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.

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

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

  1. 101
    Christine S. says:

    Thank you sooo much for this wonderful post! I have canned with a friend before, but today canning by myself I experienced siphoning for the first time. I had no idea what had happened and felt like a total failure, so sad! I thought they were ruined, and I’d have to reprocess them. I am still a little worried, it’s my nature to be a worry wart, but I’m following your advice on making sure they’re SEALED, and I think everything will be fine. Thanks again!

  2. 102
    Rae says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I had separation and slight liquid loss. I wasn’t sure if that was a bad thing or not. This was very reassuring.

  3. 103
    alisan says:

    I can tomatoes every year(water bath) and have never had any trouble. One jar this year became slightly cloudy. It was not immediate. I keep my canned goods in a pantry and notice this jar about 1 or 2 months after processing. Should I throw them out? Thank you for your attention.

  4. 104

    [...] expert: Marisa McClellan who writes Food in Jars. She has great info on her blog and I found this post that explained that I probably did something wrong – like got it hot and cooled a bit -but [...]

  5. 105
    Rebecca C says:

    I pressure cooked the first batch of tomatoes and I went against directions and pulled the weight off early to release pressure faster after processing time because I had so many tomatoes to run through and I didn’t want to wait. I got the tomato float and loss of liquid, so that’s my fault. The rest I just waterbathed (I added extra acid to ensure safety) and they turned out beautifully like usual. I was pretty sure that first batch would be ok, but now I am very confident, so thanks for addressing it in your post! Sometimes it’s hard to find specific, direct answers about canning. I prefer waterbath to pressure canning just because it takes so long for the pressure canner to get to pressure and to release pressure at the end, it takes longer than waterbath. I wonder why that is? Maybe my sea level? Not sure.

    • 105.1
      Marisa says:

      Pressure canners just take a long time to release their pressure. Mine can take up to an hour. This is why I don’t really recommend pressure canning for tomatoes that, as long as they’re acidified properly, can easily be done in a water bath canner.

  6. 106
    Rebecca says:

    Hi: I’m am canning for the first time and I don’t have a pot of water big enough to submerge my cans when heating them. Is that going to hurt the process?

  7. 107
    Tara says:

    Hello, I canned a few jars of tomatoes the other day but 4 of my 6 jars didn’t seal after processing. I didn’t have any time to process them again so I put them in the fridge. I had another set of unprocessed canned tomatoes too that I did not immediately process. I covered them with the lids, put them in the fridge. Now it’s been 3 days since I initially canned the tomatoes. Can I still process them now? The ones that I processed that didn’t seal have now seemed to ferment a little bit as when I opened one of the jars air and juice came hissing out. Did I waste all these tomatoes??
    Thank you for your help!!

  8. 108
    Vicky Reidelberger says:

    HELP! There must be a easier way to make saulsa. I blanced the tomatoes, peeled them then took out the seeds and I had a mess. I used a lot of tomatoes to get just 3 pints of saulsa.

    • 108.1
      Barb says:

      Hi Vicky…Salsa is very labor intensive for sure! But it is so worth it come winter. My family really loves it! What I have found out is that I do the hard stuff first. That (for me) is chopping all the “hard” ingredients. I usually do those in the morning, then stick it all in a freezer bag and put them in the fridge. If I get busy with something else, I don’t have to worry about them getting too soggy. They are going to cook down anyway. I have even did that and then finished the next day. I have also had great luck with putting the tomatoes in a blender for a spin or two, then dumping that into my pot. Do that for about half of the tomatoes. This will cut the time a little. The trade off is that your salsa will not be really “chunky”. Add the remaining “chopped” tomatoes to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients and process it like you normally would. Canned salsa is normally not like the “fresh” chunky salsa that all of us love in the summer. I use the Ball blue book recipe and play around with the peppers. I haven’t had one complaint yet and many family and friends ask for it a lot. I will also admit, because it is so labor intensive to make, I rarely “give” jars away…:-) Good luck and try it again!

      • Leah says:

        Will blending the whole salsa make a difference? I am going for super traditional Mexican salsa, which, in my case is usually made with boiled tomatoes and chiles, which are pureed with the rest of the ingredients. In other words i want a thin salsa. Not chunks. If i follow the recommended recipes can i puree all the ingredients before simmering on the stove?

