This is my pantry, and as you can see it has only just begun to be filled with tomato sauce. By October, I will have more than five gallons of homemade sauce, plus tomato paste and lots of dried tomatoes in oil. Just as I’ve hunted or fished for most of our meat in the past several years, I also have put up nearly all our tomato products.
It is a good feeling, as I can control the processes needed to turn fresh tomatoes into something more magical. I’ve written about drying tomatoes recently, and I will get to tomato paste, but my mainstay is the common tomato sauce. Only making tomato sauce is not so common.
If I asked every one of you reading this how you make your own tomato sauce I would get answers ranging from “open a jar” to long-simmered sauces to sauces that absolutely require this variety of tomato or that one, etc etc. And I am talking here about base sauces, not finished ones with herbs and oil and wine. This is about making a base tomato sauce that will ultimately find its way into any sort of dish, from Chinese cuisine to Italian to Moroccan or Mexican.
I have made a small lake of tomato sauce over the years and have come up with a few tips, pointers, and variations on the basic tomato sauce I find works well for me. I typically make several types of sauce each year, and have never stopped tinkering. This year I messed around with a fermented tomato sauce:
Yep. I fermented tomatoes, ate them and suffered no ill effects. Why on God’s Green Acre would I even think to do this? I actually saw a recipe for something like this in a very cool book called Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, which is a collection of recipes from Europe that focus on the old ways of keeping food through the winter.
Basically you smash tomatoes, put them in a clean crock, cover to keep the bugs out, and stir twice a day. Tomatoes have lots of sugar in them, and that sugar turns to alcohol in a day or three. That’s natural fermentation fizzing in the picture above. Pretty wild, eh?
Once the fizzing calms down in 4-6 days, you have to watch for the white mold, which is a pencillin mold in my house (I’ve inoculated my house, it seems, with store-bought versions of this mold that I use to help preserve my charcuterie). As soon as this mold appears, you scrape it off and bottle the sauce, according to the recipe.
I had high hopes for this, I really did. But even I was a little skeeved at fermented tomato wine with a thin layer of white mold on it. Intellectually I knew nothing bad would happen, but we are hard-wired not to like stinky moldy things, unless they are cheese. And even then.
I tasted the sauce and ZING! I got a hit of alcohol and acid that cleared my nostrils. Not a sauce to give to children. I must admit I did not really like it. But nor did I hate it, so I boiled off the sauce with some salt until it was thick enough to jar; the original recipe is uncooked. It’ll be fine as a base to something, but fermented tomato sauce was not what I’d hoped. Oh well.
My normal, baseline tomato sauces go two ways: One with paste tomatoes, and one with heirloom or hybrid eating tomatoes. Most common is with paste tomatoes, which I’ll buy 10 pounds at a shot at the farmer’s market. Some guidelines:
- Let all tomatoes, but especially paste tomatoes, ripen in your kitchen for several days after you buy them. Paste tomatoes take forever to really ripen, even long after they look nice and red. You want them just this side of rotten. Why? Makes a sweeter, richer sauce.
- Chop your tomatoes roughly and toss into the pot you are going to cook them in. I find that 4-5 pounds of tomatoes will get you a half-gallon of sauce, so you need a big pot.
- Add 1-2 tablespoons of salt and mix it in with your hands. Let this stand for 30 minutes before cooking. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
- After the tomatoes have marinated in the salt, put the pot over medium-high heat and cook, stirring often, for no more than 10 minutes. It’s done when you can see liquid up to the level of the tomatoes when they are all leveled out in the pot. Do not overcook.
- Push the whole lot through a food mill with the medium (or fine, up to you) sieve setting. Yes, you need to do this, or find some other way to strain out the skins and seeds.
A word on milling. If you don’t already have one, every person interested in canning really, really ought to own a food mill.I think they make motorized ones, but I rely on the simple, stainless steel manual mill that has not changed design since the Renaissance. I am something of a Luddite, after all.
And the reason for the salt marinade is to make the tomatoes soft enough to mill even after such a short cooking time. A longer-cooked sauce has an entirely different flavor; that one comes next.
Incidentally, milling is one of those instances where you can vividly witness the truism that the difference between good and great is that final 5 percent. You want to stop milling because your arm is tired, but there is still some pulp left in the mill. Yet if you fail to mill out that final 5 percent, your sauce will be overly watery — tomatoes do not give up their last bit of goodness willingly. Think of it as a workout, and keep cranking that handle.
Only then is it time to jar your sauces. I use quart Mason jars, and I process them 12-15 minutes in boiling water.
I also make sauces from regular tomatoes, and these are long-cooked sauces. You go through the same process as for paste tomatoes, only you will find heirlooms and table varieties extremely watery in comparison. When you mill them you must use the fine sieve on the mill or risk getting a seedy sauce, which may keep you regular, but does not look so nice on the plate.
After milling, I cook these sauces down, sometimes for hours, until they are thick enough to jar. I also add a leaf or two from the tomato plant for extra tomato flavor; don’t worry, they are not terribly poisonous, despite what people say. For a good discussion on this trick, read Chef Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand.
This makes a good sauce. But if you have the time, there is another way to make an even better one. The king of all tomato sauces is this: Roasted Single Variety Tomato Jams. You want tomato flavor? You want savory umami-tastic, lick-the-bowl goodness? Make this sauce.
I found these giant Mr. Stripey tomatoes at the farmer’s market, and dropped $15 on seven pounds of them to make this sauce. Yeah, it’s expensive, but these sauces — unlike the other ones — are not necessarily base sauces. They can stand on their own as a finished sauce.
I did everything I normally do for a sauce, but after I milled it, I put it into a wide casserole in the oven. I set the oven to 225 degrees and walked away.
Every few hours I stirred it, but that’s really all you need to do to make this sauce. How long will it take? Hard to say. Different varieties have different water contents. These took seven hours. I did a batch with Cherokee Purple tomatoes from my garden that took nine hours.
I plan to make a series of these single-variety sauces and serve them side by side somehow. Definitely want to do Green Zebra, and maybe Black Krim. And the Brandywines from my garden will get their turn in the slow oven, too. Best of all, cooking the tomatoes this way — slowly, below a boil — preserves the fresh tomato flavor pretty well, and concentrates it so much that seven pounds of tomatoes becomes a quart or less of sauce.
I know there are many other ways to make tomato sauces. My Italian neighbors will boil tomatoes in huge vats outside to make the — I shit you not — 100 gallons of sauce they use every year. They add basil, salt, sugar and oil to their sauce before canning. I know Greeks who toss a cinnamon stick into the simmering tomatoes.
But I can tell you that there has been no other tomato sauce as good as these slow-roasted sauces, which have only salt added to them. Pure, sweet, savory and beautiful to look at, I’ve never been able to top it. It makes the time laboring in the hot kitchen all worth it.