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Ask Jackie Online
By Jackie Clay

September 11, 2006
Jackie Clay
Jackie Clay answers questions on any aspect of low-tech, self-reliant living.
Click Here to learn how to Ask Jackie a question.

Cracked tomatoes

I’ve been watching my tomatoes grow, anxiously awaiting their ripening, and now that it’s finally here they have horrible cracks all over them. What am I doing wrong? Can I still can them safely? Speaking of canning, last year I made my first attempt at canning tomatoes in my new canner. I followed the Presto canning instructions, but when I was done, the water in the canner had tomato pieces floating around in it. Kind of scared me so we ate them immediately. Did I do something wrong or am I being too cautious? I really have a desire to learn the proper techniques of preservation. I just don’t want to poison my family in the process.

Stephen from north Texas

The weather, possibly coupled with irregular watering (and perhaps the variety of tomato you chose to grow) could have caused cracking in your tomatoes. This usually happens in the large beefsteak type of tomatoes in hot weather when you water, but sometimes it is too much and other times not enough. The cracking is not a problem unless bugs attack the cracks and cause the tomato to rot.

You can certainly can them safely. Just trim any areas that are cracked after you peel them. If you use a food strainer, such as a Victorio, cut the cracked areas out before you run them through the strainer.

The tomato pieces floating around in the water in your pressure canner probably happened because your pressure varied during the processing time. You need to keep your pressure even during the processing, not letting it get much above the recommended 10 pounds pressure. Because tomatoes are so easy and safe to can in a water bath canner, I don’t use the pressure canner at all for tomatoes and many tomato products without added meat. You just put your hot jars full of tomatoes into the hot water of the boiling water bath canner (the big blue enamel kettle) and turn on the heat. The timing begins when the water returns to boiling and you can go do something else, returning only once in a while to make sure the water keeps deep enough to cover the tops of the jars while they are processing; no pressure to watch constantly.

The only time the tomato pieces floating in the water might be of concern would be if some of the jars did not seal. This happens because some tiny pieces wedged between the jar rim and the lid. Eat these jars first, keeping them refrigerated until use.

— Jackie

How long do canned goods last?

The canned goods that are bought from the store have a best-if-used-by date on them anywhere from 1 to 2 years. I was told from a reader on Mother Earth News that canned goods can last as long as home-canned goods, up to 10 years or more. Is this true?

Les Mullis
mullis1 at bellsouth.net

Store-bought canned goods actually remain good as long as home-canned foods—years. Not months, as the “freshness date” indicates. Some folks actually throw out perfectly good food because of that freshness date stamped on the cans. What a waste of perfectly good food. This is a marketing gimmick, not a health issue.

— Jackie

Sliced pickles

Is there a difference in the processing of sliced cucumbers for pickles from the way you would process a regular full dill?

Barry Trudeau
Novato, California

I make my sliced dills by slicing the cukes and soaking them in cold water and 1 cup of salt to 8 cups water overnight. Then, drain off the salt water. Make a vinegar solution by adding 2 c white vinegar to 3 c water. Add 2 Tbsp mixed pickling spices. Bring to a boil. Add the cucumbers and just bring to a boil. I add a bunch of dill to the bottom of each jar while I’m waiting for the cucumbers to heat. Ladle out the cukes and pack into jars. Add another bunch of dill and 2 small red hot peppers or cloves of garlic, if you wish. Have vinegar to cover pickles to within 1/2" of top. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath canner. This makes dandy, crisp dill pickle slices. Don’t overboil your pickles or they will go soft. Work quickly. Good eating.

— Jackie

Is plastic bucket okay for brine?

I am making lime pickles and the brine is too much for my 3-gallon crock. Can I use a large plastic bucket to soak them in for the 24 hours?

