|Canning tomato sauce is easy in theory. You get a recipe and follow it to the letter. It typically involves lots of tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, salt, and sugar. You also need a boiling water canner (which I have) and some canning jars. In this case, I recommend either pints or quarts. Consider pints if you live alone and just cook for yourself, or if you want to give out the sauce as gifts. Use quarts if you're feeding a family, because that way you can process a lot of sauce quickly and you won't need so many lids (bigger jars = fewer lids).
Ideally, I make tomato sauce once a year. It's a ton of work and a pain in the ass, but it's so, so worth it for the entire rest of the year because you've got amazing sauce all ready to go for pasta and pizza whenever you want. Last year, we ended up making it three times, because I had a hard time getting enough tomatoes all at once, and because somebody who will remain unnamed decided to get creative and throw a bunch of peppers into the second batch of sauce ("what? I thought they weren't spicy"), and three out of the four people in our household don't like spicy food.
To get enough tomatoes - if you don't grow enough yourself - you need to wait until the farmers have so many mushy tomatoes on hand at the end of the market that they will give them to you for next to nothing. Tomatoes that are heading straight for the compost pile unless some nut like you feels like paying $1/lb or so to turn them into sauce. Otherwise, it's hardly economical to pay several dollars a pound for tomatoes only to turn them into sauce.
Here's my recipe:
45 lbs tomatoes
6 c. onions
12 cloves garlic
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. oregano
6 bay leaves
1/4 c. salt (or to taste)
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp. Red pepper flakes, optional
Lemon juice, 2 tbsp per quart of sauce
Makes 7 quarts of sauce
Every year, sauce making involves various mishaps - some new ones and some that happen every year (like burning sauce to the bottom of the pan). This year was no different. Last year, I decided that it was a waste of time to remove the peels from the tomatoes, so I didn't. It wasn't that big of a deal to have peels in the sauce... but it's better to remove them. This year, I was determined to pull the whole thing off without any big disasters.
Step 1: Get a ton of tomatoes.
On Sunday, I asked several organic vendors at the market if they would save their mushy tomatoes and sell them to me cheap at the end of the market. Three said yes. At the end of the market, one gave me a box that had to be about 20 lbs for $10. A second one gave me 45 lbs and wanted to charge me $2/lb. In the end, she charged me $60 for all of it. A third had a smaller box and the tomatoes were really, really mushy. I would have taken them if I needed them, but with 3 boxes of tomatoes already in my car, I decided not to.
Step 2: Get everything else you need.
I didn't have the recipe on hand so I guessed. Umm... lots of lemons, lots of onions, a few heads of garlic, a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil. Is that all? And mason jars. I've already got those. Only I forgot that I would need lids... whoops.
Step 2 and a half: Change into clothes you don't mind staining with tomato sauce.
I didn't do that. I should have.
Step 3: Peel the tomatoes.
Step 4: Saute the onions and garlic in olive oil.
I got really clever here and decided to combine these steps. DUMB MOVE. Here's why. First, I estimated how many cups of onions I'd need. I figured I was making a batch and a half of sauce, so I'd need 9 cups of onions. I chopped all of the onions - 8 c. total - in the biggest saucepan we've got with 1/2 c. olive oil and began stirring. I planned to add another 1/4 c. olive oil later but never got around to it - for reasons you'll soon understand.
Then, I started my tomato peeling operation. This involves hulling several tomatoes and then cutting an X in the blossom end and tossing them into a boiling pot of water. You leave them in for about a minute, just enough for the peel to cook, and then put them in a bowl of cold water, or under running water. So, if you can imagine, now you've got 2 pots on the stove. Either after the tomatoes cool down, or while you run water over them, peel the tomatoes. The peel should just slip off in your hand and even if the tomato's hot, you won't burn your hands if you do it under running water.
Step 5: Chop peeled tomatoes and add them into the sauce with the onions.
