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Homemade tomato sauce: a big family tradition

Last week our family gathered at my mom’s to participate in our annual all-day tomato sauce making day. It’s that time again – and an annual tradition for most Italians. Not only does this save us from buying more expensive store-bought sauce, but it’s also preservative-free, so we know exactly what we’re getting.

After a day ripe with sun and sweat, 12 bushels of tomatoes, and 195+ jars of tomato sauce, all three families (my brothers, our parents, and we included) are set for another whole year.

So in case any of you would like to partake and have a big family, here’s the breakdown of our family’s tomato sauce recipe:

The prep

  1. Pick your tomatoes. Well, this goes without saying, whether they’re from your own garden or from a farm, farmer’s market or grocery store. Prices vary, so shop around. We use the San Marzano tomato variety, perfect for tomato sauce. Buy them ripe or let them sit a week in a cool dark place, like the garage, until they ripen. Get them all out and ready – things happen quickly and you want to have them on hand.
  2. Set up the washing station. Simply a small table, a tub filled with water with a handy garden hose nearby and a couple of knives.
  3. Set up the cooking station. You’ll need a large pot, a propane tank and burner, some kind of stirring stick and a large straining scoop.
  4. Set up the draining station. You can use two large laundry baskets, two pieces of wood long enough so you can stack the baskets on top of each other, a thin cloth to drain the water and another large straining scoop and a pot to collect and transfer to the sauce making station.
  5. Set up the sauce making station. Grab a large folding table. This will hold the tomato strainer/grinding machine, which you can find online or at a local hardware store (look for the automatic ones, they’re much easier). Clamp that down to one corner of the table. You’ll also need two chairs and two baskets/pails – one to collect the sauce, and one that collects the seeds and skins.
  6. Set up the jarring station. The same table is also the jarring station that’ll hold the mason or juice jars, so make sure you bring all your jars out ahead of time. You can tuck those under the table. You’ll need a funnel for this (to funnel the sauce into the jars), a bowl full of freshly picked basil and a plate and cloth, as it does get messy. Oh, and you’ll need a ladle to taste the sauce.
  7. Set up the jar boiling station. We usually have a large barrel filled with water and a bed sheet or thin cloth to wrap and protect all the jars from breaking, sitting on two cinder blocks and a hot fire, so make sure you have room for this.

The assembly line

  1. Washing station. Tomatoes are thoroughly washed, and any bad parts cut off – keep the skins.
  2. Cooking station. Turn on the propane tank and burner, half fill the pot with water and dump the tomatoes in, cooking them until soft, stirring occasionally.
  3. Draining station. When the tomatoes are fully cooked, transfer them over to the draining station with nice sized scoops that let most of the water through. At this point, they’ll be pretty watery, and we don’t want watery sauce, so we bring it to the draining station. Let them sit there for about 5-10 minutes or so, so they can dry out a bit. You can tug at the fabric to get out most of the water.
  4. Sauce making station. Ah! the fun part. Slowly push these tomatoes through the grinder. Stir the tomato sauce with the ladle to make sure you have the right consistency in the sauce. We like ours a little thicker than runnier, but it’s up to you. If you need it runnier, you can always add some leftover tomato juice from draining them. If you need it thicker, you can rerun the skins again. The machines aren’t perfect and don’t always extract all the sauce, and sometimes discard parts that are perfectly okay.
  5. Jarring station. When your baskets/pail are full of sauce, empty them into the jars. Any jars will do, but we find that the 500 mL Mason jars work best to feed a family of four. Any larger and by the end of the week, you may end up throwing some out.  Place your jar on a plate to save the drips and drop in a couple of small leaves of basil at the bottom of your jar, funnel in the sauce, add basil to the top for added aroma, and wipe and seal the jars really good.
  6. Jar boiling station. When all your sauce is jarred, it’s time to put all those jars in the large barrel. Wrap them good in a thin blanket, and light your fire. This should take about a good half hour. This will boil your tomatoes, seal and sterilize your jars sans preservatives.

And that’s it. See it’s not that hard. Ha! When you factor in the costs of all the equipment, it sounds expensive. But if you have a big family as we do, it’s really not – and you end up sharing a lot of it. In the end, it all boils down to one day of fun and hard work, for one year of tomato sauce that feeds a few families.

When you’re ready to use your homemade tomato sauce for pasta, pizza or whatever you’re cooking up, just crack open the jar and cook the tomato sauce as you normally would, adding either your favourite cut(s) of meat, vegetables, hot peppers or whatever spices or food you want to flavour your sauce. There you have it, folks!

Buon Appetito!

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