Margaret Lauterbach

Be careful, or your homemade salsa can go quickly from spicy to dicey

Homemade salsas are easy to make with fresh in-season ingredients. But if prepared improperly, they can include a dangerous bacteria.
Homemade salsas are easy to make with fresh in-season ingredients. But if prepared improperly, they can include a dangerous bacteria. TNS

When we moved here in June 1971, the Idaho Statesman was full of the sad news about a local family suffering from food poisoning, the culprit being homemade salsa.

Now that tomatoes are ripening, many are making salsa, and all should be aware that it can be deadly if not properly prepared. Botulism is the toxin, and no matter how blistering hot your chilis are, they can still carry the bacteria that causes botulism, which can paralyze and even kill humans.

Those bacteria thrive in low oxygen and low acid conditions, and are found around the world in soil and untreated water. The bacteria can form spores that may survive in improperly prepared food, and those spores can produce the botulism.

Some tomatoes have low acid, so when canning those we use a tablespoon per jar (either pint or quart) of ReaLemon juice, making the jar’s contents more acidic — too acidic for botulism, we hope.

If you intend to “put up” (can or bottle) foods, especially salsa, look online for the PNW395 handbook from the Washington State University Extension people. And don’t taste any home-canned food until it’s been boiled for at least 10 minutes.

The spore form of botulism toxin can’t be destroyed even then, for it has to be subjected to at least 248 degrees F under pressure for at least 30 minutes in an autoclave or pressure cooker, a process used by commercial canners.

Please follow that PNW pamphlet’s guidelines for safe salsa preparation. If you don’t have a pressure canner, consider it an investment in insuring the lives of yourself and your family. I treasure mine for making salt-free broths as well as canning garden produce.

Also, many gardening cooks are infusing olive or canola oils with herbs and garlic. That may be introducing botulism into a non-acid, low-oxygen environment, so either freeze the combination or at least keep it in the refrigerator for a limited amount of time. I’ve been making a simple pseudo pesto of cilantro and olive oil, and freezing it in ice cube trays because cilantro is so difficult to grow and keep in leafy stage in hot weather. It’s quite usable in ice cube form and is the right amount for most dishes.

I had bought seeds for a hot weather cilantro, called Pepicha, and accidentally grew it in a pot with another plant last year. I loved the taste of the Pepicha, and was enthusiastic about the prolific seeding. However, getting those seeds to germinate is a problem. This plant grows wild in central Mexico, but the way it gets started is unknown to me and to some professional herb vendors who sell the seeds. I must have accidentally dropped a seed in the pot in which it did grow. Stay tuned.

Beware of circling roots

After Labor Day, most nurseries have big sales of leftover perennials, shrubs and trees. If you find a sale plant you have a site for, be sure to check for circling roots in the container when you get home. Before transplanting, tease roots away from their circular home, and if you cant’ do that, it’s accepted practice to cut some roots to get them started pointing outward. Some folks cut vertically, in the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), but I’ve found success cutting in two opposite directions only. If you don’t change the direction of those roots, they may continue in their self-strangling direction, stunting your plant.

If you find fruit trees in a container, consider that they were for sale as bare-root specimens in spring, and now they’re considered a “year older,” subtracting one year from the years they’ll begin to fruit.

Tomato notes

Make note of those varieties of tomato that produced best and tasted best in your garden, as well as those that flunked your standards, so you can grow the best next year.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707