It's more efficient to do this with two people if you're peeling tomatoes at the same time, but I did it, even if I was a bit inefficient. Just chop up the peeled tomatoes - you don't have to be too precise - and add them to the pot with the onions. Before long, the pot was full, and I still had plenty of tomatoes left to peel, chop, and add. I grabbed a third pot and put it on the stove, filling it halfway with sauce. Then I continued peeling, chopping, and adding tomatoes until both pots were full. Then I added a fourth pot and filled THAT one with sauce too, and continued adding tomatoes until everything was full. Oh, and you have to stir occasionally or else you'll burn tomato sauce to the bottom of the pan. I recommend using a wooden spoon with a flat bottom to stir so you can occasionally scrape the bottom of your pans to check if anything down there is burning.
Step 6: Boil your sauce until it reduces by half.
This takes a while. And this is where my clever strategy of measuring out all of the onions beforehand blew up in my face. I had used enough onions to go with every single tomato I bought - but there was no way I'd be able to actually fit all of those tomatoes into my pans. The resulting sauce would have too many onions. Since the pH of the sauce is important to prevent botulism, this was a problem. (I should mention that I am very lucky because my roommate is a chef who lets me use his enormous, wonderful, stainless steel saucepans. If I was just using my own pots and pans, I would have been way more screwed than I was.)
I spent hours working on this yesterday. After a while, the initial amount of sauce I had going boiled down, and I was able to add more tomatoes. Then that boiled down some and I could fit a few more tomatoes in there. We decided to leave the flames on low overnight for our 3 saucepans of sauce, and when I woke up, the sauce had reduced by quite a bit more. I got a pot of boiling water going and then got back to peeling, chopping, and stirring.
I decided I needed to get at least the entire 45 lbs of tomatoes the recipe called for into the sauce. I used 2 extra cups of onions, 1/3 more than I needed. So ideally, I needed to use 60 lbs of tomatoes. As for the pH, I'd use extra lemon juice, just in case. Plus I add about 2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar to the sauce (for flavor), and that's acidic. You aren't supposed to get creative on canning recipes like this, but I decided to risk it.
Before I could actually can the sauce, I needed to reduce the liquid enough to fit the sauce into two pots instead of three. The canner itself is huge and it can't fit on the stove with the 3 enormous pans of sauce I had boiling away.
Step 7: Fill the canner with water and heat it until it boils.
Step 8: Heat the mason jars.
I combined these steps. First, I began counting out mason jars and lids. I had to go to the store for lids. The recipe makes 7 quarts. I estimated I'd make about 11. But the canner only fits eight. What I ended up doing was pretty stupid, as you'll see. Not catastrophic, but stupid.
You need to fill the canner with enough water to cover the mason jars by one inch. I decided to measure the right amount of water by filling the canner with mason jars + cool water, and then heating the whole thing together. Voila! Hot jars plus enough water.
Step 9: Fill the jars and attach the two-piece lids.
I lifted each hot jar out of the canner and emptied the water. Then, using a funnel, I spooned in 3 tbsp of lemon juice (the recipe calls for 2 but I figure an extra one to be safe won't alter the flavor) and filled the jar with sauce, leaving a half inch headspace. I attached the lids and put the jars back into the pot.
As you can imagine, as I began displacing the water in the canner with jars full of sauce, it became clear that I had more water in the canner than I needed if I was going to process 8 quarts at once. So I emptied out some of the boiling water. I should have done my small batch first and my big batch second, or two equal sized batches, because later when I did my second batch of 2 1/2 quarts, I had to add more water and wait for it to heat. Oops.
Step 10: Process for 40 minutes.
If you're doing quarts, you need to process them for 40 minutes. Pints require 35 minutes. Wait until the water is boiling and then set the timer. After 40 minutes, remove your jars from the boiling water and let them cool. Then label them.
Step 11: Wash tomato sauce stains out of your clothes.
Apparently, one tablespoon ammonia plus a half cup of water can do the job. Also, baking soda can be used to absorb the grease while undiluted white vinegar can be used to get rid of the tomato stain. (UPDATE: Dr. Bronners Sal Suds and some major scrubbing did the trick.)