Chef Bruce Kalman’s Tomato Canning Tips

Chef Bruce Kalman is a zero-waste chef. “We use everything and nothing goes in the trash,” he is known to say about his celebrated modern Italian restaurant, Union, in Pasadena. He is one of the most popular culinary talents in Southern California, with an acclaimed pasta bar, Knead & Co., at Grand Central Market downtown, and a Westside eatery in the works.

It’s not hard to imagine Kalman, bearded and covered in tattoos, playing a mean guitar in his spare time (he once opened for Meatloaf). But for now, the jovial chef has traded in guitar licks for professional knife skills: He’s appeared on Bravo TV’s Best New Restaurant, Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay, and Esquire Network’s Knife Fight over the past few years.

Kalman avoids food waste by pickling, juicing, and compounding butter with many “trash” ingredients. He shaves cauliflower stems and leaves on a mandolin to make a cauliflower salad, juices hulls of shelled peas to create sauces for roasted porcini mushrooms, and juices and freezes fennel stalks to make sorbet. Kalman also has keen jarring skills, which he practices at Union, and shares his tips with the World Tomato Society.

“Pickling and jarring tomatoes is no easy task,” he says. “The flavor profile varies between different varieties and also varies on time of year, the terroir, watering conditions, temperature, and many other factors. I have worked with the same tomato grower for years, and the tomatoes taste different year to year.” Kalman recommends tasting the tomatoes each time before you pickle and jar them. “If the tomatoes are really sweet, then you should reduce the amount of sugar added to your brine. If they are more tart, then add a little extra.”

Kalman likes to “use a good distilled white vinegar for pickling tomatoes. It’s fairly neutral in the vinegar world, and you really want to still taste the tomato after it is pickled.” Depending on the flavor profile you’re trying to achieve, Kalman recommends most herbs. “Basil and oregano, rosemary and sage, and tarragon on its own are my recommended combinations. For the brine, I suggest distilled white vinegar, natural sugar, sea salt, and some water. You can also use spices like mustard seed, coriander, cumin, peppercorns, and even arbol chile; you just have to experiment with it. Lastly, I like to top the jar off with some good olive oil during the canning process. This adds much-needed fat and balance to the tomatoes. Most importantly, you should pack tomatoes in the prime of the season, when the tomatoes are best.” For Kalman, that would be mid-to-late summer, during the months of July and August.

Pickling and jarring tomatoes is no easy task.

If the entire pickling process is too daunting and you just want to get your feet wet, Kalman recommends just packing the tomatoes in jars without pickling them. “Start by removing the skins by scoring the butt end of the tomato with a small knife in the shape of an X. Blanch in boiling water for one minute and shock in ice water. The skins should easily be removed. Reserve the skins. Place the peeled tomatoes in a mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper, mix in some basil leaves, then pack in sanitized mason jars. Pack them tightly, and you will see the juice of the tomatoes start to fill the jar. Leave a 1-inch headspace at the top, and add two tablespoons of good olive oil. Seal the jars and process in boiling water. If the jars are properly sealed, they should be fine stored in a cool, dry place. This is a great way to have your fresh tomatoes year-round.”

Kalman also has innovative uses for the reserved skins. “You can make tomato chips in a dehydrator by simply patting them dry with a paper towel and placing them on the rack, setting the dehydrator on the lowest temperature setting and allowing them to go until they become crispy skin chips. You can also do this in your oven overnight with just the pilot light.”

Other recipes Kalman loves to make with his prize canned tomatoes include gnocchi alla Romana with taleggio cheese, heirloom tomato, and Fresno chile; along with Pacific mackerel all’amalfitana baked in the jarred tomato with basil, garlic, onion, oregano, and lemon. You can also order the giardiniera (pickled veggies), served with bread, as a starter or side dish, which showcases Kalman’s talents as a pickling king.