Canning 101: Tomato Float, Sauce Separation and Loss of Liquid

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Tomato canning season is here and so I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people who are canning their own tomatoes for the first time. They worry because their tomatoes are floating, their crushed tomatoes have separated or their jars have lost significant liquid in the canning process and now they’re not sure if their tomatoes are safe. Let’s take these three topics one by one and put your hearts at ease, shall we?

Tomato Float
Take a look at the jars on the left in the picture above. Those are the whole, peeled tomatoes that I canned last year. As you can see, the tomatoes are floating over a good inch of liquid and tomato sediment at the bottom of the jar. This one is absolutely no big deal.

Even the most seasoned canner is going to have some canned whole tomatoes that float. This is because there are air pockets inside those tomatoes and when you pack something with some internal trapped air in a liquid, it will float.

You can try to avoid float by using regular mouth jars (the shoulders of the jar help keep the fruit in place) and packing the jar as firmly as possible (without totally crushing the tomatoes). But really and truly, it’s no big deal.

Tomato Separation
Often, I will hear from people who are concerned because their crushed tomatoes have separated into a layer of liquid topped by a layer of solids. What happened here is that you heated your tomatoes for more than five minutes, let them cool and then heated them up again.

By doing this, you’ve broken down the pectin inside the tomatoes. In this situation, the pectin was there holding the structure of the cells together and once it goes, there’s nothing to maintain the integrity of the tomato flesh together and so pulp separates from the water.

I never worry about this one either. Just give the jar a good shake before using.

Liquid Loss
Back to the picture up at the top. Take a look at the quart jars on the right. You might notice that several of those jars lost a TON of liquid. I canned that particular batch in my pressure canner and during the cooling process, they siphoned like mad (that’s the official canning term for when liquid escapes).

Siphoning can be prevented by better bubbling of jars and a slower cooling process. However, even when you’re careful, it still happens sometimes. However, as long as your seals are good, jars with even significant liquid loss are still safe to eat.

You may experience some reduction of quality over time and when it happens to lighter colored foods (like peaches), the product that’s not submerged will begin to discolor. Put those jars at the front of the queue of jars to use and don’t worry about it.

Air Bubbles
Sometimes, you’ll preserve tomatoes and once the jars are sealed, you’ll notice that there are a few air pockets or bubbles in the finished product. As long as the lids remain sealed and those bubbles aren’t actively moving around on their own, the jars are fine. Once a jar is sealed, air pockets are only a problem if they seem to bubbling independently of you moving or tapping the jars, as that can be a sign of fermentation. Otherwise, all is well.

What other tomato questions do you guys have? Let’s hear it!

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283 Responses to Canning 101: Tomato Float, Sauce Separation and Loss of Liquid

  1. 151
    Heather H says:

    I have some canned tomatoes I’d like to use (canned this summer, but not by me). They didn’t appear to have bubbles when I picked them up, but once I sat them on the counter, I saw bubbles around the top of the liquid. I will be using the sauce in a meal that my one year old son will be eating, so I’m nervous as to whether the canned tomatoes are safe to use. Thanks in advance!

    • 151.1
      Marisa says:

      Surface bubbles aren’t an issue. It’s only trouble if the jars have been sitting still and untouched for some time and there are bubbles that are still moving.

      • Stacy says:

        I canned raw tomatoes according to the Ball canning recipe. When quartering the tomatoes I scooped out a lot of the clear gel with seeds. I packed the jars full and removed air bubbles. I pressure canned them to be safe. When they were done and I removed them from the canner (most seemed to have ‘popped or sealed already in the canner) and they were cooling on the counter, the jars were full, tomatoes on top and liquid on bottom. Pretty quickly, I noticed air bubble rising to the top of the jar. About 2 hours later, I noticed the liquid on the bottom, solid tomatoes in the middle and about an 1-2 inches of air on top. No more air bubbles are rising. Are they safe? How will I know if they are not? Thank you.

        • Marisa says:

          They are totally safe. You’ll know that they’re not safe if the seals break or if the jars have been sitting along for a while and there are actively moving bubbles rising towards the top.

          • Clarence meyer says:

            What about if you go to use a jar and open it up and the tomatoes come up over the jar and spill out and you see bubbles bubbling

            • Marisa says:

              That means that the tomatoes fermented and you shouldn’t eat them. Somehow, bacteria survived the canning process.

  2. 152
    Lee says:

    I processed 8 lbs. of tomatoes for stewed tomatoes by blanching them and peeling them first. I stored the chopped tomatoes in my pantry overnight. I think the temp was between 40-50 degree. It felt pretty cool. The next day I didn’t get to the tomatoes u til around 3pm. By that time I notice a slight off Oder and some of the solids had floated to the top while the liquid was at the bottom. Also, when I put it in the pan to boil I noitce some bubbles. Not a lot but, enough to be concerned. I pressure canned the tomatoes for 15 mins at 10 lbs. of pressure (elevation under 1000) but, I’m thinking I should throw out the whole batch. It’s not worth getting sick over. If I did use them I would boilg them out of the jar for 10-20 minutes. Anyway, my question is would the pressure canning destroy the organisms of the beginning process of fermentation? I think commercial canning equipment goes to 250 d and home canning only goes to 240 which can’t destroy everything. Just wanted some other canners opinions. I do know the saying…when in doubt throw it out. lol

    • 152.1
      Marisa says:

      The pressure canning should have killed off any fermentation process. I don’t think these tomatoes will make you sick, but they may have developed some off flavors during their room temperature rest.

