of information on the principles, culture and safety tips around preserving. My knowledge is largely taken from reading, teaching, attending courses and learning – but I am still not a food scientist.
This isn’t a pity party but it’s part of the necessary context to explain why I don’t feel comfortable giving you advice on safety for you and those you love. It’s important to me that you know that I believe in everything I share with you – so much so that my friends, family and I consume the things we post about here.
But I’m not a food scientist, major corporation or an expert in all regions, countries, techniques or ingredients. Pretending to be that would let you down – as well as expose myself both emotionally (if something went wrong) and potentially legally. And I can’t do that for a love project.
So, for the sake of safety, we do two things when it comes to answering questions about safety and your jars:
- Point you to the sources who are the truest experts (and I believe that is the National Center for Home Food Preservation)
- Recommend always to fall on the side of safety - regardless of my technique. Yes, this means that I will recommend to do things that I may, or may not do (for such an example, here’s our article on adding lemon juice to tomatoes for a direct answer). And when I do, it’s not ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ – it is exactly as I recommend.
There is a gap between what I can recommend as someone who is host to a Global Community (we could have never imagined the blog, FaceBook page and community here growing as it has) such as ours and what I do personally. I reconcile this by reasoning that I want you to be as safe as possible, do your own research and make the decision for yourself on what works for you and your family. I do hope you’ll understand – it’s simply an extension of the fundamental rule of canning – ‘better safe than sorry.’
I’ll never make garlic pickled in oil. I don’t believe it’s safe – further I believe it could be deadly. I won’t recommend you ever make it. And, as a stranger in a public forum, I would also highly recommend that you don’t consume it. But I have no idea how I’d react if I ever have the opportunity to go to India and am offered a taste of a 100-year old recipe from a family that eats it daily and swears it’s whats made them live to 120… I don’t even know if I’d share the experience – but I know I’d want to. But that’s not the same as endorsing it for others – and that’s a paradox that leaves me sometimes uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, it’s important to do your research, to know that what we share here is up to standards that are tested and true (to the fullest extent of our moral and intellectual ability) and that we eat the things we share with you here. I hope you’ll understand if you ask me for an opinion on something I haven’t made, eaten or know about that I will default to a generic safety-first answer because nothing can go wrong with that!
To wrap this explanation up, my Mother told me a few years back that she has switched to only tested recipes – mostly those found on the Internet. I’ll never forget the look on her face (it was utter panic) when I reminded her that anyone could be an ‘instant expert’ online – including me. We laughed a lot about it but it took that connection to realize that it’s tough to find the sources that one can trust – even if that’s sometimes your Son (or your Mom).
Just to be perfectly clear; my Mom is a kick-butt preserver who rocks jars like nobodies business – without my folks, I would not be into this like I am. I hope that comes across and doesn’t sound like I’m saying she doesn’t know what she’s talking about – because she does.