I Can Tune a Fish
For about three weeks Leilee's favorite joke was:
"What is the difference between a guitar and a fish?"
"You can't tune a fish!"
Actually - that was her favorite punchline. She would ask any question as the first part of the joke and end it with, "You can't tune a fish!"
She thought she was hilarious.
Well I can't really tune a fish. But I can tuna fish. Like a pro.
Although, the truth is.... this is only my second year. Two years ago my sister gave me home-canned tuna for a birthday present. We scarfed it down like it was ocean candy. So freaking good.
The next year, I went to a canning party at her almost mother-in-law's house. She taught us how to can tuna, and I waltzed home with a hundred jars and self-proclaimed title of "Fish-Whisperer" because I had mastered the art of picking the tuna carcass clean. No joke. Hand me a fillet knife and a spoon.
This year, I mastered the art of not being afraid of the pressure cooker. I've water bathed for a decade. The pressure canner left me feeling all nervous. (*Note: I will use canner and cooker interchangeably throughout this post.) But you can't can a tuna without one. And we were down to nine jars. I can hoard like a champ, but it's hard to hoard nine jars of ocean candy with three growing kids.
So, this year. We bought 125 pounds of big-eyed tuna fish. No really. Their eyes are big.
Chooka, chooka, chowwwwwwww....
So, once you get over the eyes....
Then it's just getting used to the fish. Big and solid. And squishy on the inside. Just like its eyeballs.
Now, this year, just before I started to slice into the tuna, I became super nervous. I lost my whisper. I couldn't quite remember what to do. I panicked and started trying to find a blog post or video of how to can a tuna. Guess what? I couldn't find anything. Now maybe my Google skills just aren't what they should be, but I could only find Ball-approved, G-rated canning posts. With brand new jars and neatly sliced fillets that were probably purchased fresh from the seafood market.
I should have Googled 'filleting a tuna', but I was in a former fish-whisperer panic. I wasn't thinking clearly. I just kept staring at the perfect tuna fillets in these posts.
No scales, no eyeballs, not even a fin. That was so not what I needed.
Our tuna was bought from our buddy, and it looked like this.
It's nice to know they were caught one at a time and not netted on a giant ship with who knows what other kind of sea life. It's a good feeling to support local fishermen and not "the man". I'm blessed to live a half hour from some awesome ocean fishing. But it's not quite ready to be put in a jar.
Fins, eyeballs, guts.... you name it. It was there and needed to be separated from the meat.
So, I guess I will confess the rest of my canning issues secrets... I am not a clean, bleachy, sparkling, super sanitized canning woman. I'm more of a common-sense, pioneer, hippy canner. Things are clean enough to be safe, but I want to die when instructions call for "brand new" rings and jars. Seriously?
Here's my canning stash.
These are my new jars.
Can you say Goodwill? Salvation Army? Garage sales? Oh yeah.
Canning jars are canning jars. Not chipped? Good. Dead spiders in the bottom? They'll shake out.
And it's all the same level of clean after it's run through this baby.
Yes, I know that a university extension cannot stand behind that statement. Actually, probably any of these statements. In fact, any lady (or gent) who teaches canning classes and is reading this should click away, quickly. Cuz it's just going to get messier. And not even close to the way you all teach this stuff.
So, click away.
But, if you are reading this and interested in knowing how someone who doesn't follow the book cans her some ocean candy, then keep reading. But for heaven's sake, don't try and copy my techniques if you've never learned from anywhere else. Nothing I am putting out here should be taken completely seriously. Take it with a grain of salt (really, we add that), chuckle, and then click over to a legit canning site like Canning Homemade to learn the real stuff.
That's my disclaimer, and I'm sticking to it.
Now that I have disclaimed... here's what I do:
Get some jars, and get em in the dishwasher. On HOT.
Get some lids and rings. I set the lid inside its ring and set each one gently inside my crockpot in water on HOT. I agree with the extension people on this. HOT is important.
Those steps I follow with all canning. Water bath or pressure.
Oh, and I also have some hot water on stand by. Just in case.
So, while all that is simmering and heating and getting all sanitized, now we start the fish hacking and scooping. Now, here is the reason that I buy the whole darn fish. It's cheaper and you get more. We can get whole tuna caught the same day for $1.50 a pound. Filleted starts at $2.50. For every pound I buy, I get a half pint jar. That's two sandwiches for $1.50. Starkist dies with shame every time I take a bite of real, home-canned tuna. Once you have it, you can't go back. I don't even know what they are putting in those little cans and calling tuna fish, but it ain't my ocean candy.