  3. 153
    Dominick says:

    Hi Marisa,

    Great article. My father is a seasoned tomato canner and has been for more than 50 years. He re-uses old jars from bought tomatoes, jams, jellies etc. Some top the jars he has used over and over for 10+ years and he’s never had a problem. This year I decided to join in and canned my own with his help. We water bath as my dad has always done.

    Here is the problem. I bought 200 brand new preserving jars and the supplier told me they were fine for what I was doing. So we sealed all the jars (we are burley men so I know we did them up tight!) We boiled them for about 1.5hrs And when we pulled them from the 44 gallon drum the old trusty jars were perfect…but the new jars were not so much. Out of the 200 new jars, more than half had filled with water and the lids had become loose. Even the good batch had slightly loose lids but not enough to let water in. I tightened up all of the lids on all 200 jars and the ones that had let water in have now expanded (lids not the jars) and are now sealed very tight. I have two questions. Is the purpose of water bathing to remove the air from the jar and making the jar airtight therefore preserving tomatoes? Now that water has got into the jars, they clearly weren’t airtight so does this mean there is a good chance the tomatoes will go rancid? I also have some of the jars that have a milky white looking substance at the bottom of the jar (on the inside of course). Would love to hear your take on this incident. We worked so hard to preserve 300 jars and now I’m really disappointed.

    • 153.1
      Jess Evans says:

      HI Dominick, I see Marisa didn’t have a chance to reply so I wanted to try to help you. I think ew need more information before we can try to answer your questions.

      First, I am concerned that the jars ‘filled with water’. There should only be about a half inch of head space (empty space) at the top of the jar after you fill it with product. If you are using a raw pack method, you need to fill the space around the fruit with water or tomato juice before you put the lids on.

      Second, whether you are using the two-piece lid system (a band and a lid) or a lug lid designed with a water-bath sealant, you should not crank the lids down tight. They should just be closed, not tightened (sometimes called fingertip tight.) This is because during the water bath the air in the headpace expands and escapes from the jar. Then when the jars cool, the air in the headspace contracts and pulls the lid down tight, creating an indentation in the plastisol sealant on the inside of the lid where it is pressed against the jar rim. This creates the seal. If the jar is too tight when it goes in the bath, the air can’t escape and the jars won’t seal properly.

      Someting to mention is that it is fine to re-use canning jars but you have to use a new lid each time so you have a fresh plastisol seal.

      Once you take the jars out of the bath, do NOT tighten the lids or otherwise mess with them. You risk breaking the seal. If you are using two-piece lids it is ok at this point to gently remove the bands, leaving the lids in place.

      When the lid is sealed properly, you can tell because the button is depressed. If the button pops up the jar is not sterile.

      If the white cloudy material appeared in the jars while they were in the canner, I can only guess. If it appeared later, it is probably mold and they should be discarded.

      One thing to mention, it is important to add a little citric acid into the bottom of each jar of tomatoes because some tomatoes are not acidic enough to keep botulism from growing, and the hot water bath isn’t hot enough to kill botulism. See this FDA page: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_03/tomato_intro.html

      It has been a while since you asked so hopefully you already figured out what to do. In the future, if your jars don’t seal properly, you can put new clean lids and bands on them and re-process them. Do this the same day before the product has a chance to cool down or to spoil.

  4. 154
    Sue says:

    Hi Marisa,
    Thanks for the great information. I found your pictures of canned products especially helpful as mine were looking exactly the same. So much easier when great pics explain it all!
    Glad to know all my hard work isn’t going to result in throwing them out to the chickens.
    Cheers
    Sue – Townsville Austrailia

  5. 155
    Susie says:

    I canned some tomatoes in 2013 and the seal on the jar is still good. Noticed in one jar that some the tomato seeds are now dark, they weren’t when I canned them. That did not occur with my other jars, have the tomatoes gone bad somehow?

  6. 156
    Dani says:

    Very helpful article. Thank you. I have a question. I have been told not to transport my jars of tomatoes for several days after canning. For years I have carefully placed the jars in crates and not moved them from the kitchen into the cellar for several days. Is this a myth or true? This year I have an opportunity to use an industrial kitchen for canning, but am concerned about transporting them in my vehicle while they are still warm.

    • 156.1
      Marisa says:

      That’s a myth. You just don’t want to move them while they’re hot and the seals are still forming. Once the seals have formed and the lids have cooled a bit, they are fine to transport.

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