Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Seasonal Project: Canning Tomato Sauce

Every year Sweetheart grows more tomatoes than we know what to do with, and every year I know it's September when it's time to start making and canning tomato sauce.  We usually do two or three rounds of canning as the tomatoes ripen, and the resulting jars of preserved sauce take us through the winter. 

I love making tomato sauce.  It's really easy and the resulting product tastes much fresher and more alive than the stuff you get at the grocery store.  Maybe it just tastes that way to me because our sauce is truly ours, from the first seed in the soil to the last bite of pasta.  Make no mistake - it's a big project.  A messy project.  But one that I think is worth doing every year because there is so much good flavor and happiness in every jar.

If you've never done it before, I hope this blog post inspires you to try.  You do need a little bit of special equipment to do the canning, but you might be able to borrow it from a neighbor or friend, or find canning equipment used for very little money at a yard sale or craigslist.

What you'll need:

For the sauce:
Several pounds of ripe Roma tomatoes
A couple cans of tomato paste
Dried herbs (I use oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes)
Sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper

To can it:
Glass canning jars with fitted metal rings and vacuum seal lids (available in the baking section of your grocery store or at Target/Wal-mart)
A canning pot (or a really big deep pot)
Jar lifter (or tongs for the steady of hand)
Magnetized lid lifter (or tongs)
Wide-mouth funnel

To Make the Sauce:
Fill a two-quart pot almost to the top with water and bring it to boil.  While it's heating up, begin to prepare your tomatoes by scoring the bottoms with an "X" shape cut.  Don't go too deep into the flesh, just deep enough to pierce the skin.

When the water is boiling, drop the scored tomatoes, about 5 at a time, into the boiling water and blanch them for about 30-60 seconds.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a cutting board to cool slightly.  The skin will already be peeling away from the body of the tomato.  When the tomato is cool enough to handle, remove and discard (or compost) the skin, and place the tomato into a large stock pot.  Use your hands, it's faster.  (Some people take out the seeds too, but I think that's a mistake - they have a ton of flavor.  But it's up to you.)  Work in batches until you have peeled all the tomatoes.

Place the stock pot over high heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat slightly and boil until the tomatoes have all broken down and you have a sauce.  You can press gently on the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to help speed this process along. 

When the tomatoes are all dissolved, add tomato paste to thicken the sauce.  How much you add will depend on how thick you like your sauce.  Add a little at a time until the sauce is the consistency you like best.

Now add herbs.  I use basic Italian-style herbs like oregano and basil, but maybe you like other flavors or maybe in your country tomato sauce is flavored with spices such as cumin and chili.  Really, it depends on what you like.  I like my tomato sauce with a little more kick, so I add red pepper flakes.  If you like your sauce to be less acidic, you can also add sugar to cut the acidity.  Be careful not to overdo it; add a little at a time, tasting as you go, until your sauce tastes delicious.  Simmer it for maybe another 30 minutes to an hour on very very low heat, just to give the flavors a chance to meld. Taste it one more time, adjust the seasoning if necessary, and take it off the heat.
(A note on garlic and onion:  once the sauce is sealed in the jar, the flavors will continue to blend and develop over time.  Onion and garlic cooked and sealed can eventually develop to overpower the sauce and give it a bitter taste.  The first time I added garlic and onion I was pretty disappointed with the sauce when I opened it a few months later.  While it's possible to do, I'd caution against it)

In the meantime:

Fill your canning pot with enough water that it will cover the jars, standing upright in the pot, by at least an inch.  Bring to a boil.

Place your jars into the dishwasher and run it on high heat.  This sterilizes the jars and makes sure there are no bacteria in them that could infect your food and make you sick.  Sterilization is very important in food preservation, so make sure you're working with clean hands and equipment.

Ladle your sauce into the jars, leaving at least one-half inch empty at the top (use the funnel to make this process easier). Wipe the lip of each jar carefully to make sure there is no sauce on the rim (it will prevent the jar from sealing properly).

While you're doing that, drop the vacuum-seal lids into the canning pot and let them boil for 10 minutes (again, to sterilize). 

When the jars are all full, pull the lids out of the boiling water with the magnetized lid-lifter and place them securely over the mouths of the jars.  Seal them on with the metal screw rings and close tightly.

Once all the jars are covered, lower each jar gently into the canning pot.  The jars should be completely submerged in the water.

Now you boil.  For how long the jars need to be in is determined by the size of the jar, generally 35 minutes for pint (16oz) jars and 40 minutes for quart (32oz) jars.  Check out the Ball site for answers to all kinds of canning questions.

Spread a few clean kitchen towels onto your counters.  Once the jars have boiled for the full required time, left them out of the canning pot with the jar lifter and place each one gently on the kitchen towels.  Don't bump them or move them for 24 hours. 

After 24 hours, check the lids to make sure the seals are tight.  Press down on the center of each lid; if it moves, the jar didn't seal.  If there is no movement or play in the lid, the jar is ready to be stored. 

Jars that don't seal should be placed in the fridge and used first; they'll keep about 2 weeks.  Jars with tight seals should be stored in a cool, dark place and should be used within about six months.  In February, when you're taking a bite of pasta sauce that tastes like August, you will be so glad you did this!

Some things to accept:

Making and canning tomato sauce takes a while.  Plan to devote an entire afternoon to the process.  Ask people not to call you, as your hands will be covered in tomato.

Making and canning tomato sauce is pretty messy.  There will be tomato sauce all over the place.  Plan to clean the kitchen thoroughly - the next day.

Wear dark colored clothes or an apron.  Expect to get spattered with sauce.

Also expect to get hot and possibly burned.  Work near a cold water source in case you burn your fingers.

This is a great project for older kids and teens.  Little kids will probably lose patience and could burn themselves.

Do you can your homegrown fruit and vegetables too?  What are some of your favorite food preservation projects?

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