It's a beautiful thing, that home canned goodness. But it doesn't start out that way.
It starts out like this.
Oh, one more... a few more... things about the whole chopping dead fish/mammals part of my life.
I cover my island in saran wrap. It's wasteful. It's not hippy. But, I have to. The whole blood thing grosses me out. So I clean, wrap, and then wrap and clean. It relieves a lot of my grossing out.
Wrapped. Sharpened instruments of cutting.
Yes, I waste a lot of plastic.
I leave the fish in plastic on plastic. It's not a phobia per se, but I really don't like blood and guts all over my kitchen. And yes, we butcher our own meat. If I can help save the planet in other ways, I will. But I gotta have the plastic.
So, I learned after I was all done cleaning an insane number of giant tuna that I cut tuna the "slow" way. There are faster, more efficient ways to do this, but I'm still technically a beginner (see how fickle I am?). Imagine the tuna cut lengthwise in quarters. That's what I do.
I start on one side, cut down the middle from fin to tail.
You should feel the spine of the fish underneath your knife the whole time. If you don't, don't panic. It's not the end of the world. If it was, the last thing we would be doing is canning tuna.
Once the middle is cut through, cut from the soft spot in the middle of the head down along the top "spine" (I don't know fish anatomy, okay) to the tail.
When you cut through the bottom, cut from gills to tail.
Stay shallow (I talk more about that in a minute).
Then slice from the top cut or bottom cut down around the fin/gills and connect to the middle cut. It's more of a cut through the outside skin/scales than it is a cut through the meat.
I find it helps to snap the fin back to keep it out of the way. Gross.
The belly cut, like the one shown above, is a little trickier when separating. All the guts are at the bottom... You don't gut a tuna like you would a salmon or a trout. Tuna guts stay nice and happy in the bottom middle of the stomach cavity. The outside meat is cut away instead. When I cut the fish through on the bottom, I always make as shallow of a cut as possible. It's no fun puncturing fish guts and trying to keep that mess off the meat.
Below is a pretty top cut. Sometimes you have to go around the cartilage that surrounds the fin.
My knife isn't that awesomely sharp.
Once the cuts are made, slowly separate the skin from the meat and pull back, straight up and back. Start at just behind the head and fin, where you connected your top and bottom cuts.
Messy and gross, huh? Any meat stuck to the skin can be scraped off with a spoon and added to the bowl full of tuna meat. Once it cans, it cooks in a giant chunk anyway, so no one will ever know it was scraped with a spoon. Every time I clean a tuna, I think of that line in Robin Hood (the one with Kevin Costner), where Prince what's-his-face says, "I'll cut your heart out with a spoon." If Robin Hood was a tuna fish, he could totally do that. Tuna meat is really soft.
Once the skin is back, then you just follow the outline of the meat. Dig down in there until you feel the bones, and slowly start lifting it out. This takes both hands, so I didn't get a good picture of it.
But that's what a quarter looks like once you've scooped it all out. Now, here's another thing I wish I would have gotten a really good picture of... the nasty dark red meat. You. don't. want. that. Not even a smidgen. Cut it off. Off, I say. If it gets in the jar, it ruins the whole thing. Your ocean candy will taste like some god-awful tuna oil. Not good. Not good at all.
Can you see it in the picture above? If you imagine a red oval of nasty meat in the core of the tuna with the delicious pink meat wrapped around it, it helps you find it and cut away from it. I'm so paranoid of getting the red in my jars, I sometimes sacrifice a little good meat (also seen above) to keep away from the red. Especially towards the end of cutting tuna when my knife is dulling and I am just plain sick of it all. Yes, I get sick of being a hippy homesteader sometimes. Especially after the third six hour shift of canning tuna. I'm so ungrateful.
When you are ready to can the meat, you should get the canner started. Follow the instructions for your specific canner (don't trust me when I say they are all the same, I am not an expert, and that's not true). I get two to three inches of water in the bottom (making sure a rack is in there to keep the jars safe and lifted away from the bottom).
Then get it on the stove and get it heating up. A slow simmer is good.
Okay. So now the meat is in bowls...
With clean hands, pack in it clean jars. Add 1/8 to 1/4 tsp of canning salt (or regular salt). Wipe the mouth of the jar with a clean rag or paper towel (yes, I kill trees too) that has been dipped in vinegar.
