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 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.
Homemade Tomato Sauce: Watch the Video
Fresh Tomato Sauce from Scratch
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.
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.
Choosing Tomatoes for Sauce: Big Boys Are Best
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 up-front 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 more than a dollar a pound, and the cost-effectiveness of this home canning project starts to plummet. A friend of mine who tries to can around 180 pounds of tomatoes each summer says 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!
Key Steps for Tomato Sauce
- Set up assembly line processing. Prepping the tomatoes for the sauce is the most time-consuming part of this afternoon project, but if you get yourself organized before you begin, the work will move quickly. Set yourself up with all the tomatoes bottoms-up on the sheet pan, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and then set an ice bath and compost bowl nearby for peeling.
- Chunky or puréed 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 purée 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 hours). 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 flavor you like.
Storing and Serving Fresh Tomato Sauce
Let the sauce cool, 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.
If you're feeling particularly industrious you can also hot-water can the tomato sauce by moving the hot sauce to sterilized canning jars, sealing tightly with new lids, and boiling for 30 minutes. Want to read more about hot-water canning? Here's our quick guide.
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.
Want to Make Tomato Sauce with Canned Tomatoes?
Check out this tutorial for making tomato sauce with canned tomatoes: How To Make Marinara Sauce
How To Make Basic Tomato Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes
Makes about 8 pints
Prep time: 30 minutes ; cooking time: 1 hour
What You Need
1/4 to 1/2 cup
freshly squeezed lemon juice or red wine vinegar
6 1/2-quart or larger Dutch oven or stockpot
Knife and cutting board
Food processor or blender
6 sterilized pint jars for canning, or containers for freezing
Boil a pot of water and prepare the ice bath. Bring a large 6-quart or larger Dutch oven or stockpot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice and water and set this next to the stove.
Prepare the tomatoes for blanching. Core out the stems from the tomatoes and slice a shallow "X" in the bottom of each fruit.
Blanch the tomatoes to peel them. 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. Using a slotted spoon, lift the tomatoes out and place them in the ice water. Continue with the rest of the tomatoes, transferring the cooled tomatoes from the ice water to another large bowl as they cool. Pour the blanching water from the pot (no need to dry).
Peel the tomatoes. When finished blanching, use your hands or a paring knife to strip the skins from the tomatoes. Discard the water used to boil the tomatoes.
Coarsely chop the tomatoes. Working in batches, place the tomatoes in the food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse a few times for chunkier sauce, or process until smooth for a puréed sauce. Alternatively, chop the tomatoes by hand. For a smoother sauce, process through a food mill. For a very chunky sauce, skip this step entirely and let the tomatoes break down into large pieces as they cook. Transfer each batch into the reserved Dutch oven or stockpot.
Simmer the tomatoes. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches the taste and consistency you like, 30 to 90 minutes.
Stir in the lemon juice and salt. Stir in at least 1/4 cup of the lemon juice or vinegar and salt. A 1/4 cup is necessary to ensure a safe level of acidity for canning. Taste and add more lemon juice or vinegar as needed.
Preserving Option 1: Freezing
Let the sauce cool, then transfer it into freezer containers or freezer bags. Sauce can be kept frozen for at least 3 months before starting to develop freezer burn or off-flavors.
Preserving Option 2: Canning
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 3 months. Canned tomato sauce can be stored in the pantry for at least 1 year.
Canning: For a more detailed description of the canning process, read this tutorial: A Visual Tour of Hot Water Bath Canning.