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Tomato Sauce 101—From Vine to Jar

Q. I'm in tomato heaven; and I just got a Vitamix high-powered blender. I am SO excited to be able to just toss whole tomatoes into that mixer! Now, when I make the sauce—adding spices, herbs, sweetener and a bit of balsamic vinegar—can I can them up without adding lemon juice? I worry that it would ruin the whole thang. (And yes, Stef did type 'thang'.)

---Steffanie in Illinois

A. The great thing about making tomato sauce is that the natural acidity of tomatoes allows you to {quote} 'can' them without adding the oft-recommended lemon juice. Ixnay on the vinegar as well—you don't need the extra acidity, and it could mask the flavor of the tomatoes.

Now—I just used the word 'can' in quotes. Why? Because I can't imagine that a home gardener would be preserving their harvest in metal cans.

"Canning" is a catch-all term for preserving food in a sealed container, no matter the material used. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert is said to have created the first 'canning' method in 1809—using sealed glass jars that he boiled in water, which is exactly how home canners do it today. Tin and steel cans were later used for long-term food storage; and the term 'canning' refers to these metal 'CANisters'.

I personally put up about 50 jars of tomato sauce a season and have done so for many decades. Let me walk you through my process.

First, you need Mason jars—their thick glass is designed to take the high heat of a boiling water bath and the extremes of the pressure cooker you'd need to preserve other foods. You also need a 'lid' for each jar; these metal discs have a rubber-like material around the outer edge that creates the seal; and rings to seal that seal onto the top of the jar. You need a clean lid for each jar, but you only need a couple dozen rings, because they don't stay on during storage.

You also need a big pot with a metal rack inside that keeps the bottoms of the jars from touching the bottom of the pot; and a specialized lifting tool to get the finished jars out of the boiling water bath safely. Start boiling the water and time a dishwasher run to have the jars, lids and rings sparkling clean and boiling hot just when the sauce is ready.

And I hate to break Steffanie's heart, but you have to do a little prep work no matter how powerful your blender is. Wash each tomato, slice it in halves or quarters, cut out the stem and any damaged areas and then rinse out the seeds. I don't remove the skins. There's a lot of nutrition there. I used to leave the seeds in as well, but I eventually realized that they make the sauce bitter. So: no seeds, no bad parts, no stem. Toss what remains into your food processor, adding four or five crushed cloves of garlic and a single herb to each batch. That's a single herb—not a blend. I find that the most flavorful sauce results from using large amounts of a single herbbasil or oregano—in each batch. Whizz it all up until you can't see any of the garlic or herbs, empty it into a big stainless-steel pot and keep adding batches until you're out of tomatoes. Simmer on medium low—you want to see bubbles—and stir often.

DING! Dishwasher run is finished; jars are piping hot!

Use your lifting tongs to take out one jar at a time. Fill the jar using a big spoon that also went through the dishwasher. Leave one-half to one inch of airspace at the top of the jar, wipe the rim clean with a paper towel, affix the lid, tighten the ring firmly and use the tongs to place each jar into the rack—which should now be sitting overtop of the boiling water bath. (The rack is adjustable. It sits up there until you finish filling your jars and then you use its fold-up handles to slowly drop the rack down into the boiling water.) Make sure the water covers the tops of the jars. Then put the lid on the pot and keep the water boiling.

Twenty minutes for pint jars and thirty for quarts is the standard, but I always go long. This isn't the place to save time. Then carefully lift the rack up, remount it on the sides of the pot and use your tongs to carefully lift each jar out. Place the jars on a spread-out kitchen towel and leave them alone for 24 hours.

Then carefully spin off the rings. The lids should be sealed tight to each jar. If a lid doesn't stick, put that jar in the fridge and use it within a week. (Do not store the jars with the rings still attached or you risk a bad one slipping through. A jar with a tightly sealed lid is a safe jar!) Store the sealed jars in a cool dry spot and enjoy your harvest all winter long!

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