Beverly Fraser
bevjer at kansas.net

Yes, you can use a food-grade plastic bucket to soak your pickles in for 24 hours. I don’t use plastic for longer storage, as in fermenting pickles, as I swear I can taste the plastic. Other folks say they do it all the time. For your brief use, I’d be quite comfortable using the bucket. Just make sure it is a food-grade bucket, such as one from the market that used to contain cake icing, yeast, flours, etc.

— Jackie

Dehydrating eggs

Is there a safe way to dehydrate eggs when my home supply is over-abundant? Thanks for your shared knowledge and best wishes on your new homestead.

Rhonda Burnaman
Deville, Louisiana

I wish I was confident of a safe way to home dehydrate eggs. It would make things a lot easier for me. But truthfully, I’m leery about doing this. Carla Emery, in her book Encyclopedia of Country Living, tells of dehydrating eggs by this method: “Beat very fresh whole eggs thoroughly (use an egg beater or the equivalent). Pour beaten eggs to make a very thin layer (maximum 1/8") on drying surfaces that have been precoated with plastic or foil. In an oven or dryer, dry at about 120 degrees for 24-36 hours. When the egg layer is dry on top and firm all through, peel away the plastic or foil layer, turn the egg layer upside down and dry that side 12-24 hours more. Then break it up and dry it a few more hours. Then turn your dried egg into a powder using a mortar and pestle or a blender. These eggs work fine in baked goods. Make scrambled eggs by combining the powder with an equal amount of water, such as 1/4 c dried egg powder with 1/4 c. water.”

Personally, because of the danger of salmonella, I choose to buy freeze-dried egg products and use other methods of keeping my hens’ eggs. (They will store for four months in a cool place, without refrigeration.)

— Jackie

Rabbit sausage

I am raising rabbits for meat. I am wanting to make rabbit sausage by mixing rabbit and ground pork, lightly seasoned. Need advice as to proper mixture of meat and spices and or recipes for same.

M.J. Hyre
Weston, West Virginia

You can mix any proportion of rabbit and pork that you want. A lot of folks use 50% of each. Cut up your scraps and run them through a coarse meat grinder knife. You can also use any seasonings you wish to make different kinds of sausage. For a simple breakfast sausage, mix 10 pounds ground meat with 5 Tbsp salt, 2 Tbsp rubbed sage, 2 Tbsp coarse ground black pepper, and a dash of red pepper. Grind meat again, as fine as you wish, mixing the seasonings with the meat well. Shape into patties and either eat fresh, freeze, or brown and can in wide-mouth pint jars.

— Jackie

Pickling brine

I am looking for a brine for pickles. My grandfather remembers grabbing a pickle out of the crock, covered with a brine, no canning involved.

Missy Honts
Webster, Wisconsin

Your grandfather remembers the old fermentation method of making pickles. This is also known as the crock method. It does make good pickles, like he remembers, but the keeping qualities of the whole crock of pickles is sometimes uncertain. This is why most folks today that use the crock also can the finished pickles to ensure that their crock of pickles does not go bad on them later on.

To crock your pickles, line the bottom of your crock with dill and any other spices you wish. Add well-rinsed small cukes. Make a brine by mixing 1/2 water and 1/2 vinegar, along with about 1/3 measure of salt (depending on what size crock you are using, use a gallon, pint, or cup measure). Pour on top of cukes in crock in a cool dark place. Weight down pickles with a plate. Remove the scum daily. When the bubbles stop forming, fermentation is complete. You may now can the pickles.

In the old times, folks just kept the pickles weighted down and skimmed off any scum that formed. In a cool, dark place, these pickles would usually last all winter. But sometimes they didn’t and would go soft and rot.

To can, dip out cukes and soak overnight in ice water, which removes much of the salt. The next day, pack pickles into hot jars. Strain pickle brine (if clear) and bring to a boil. Pour over the pickles, leaving 1/4'' of headspace. Process in water bath canner for 15 minutes. Then the pickles will last for a long, long time, without going soft or bad.

— Jackie




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