I said it. Vinegar. I have always just used hot water until this year, when I found the vinegar idea on a legit canning site (once I find it, I will add the reference).
I heart me the vinegar. I buy the two pack at Costco, and I get panicky when I am down to a gallon.
It's good for homemade cleaner, pickles, fizzy baking soda fun, canning, cooking, everything...
Okay, back to the processing.
Once each jar is packed and cleaned off, pluck a ring and lid combo from the hot crockpot water and screw on hand tight. Don't wrench the thing on. Gently tighten so that your kid could get it back off if they wanted to (which you should NEVER let them do). Especially if they are too young to help with this kind of canning (like mine). Mine are allowed to help with applesauce. Not canning involving raw meat and sharp knifes.
Now set it in the canner. Once the bottom is full, set another rack on top and start the second level. If you are crazy like me, you will have two canners going. If you are crazy like someone else I know, you will have four to six canners going. Hey, get it done, right?
Best advice I received about canning tuna. Add a lemon. I slice one in half, set one half on the bottom rack and the second half on the top rack. This job STINKS, and the lemon takes the edge off.
Those are after canning pictures of the lemon. It sure gets cooked up.
Okay, lemon in, canning jars in. This is a picture of how the jars set on the rack. This picture was the end of the tuna canning for the year. Normally I could have fit more jars on this rack, but I was out of meat... finally! It's fine that the jars on the top rack aren't in water. It's the high heat and pressure that cook and seal the meat in the jars, instead of the hot water. Pressure canning gets hot enough to kill the germs in low-acid foods like meat and vegetables. Don't trust my explanation though, find a good canning book or blog.
Once everything is in the canner, lock the lid on and turn up the heat. Let steam shoot steadily out the vent for 10 minutes then pop the topper on. Once the pressure hits 10 pounds, turn the heat down to keep pressure steady (I always ended up at 15 pounds for a little while every time, and the tuna turned out okay). So, keep an eye on it. You can't walk away or run to the grocery store while the canner is cooking. I checked mine every 15 to 20 minutes. For pints and half pints of tuna, cook at 10 pounds of pressure for 100 minutes. That's a long time, but ocean candy takes time, and heat, and pressure. Like diamonds. Much like diamonds.
And it stinks and it's stinky and messy. Once the 100 minutes are up, you turn the heat off and walk away. I've been known to go to bed at this point. But if you are marathon canning, then you have to keep busy doing other things until the gauge reads that there is zero pressure.
Be SO careful with this part. If there is pressure left in there and you start to take the lid off, the pressure will push the lid and the hot water and the canning jars right out for you. In seconds. My husband and I have had our scare with a pressure cooker that wasn't reading pressure.
The extension people are your friends. They will test your gauge and reassure you. This is why a lot of people are scared to use a pressure cooker. Don't be scared. Just give it respect and lots of time alone. It needs to be alone to cool down. Don't take the topper off or try and rush this part.
Above I have a rattle canner and a gauge canner. I like the gauge one better, although successful use of the rattler really did make me feel like a superstar. I borrowed the rattle one and was happy to give it back. With my canner stardom realized, I didn't feel the need to continue proving it.
Alright. All is cool. All is calm. Have a towel or hot pads down if the jars are still hot. Remove the jars from the canner to continue cooling or just to hang out until you have the time to remove the rings and clean everything all off. What?
Yep, it's true. Those jars are filthy.
Although, I have canned tuna with a lemon and without a lemon. The lemon juice flying around during the canning process definitely helps keep things cleaner. That's the second bonus of lemon.
In fact, look at how well it cleans the rack. This is the bottom rack on the left and the top rack on the right. The clean spot on the top rack is where the lemon was sitting. The bottom rack soaked in hot lemon water for 100 minutes. That'll get something clean! For the second round in the canner, I switched racks. Then they were both beautiful and shiny.
Here's the cleaning the jars process. Hot water, some homemade vinegar/lemon cleaner (I love them both... separate and together) and a lot of elbow grease get the jars clean.
It's a lot of moving. One by one. That grabber thing rocks. I have two. Both second hand.
And don't even think about saving that towel or washing it with your other towels. The tuna oil stuck to the jars sticks to the towel. Ugh. If you wash it with something else, it sticks to the something else. I made that mistake this year.
It's a hard smell to get rid off. I should have used paper towels.
Instead, I created a shop towel.
But it was worth it for this.