  9. 109

    […] your tomatoes and they cool down considerably, you risk ending up with sauce that separates (more on separation, fruit float, and liquid loss here). It’s not the end of the world if it separates (just give it a good shake to reintegrate), […]

  10. 110
    Janet says:

    Canned a batch of tomatoes and didn’t hear a pop. Don’t know if they sealed. Also when I put them up in my pantry I noticed the lids weren’t screwed on tightly. Do you think this batch is lost?

    • 110.1
      Marisa says:

      Just because you don’t hear a pop doesn’t mean that your jars didn’t seal. Press the lids. If they’re firm and do not wiggle, they are sealed. The rings don’t need to be tight for the jars to be sealed.

  11. 111
    Heidi says:

    I just pressure canned a batch of tomato pasta sauce. I let the jars cool in the canner for quite a while after the pressure was released but when I opened the lid, there was tomato pulp on the sides of the canner and in the water. Only one of the jars sealed. The rest now have lots of airspace and look like paste instead of sauce. What did I do wrong? I processed @ 11 lbs pressure for 25 min as the directions on my canner told me.

    • 111.1
      Marisa says:

      It could be that you didn’t wipe the rims sufficiently. Or that you didn’t let the pot rest long enough (I tend to let mine sit overnight before opening). Or that the lids were old. Or that you didn’t remove the bubbles from inside the jars well enough. You also have to tighten the rings just a little bit more when you pressure can than you do when you can in a boiling water bath canner.

  12. 112
    Jenny says:

    I water-bath canned tomato sauce yesterday, and when finished, one of the jars had lots of bubbles at the top. The lid sealed, but I’m wondering where all the bubbles are coming from? When I did tomato sauce last week, none of the jars had any bubbles. I’d guess that I didn’t get all the air pockets out?

  13. 113
    PeterW says:

    Thank you so much! This was my very first time canning, and I had what you described as tomato separation. I was completely depressed, since these were garden tomatoes and I thought I’d completely botched it.

    I think my problem is that I had already lightly pureed them, and then I cooked them for 5 minutes and THEN had the water bath. Sounds like I shouldn’t have pureed them, but kept in chunks. I might have also had too high a boil.

    I’m simmering down now…thanks again…

  14. 114
    Barbara says:

    How long can you store (refrigerate) jars of tomatoes before you boil/preserve them?

    • 114.1
      Marisa says:

      You can’t do that at all. You need to fill and process your jars on the same day.

      • Julie says:

        I’m wondering about this too. Why do you have to fill and process on the same day? Once successfully canned, doesn’t food stay at the same level of “freshness” as it did when it went into the can?

        • Marisa says:

          The reason you fill and process the same day has to do with the quality of the product. You are going to have the best consistency and texture for your tomatoes if you keep them hot once you get them hot. If you filled the jars with hot tomatoes, cooled them down and then reheated them again, your texture is going to be heavily compromised. You also risk more jar breakage and seal failure by doing it that way.

  15. 115
    mary says:

    two weeks ago I canned some tomatoes and tomato soup in a hot water bath. Today while canning green verde sauce the recipe said to hot water bath process at the same time I canned tomato sauce the tomato wanted pressure cooked. So I called the extension office asked if I could pressure cook the verde sauce. While on the phone I told her I had canned tomatoes hot water and why this recipe asked for a pressure cooker. She said I would have to reprocess the tomatoes and soup by opening all the jars and reheating to a hard boil for 5 minutes and then pressure cook. Everything I find online about reprocessing says it has to be done within 24 hours. Are my jars of tomatoes and soup going to be ok not that I reprocessed them. I am almost scared to eat any of it even though I followed the extension office directions to reprocess.

    • 115.1
      Marisa says:

      Mary, I’d just follow the instructions from the extension office. She wouldn’t have told you anything unsafe.

      • Virginia says:

        I wouldn’t be so sure about the extension office being right. I found out that the girl answering my question at the local extension office had never canned and had no idea how to go about it.. She looked everything up in a book she had. You know, I can do that myself.

  16. 116
    KELLY says:

    I canned 30 quarts of vegetable soup 5 days ago and for the past 2 days, I’ve had jars hissing and leaking…15 jars to be exact. Half of my batch is gone. What happened? I’ve never had this happen before. What should I do with the other 15 jars? The broth looks clear, there’s still a nice head-space on the jar. I’m crying. :-(

    • 116.1
      Marisa says:

      The soup is spoiling. It is not safe to can low acid foods like vegetable soup in a boiling water bath canner.

  17. 117
    KELLY says:

    I should add that I did this in a water bath…as I always have. The jars I have thrown away get cloudy. The ones that are still on the shelf tonight are clear. :-( Still crying…

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