Tomatoes are a gardener's prized delight but you often end up with a surplus. I grew almost 90 pounds of tomatoes in my tiny, North-facing backyard last year! Canning them at their peak is a great way to preserve taste year-round. However, some tomatoes are better for canning than others. Read on to find out about the best canning tomatoes!
What makes a good canning tomato?
Qualities of good canning tomatoes - what are they, flavor, water content and limited juice, few seeds, high yields at once; things that don't matter as much: heirlooms vs. hybrids. This is especially true for salsa or sauce.
For whole tomatoes and juice, the moisture content is less of a concern than flavor. Other considerations for canning tomatoes for your garden include dependable yields, ripening timetable (spaced out or all at once), and disease resistance.
How do you can tomatoes?
Tomatoes can be canned as the fruit itself (whole, halves, quarters or even diced) or they can be canned for use in recipes, like in salsa, sauces, juices, ketchup, or just tomato paste.
Further, there are three common methods by which tomatoes can be canned. While the time it takes to process varies across the methods, the jars must typically rest undisturbed for around 24 hours after, to ensure that the jars are properly sealed.
- Water bath canning using a hot water bath or water bath canner, where you use boiling water and boil filled jars on a rack in a large pot.
- Pressure canning, which is becoming more popular these days, where you use a pressure canner (not a pressure cooker!)
- Atmospheric steam canning, which uses a steam canner
Following the proper canning procedures are extremely important! Improper canning procedures can lead to botulism, so I recommend following a trusted resource, like the USDA's Complete Guide to Home Canning or my favorite, the Ball Blue Book for Canning. My friend Sarah, over at Sustainable Cooks, also has an excellent resource for canning stewed tomatoes!
Best overall canning tomatoes
A lot of us want to can tomatoes to use across a range of products - salsa, juices, stews, sauces and many more. So, if you want to use canned tomatoes for everything but don't want to plant as many varieties, you want to find a good "all purpose" canning tomato.
Most tomatoes will work well for this, but I have found that paste tomatoes (elongated, oval-shaped tomatoes) are the best option because they have all the ideal qualities for canning. They have a mild, sweet flavor; very few seeds; low water content; less juice and more flesh. My top three all-purpose picks are all paste-varieties:
- Roma tomatoes (open-pollinated, determinate, 75 days) are the most versatile option. They are compact, making them great for packing into jars whole. They are also easily available in the store, so even if you don't grow your own tomato, they're a great option to pick up and can! Another pro for Roma tomatoes is that they're determinate tomato plants, so they usually fruit all at once, producing an awesome yield (at once) for canning.
- San Marzano (heirloom, indeterminate, 85 days) is my favorite canning tomato. It is sweet, has dense flesh and very few seeds, and is great in sauces, juices, salsa, and everything. It is an heirloom variety, so you want to watch for disease resistance when you pick up seeds. San Marzano tomatoes are also indeterminate, so sometimes it can be hard to get enough tomatoes to can at once. But if you can manage to get the right yield, nothing beats this one!
- Amish Paste tomatoes (heirloom, indeterminate, 80 days) are next on the list. While I absolutely love them for their flavor, they are sometimes huge! I've often had to quarter them in order to fit in a jar. Other than that minor issue, they are also a great all-purpose canning tomato. I've found that Amish paste tends to hold shape the best out of all of the tomatoes in this "all purpose" list. Similar to San Marzano tomatoes, Amish Paste tomatoes are also indeterminate. So, you should make sure you have enough plants fruiting!
Best canning tomatoes for salsa
Dense paste-type tomatoes (or plum tomatoes) are still the best for canning salsa (so the recommendations above are still great picks). You can also use a good slicing tomato, by following two key tips:
- Make sure to remove all the excess juice when you chop them up. This is usually what causes them to become super watery when you can.
- Add tomato powder when you can them so you can make up for the excess water and make sure the taste is not diluted!
If you want to can salsa, I would suggest looking into the following in addition to the paste tomatoes (e.g., Roma varieties, San Marzano, etc.) that I mentioned above.
- Golden fresh salsa (hybrid, determinate, 70 days) are a type of plum tomato that is firm and meaty. I love adding them along with other tomato types to develop a contrasting color in salsa! These are often disease resistant, which is a huge plus too.
- Brandywine tomatoes (heirloom, 75 days) are a slicing tomato with a great, spicy flavor. They produce large fruit, and are quite heavy (the ones I grew last year averaged about a pound!) so use stakes! There are determinate and indeterminate varieties available, but most people think of the indeterminate vining variety when they say Brandywine!
- German Johnson tomatoes (indeterminate, 78 days) are also great for canning salsa. They're quite versatile, with a classic sweet and tart flavor. It has small seed cavities, skin that’s resistant to cracking, is disease resistant, and thrives in heat and humidity. All plus points!
