If you've been eyeing those gorgeous tomatoes at the farmers market and wondering what it might take to transform them into jars of delicious red sauce, wonder no more. Here is everything you need to know to make a moderate-sized batch of tomato sauce for your pantry (or your freezer!), from picking the right tomatoes to packing the sauce into jars.
Fifteen pounds of fresh tomatoes. One afternoon. Eight pints of sauce. It's go time.
Making tomato sauce isn't very hard, but it's definitely labor intensive. Even the relatively small amount that we're making here — just enough for a few special mid-winter meals — will take you a solid afternoon of work from start to finish. If you want to make a larger batch, give yourself even more time for the project and think about recruiting some extra hands to help you out.
Choosing Tomatoes for Sauce
Any tomato that tastes good to you can be used to make tomato sauce. It's really that simple. Romas and other paste tomatoes are often recommended for canning because they generally have more flesh with less juice and fewer seeds. However, they are smaller (which means more upfront prep work), and I often find that their flavor isn't as good as other tomatoes. I used Big Boy tomatoes — your basic summer slicing tomato — for the batch I made for this post and couldn't be happier. If you like what you start with, you'll like what you finish with.
Another factor to consider is the cost of the tomatoes. Anything much more than a dollar a pound and the cost-effectiveness of this home canning project start to plummet. A friend of mine who tries to can around 180 pounds of tomatoes each summer says that she doesn't pay much attention to the particular tomato variety; she just picks up what she can find for cheap. This often means buying in bulk directly from farms or picking your own — or even better, growing your own if you can!
Making the Sauce
This sauce is the most basic tomato sauce there is — just tomatoes and some lemon juice to bump up the acidity to safe levels for canning. You can add seasonings like garlic, onions, or herbs, but I like the fact that this is a neutral base for whatever recipe I want to make, from weeknight pizzas to a fancy lasagna. Just avoid using oil if you're planning to can your sauce as this can potentially be a source for botulism.
Chunky or Pureed Sauce?
To save ourselves a bit of work, I recommend chopping the tomatoes in a food processor or blender before cooking them. A few pulses will make a chunky sauce and longer processing will make a very smooth sauce. Conversely, if you like a very chunky sauce, skip this step altogether and let the tomatoes break down naturally as they simmer. You can also chop the tomatoes by hand, run them through a food mill, or puree them with a stick blender after they've been cooking.
How Long to Cook the Sauce?
I give a cooking range of 30 minutes to 90 minutes (1 1/2 hour). Shorter cooking times will yield a thinner sauce with a fresher tomato flavor; longer cooking times will thicken your sauce and give it a cooked flavor. Watch your sauce as it simmers and stop cooking when it reaches a consistency and a flavor that you like.
If you've never made tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes before, this is a good place to start. The amount isn't overwhelming, but you'll make enough to justify the afternoon. It's also a small enough amount that you can freeze the whole batch if you don't feel like canning it.
Bottom line: grab yourself some tomatoes and make yourself some tomato sauce this weekend. You won't regret it.
How To Make Basic Tomato Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes
Makes about 8 pints
What You Need
15 pounds ripe tomatoes
1/4 to 1/2 cup lemon juice or red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt (optional)
6 1/2-quart or larger Dutch oven or stock pot
Knife and cutting board
Food processor or blender
Jars for canning or containers for freezing
- Peel the tomatoes: Bring a large Dutch oven or stock pot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a mixing bowl with ice and water and set this next to the stove.
Core out the stems from the tomatoes and slice a shallow "X" in the bottom of each fruit. Working in batches, drop several tomatoes into the boiling water. Cook until you see the skin starting to wrinkle and split, 45 to 60 seconds, then lift the tomatoes out with the slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice water. Continue with the rest of the tomatoes, transferring the cooled tomatoes from the ice water to another mixing bowl as they cool.
When finished, use your hands or a paring knife to strip the skins from the tomatoes. Discard the water used to boil the tomatoes.
- Roughly chop the tomatoes: Working in batches, pulse the tomatoes in the food processor. Pulse a few times for chunkier sauce, or process until smooth for a pureed sauce. Transfer each batch into the Dutch oven or stock pot.
Alternatively, chop the tomatoes by hand. Process through a food mill for a smoother sauce.
For a very chunky sauce, skip this stop entirely and let the tomatoes break down into large pieces as they cook.
- Simmer the tomatoes: Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Continue simmering for 30 to 90 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches the taste and consistency that you like.
- Stir in the lemon juice and salt: When finished cooking, stir in the lemon juice or vinegar and salt. A quarter cup is necessary to ensure a safe level of acidity for canning. Add more lemon juice or vinegar to taste.
- Preserving Option 1 — Freeze your sauce: Let the sauce cool and then transfer it into freezer containers or freezer bags. Sauce can be kept frozen for at least three months before starting to develop freezer burn or off-flavors.
- Preserving Option 2 — Can your sauce: Transfer the hot sauce into sterilized canning jars. Top with new, sterilized lids, and screw on the rings until finger tight. Process in a pot of boiling water for 30 minutes. Let cool completely on the counter — if any lids do not seal completely (the lids will invert and form a vacuum seal), refrigerate that sauce and use it within a week or freeze it for up to three months. Canned tomato sauce can be stored in the pantry for at least a year.
→ For a more detailed description of the canning process, read this tutorial: A Visual Tour of Hot Water Bath Canning
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(Images: Emma Christensen)