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Prairie Fare: Preserve Summer’s Bounty Safely

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist
After all the weeding, watering and activity associated with growing a garden, why risk producing unsafe canned food?

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

After being away from home a few days, my husband, 11-year-old daughter and I eagerly checked our backyard garden. We noted bountiful carrots, beets and onions. Our lettuce is past its prime, but our 18 tomato plants are drooping with tomatoes and taking over the garden.

I’m not complaining about our prolific produce by any means. I am beginning to question, however, why we planted so many tomatoes. I guess we didn’t expect them to grow so well.

We will be eating fresh tomatoes soon and preserving the rest to enjoy this winter. Tomatoes can be frozen, canned in a water-bath canner if they are acidified with bottled lemon juice, or made into salsa or spaghetti sauce using a research-tested recipe.

As tempting as it might be, one thing we won’t be doing is creating our own salsa recipes prior to canning. We also won’t be experimenting with food preservation recipes from old cookbooks. Recommendations have changed, so grandma’s recipes may not be considered safe by today’s standards.

After all the weeding, watering and activity associated with growing a garden, why risk producing unsafe canned food?

Salsa is a mixture of acidic foods, such as tomatoes, and low-acid foods, such as peppers and onions. The pH, or level of acidity, determines how to can a food safely. For safety, low-acid foods, such as vegetables and meat, must be pressure canned.

Naturally acidic foods, such as jams, and acidified foods, such as tomatoes with added bottled lemon juice, can be canned safely in a boiling water-bath canner.

Why is the acidity of foods so important? Microorganisms, such as Clostridium botulinum, can survive or grow in some foods, depending on their pH level. This type of bacteria can produce a toxin or poison in an airtight container. Someone eating a tainted canned food could get botulism, a potentially fatal form of foodborne illness.

The good news for people with prolific tomatoes and other vegetables is that there are safe canning recipes available. Approach making salsa and doing other home food preservation like a scientist. Follow the recipe's formulation exactly.

When preparing salsa, always start with high-quality ingredients. Don’t add extra peppers or onions to salsa recipes because they will affect the acidity level. You can substitute one type of pepper for another to vary the heat, but don't vary the amount in the recipe.

Don’t thicken salsa with cornstarch before canning because thickening will affect its safety, too. If needed, you can thicken the salsa after opening.

Add bottled lemon juice or vinegar as directed. Acidic ingredients in salsa help preserve it. Research-tested salsa recipes have added lemon juice or vinegar because the natural acidity of the tomatoes may not be high enough.

You can substitute lemon juice in a recipe calling for vinegar, but do not substitute vinegar in a recipe calling for lemon juice. Lemon juice is more acidic than vinegar. The vinegar you use should be at least 5 percent acid. Here’s a research-tested recipe from one of the canning publications produced by the NDSU Extension Service. For more information about safe food preservation, visit

To get alerts about new publications, recipes and other tips, become a fan of the “Eat Smart. Play Hard” Facebook page at

Tomato/Green Chili Salsa

3 c. peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes

3 c. seeded, chopped long green chilies

3/4 c. chopped onions

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 c. vinegar

1/2 tsp. ground cumin (see note below)

2 tsp. oregano leaves (see note below)

1 1/2 tsp. salt

Note: Spice amounts can be reduced, but no other changes should be made prior to canning.

Wash tomatoes. Dip in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds or until skins split and then dip in cold water. Slip off skins and remove cores. Prepare peppers. Caution: Wear rubber gloves while handling chilies or wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching your face. Hot peppers, such as the jalapeno, do not need to be peeled, but the seeds often are removed. Wash and dry. If you choose to peel the peppers, slit each pepper on its side to allow steam to escape.

Peel peppers using one of the following methods:

  • Oven or broiler method: Place chilies in the oven (400 F) or broiler for six to eight minutes until skins blister.
  • Range-top method: Cover hot burner, gas or electric, with heavy wire mesh. Place chilies on the burner for several minutes until skins blister.

Allow the peppers to cool. Place the peppers in a pan and cover with a damp cloth. This will make peeling the peppers easier. After several minutes of cooling, peel each pepper. Discard seeds and chop peppers.

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and heat, stirring frequently until mixture boils. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle hot mixture into pint jars, leaving a 1/2-inch head space. Adjust lids and process in a boiling water-bath canner for 20 minutes.

Makes 3 pints or about 24 servings per jar. Each serving has 10 calories, no fat and 1.3 grams of carbohydrate.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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