I recommend following the National Center for Home Food Preservation's Choice Salsa recipe for the best salsa canning recipe.
Best canning tomatoes for sauce
When you're trying to make sauce, you'll want to look for tomatoes with lots of meaty flesh, little juice, and few seeds. So, as mentioned above, the paste or plum tomatoes work best. In fact, San Marzano tomatoes are my favorite sauce variety (for fresh and canned sauce!)
However, in addition to the three all-purpose varieties mentioned earlier in the post (i.e., San Marzano, Roma and Amish paste), I also recommend Big Mama (hybrid, indeterminate, 80 days) for canning tomato sauce. It's a large tomato (most are 5 inches long!) and are super easy to peel!
Best canning tomatoes for juice
Unlike tomatoes that are best suited for salsa or sauce, since water content is less of an issue, so the type of tomato I typically pick for canning tomato juice is only based on flavor. So this is the one recipe where slicer tomatoes are actually the best (compared to paste or plum tomatoes). However, San Marzano tomatoes tend to work quite well here too, given their sweet flavor profile.
The best tomatoes for canning juice include:
- Better Boy tomatoes (hybrid, indeterminate, 70 days) are a popular mid-season fruit and they are highly adaptable compared to some of the other varieties. This is great if you want a classic tomato flavor.
- Bonny Best (heirloom, indeterminate, 72 days) are a great firm round tomatoes in clusters that are uniform in size. It's great for canning and slicing and one of the OG canning tomatoes! It's got excellent flavor and lots of meat.
- Brandywine (heirloom, 75 days) are also great here for juicing. I find that they have a nice spicy tang to them and they produce large fruit, so you need fewer fruits to get the same amount of flesh.
Top tips and FAQs
Unlike cooking, where you can adjust the recipe to your taste, canning recipes follow very strict protocols in order to ensure the safety of the food. So, follow them to a tee - do not make adjustments! Here are a few tips for canning tomatoes that can help ensure safety.
- When making juice, simply wash the tomatoes, remove the stems, and trim off any bruised or discolored portions; the skins and seeds will be strained out later in the process.
- Choose high-quality, disease-free, and firm tomatoes for canning. Using overripe, damaged or frost-damaged tomatoes can alter the safety of the canned product! Heirloom tomatoes are prettier but might have more disease issues than hybrid tomatoes, so that's something to keep in mind.
- Follow a tested and reputable recipe (e.g., from the National Center for Home Food Preservation) Often, these recipes will have very specific measurements, so make sure you don't adjust these! For instance, there are no research-tested guidelines for processing salsa in quart jars - so a credible recipe will ONLY use pint jars. So, don't just extend the time for a quart jar! You might end up compromising the safety.
- Research indicates that you need additional acid while canning some recipes to ensure safety. Most tomatoes have a pH more than 4.6, and adding bottled lemon juice can often help bring the pH below the 4.6 needed to prevent botulism. So, never reduce the amount of lemon or lime juice or other acid indicated in the recipe! You see a theme here.
- Make sure to use dry measuring cups for the vegetables and liquid measuring cups for the lemon or lime juice.
- Dry spices are typically okay to add, but don't use any thickeners before canning (e.g., cornstarch, flour etc.)
- And finally: always store open jars in the refrigerator and consume within a few days!
Troubleshooting and FAQs
Canned tomatoes and tomato products, should be opened and consumed within 12 to 18 months. They could last longer, but the flavor will decrease after that time. Once you open a jar, store in the fridge and use within a few days!
You can can almost any kind of tomato. Roma is my most preferred variety for canning, but Brandywine, Beefsteak, and Big Red are also good for canning. Make sure to eliminate excess water and top up with some tomato powder if you want to enhance flavors.
Roma, San Marzano, and other paste or plum tomatoes tend to have meaty texture and few seeds: as a result, they develop the best flavor when cooked into a sauce. My favorite is San Marzano.
Recipe ideas for canned tomatoes
Canned tomatoes are super versatile. Apart from just using salsa, sauces, and juices straight, you can also use them in a variety of different dishes (soups, stews, pizza, pasta, the list is endless!)
Here are four of my favorite recipes for using canned tomatoes.
- Moroccan shakshuka with feta, a great one-skillet recipe that can double down as both breakfast and dinner!
- Chana masala, an authentic 30-minute Indian curry that is great with rice and flatbread and can be made into a wrap or bowl easily!
- Efo riro, a Nigerian spinach stew, that is both hearty and comforting - a hug in a bowl!
- Spicy Alfredo pasta sauce, made with a creamy tomato and red pepper base, and fresh herbs (or you can top with some cheese and cherry tomatoes!) This is a 30-minute weeknight dinner everyone will love!