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.
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 a solid afternoon of work from start to finish. If you want to make a larger batch, give yourself even more time and think about recruiting some extra hands to help.
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 because they have more flesh with less juice and fewer seeds. However, they are smaller (which means more upfront prep work). I use Big Boy tomatoes – your basic summer slicing tomato – 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. If you spend much more than a dollar a pound, the cost-effectiveness of this project starts 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.
Making the sauce: This 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 having a neutral base for whatever recipe I want to make, from weeknight pizzas to a fancy lasagna. Avoid using oil if you plan to can your sauce, as this can potentially be a source for botulism.
Chunky or pureed sauce? To save 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. If you like a very chunky sauce, skip this step 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.
Cooking the sauce: I give a cooking range of 30 to 90 minutes. 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 when it reaches a consistency and a flavor that you like.
Emma Christensen is recipe editor for TheKitchn.com, a website for food and home cooking.
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