Making tomato sauce … the italian way!

There are several things that scream “Italian Heritage” loud and clear. One of those things is “Tomato Sauce Day”.

For the un-initiated, this is essentially the act of turning many kilos of glorious, sun ripened summer tomatoes into a paste, bottling them then preserving them.

This is normally a family affair, and most families do this at the peak of the tomato season. It takes a full day and becomes a crazy day of story telling, kids running rampant and more food than you can eat. Our last “Sauce Day” was a low key affair with just myself, my parents and my mother-in-law. We churned through around 350kg of tomatoes in one day. It was epic!

Anyone can do this at home, but you will need a few things. Most of these will be things you already have in the kitchen. Here is a short rundown of equipment…

  • Tomatoes (see the section below about “Choosing your tomatoes”
  • a large pot (or two)
  • a large sieve/colander
  • bottles and bottle tops (see the section below about “Collecting bottles”
  • a bottle capping machine
  • olive oil
  • rags (to protect the bottles while preserving)
  • basil or parsley (optional)
  • a mouille/vegetable grinder
  • funnel
  • bottle brush, cleaning sponge, detergent and nail brush (optional)

Any family who does their version of “Sauce Day” does so no more than once per year. Some families share equipment, ensuring that they do not plan on doing things on the same weekend, and other families store their equipment in the back of their garage or shed until needed. Either way, they equipment need not be expensive in the least. Start small if you want to try this. Each year, we only pay for bottle tops, a few extra boxes of tomatoes and gas for the gas burner. Everything else is our time (and experience of course).

When we get a large crop of tomatoes in our “pantry” garden, then we do a small, single pot of sauce. Here is a pic of all the ingredients for that .. the colours are a real symbol of Summer for us.

Choosing your tomatoes for “Sauce Day”

There is an art to choosing tomatoes for sauce. They key factors are time of year, fruit type and fruit quality.

You want to use a fruit that is at its peak of sweetness, has lots of flavour but not much in the way of seed pulp. The classic Roma or egg shaped tomato is perfect. Many of your round tomatoes have a very high seed to flesh ratio. You want to make sure that the tomato you use is as close to being seed free as possible. We use the Apollo variety of egg tomato. It is a commercially grown variety that resembles the classic Roma (which is its parent actually) but is larger and matures quicker.

The flavour of tomatoes changes throughout the season. Tomatoes that you get in store always taste the same because they are probably grown in a poly tunnel (plastic green house). Poly tunnels are great for reducing pest infestation and controlling the climate for seasonal crops. But  find that the flavour of a sun ripened fruit is superior to one grown in a poly tunnel. The best tomatoes used for sauce are those that are at the top of the plant (nearing the end of the season) and grown outside of a poly tunnel. This is because the plant is well established and the fruit is exposed to sunlight through it’s entire growing period. Tomatoes grown in this way are amazing in flavour … sometimes a little sun burnt (especially during hot summers when >40 degrees C is reached on consecutive days) … but the flavour of the flesh is unaffected.

If you have a grower near by, you can approach them and ask if they grow Roma style tomatoes and ask them when they think the top crop will be ready. This is usually around the end of January in Sydney regions. This is perfect because you can turn your Australia Day celebration break into a “Sauce Day” family gathering! 😉

Most growers are happy to sell direct to the public because that way they don’t have to take their produce to market. Some growers though do have existing clients and quotas to fill, but they will be able to let you know how much they will have available and at what times. For reference, a large box of tomatoes is around 15kg.

Collecting bottles

Making sure that you have enough bottles for preserving your tomato sauce is necessary to ensure that your hard work does not go to waste. You can use any preserving bottles or even good old beer bottles (750mL bottles have a long narrow neck where as 500mL have a short narrow neck, making it easier to get the preserved sauce out).

If you don’t regularly collect bottles, you can approach your local pub or club. Talk to one of the bar managers and ask them to collect any 500mL bottles for you. It is best that bottles with a pop-top cap are collected rather than twist top caps. Most bars are happy to collect them as they won’t need to pay for disposal of the glass. Win-win!

If you have organised for a collection, make sure you pick them up promptly, otherwise other staff members may not realise that they are for you and send them off for recycling.

Prep work for “Sauce Day”

There are several tasks that need to be done before starting. The most time consuming is cleaning your bottles.

Ensure that, at the latest, you have all your bottles washed and dried the day before. Good hygiene is paramount when it comes to preserving your own produce. Regardless of how our bottles have been stored during the year, we always wash ours the day before. In the two decades or so that we have been preserving our own tomato sauce, we have not had to throw away contaminated bottles of sauce. Some bottles have been in storage for 4 years, with no degradation. So when you get it right, it feels fantastic and lasts for years.

Another task is ensuring that your tomatoes are clean and sorted. This can be done in the early morning beforehand or the night before. The fruit needs to be rinsed in water. We also add around a cup of vinegar to each tub of water. Vinegar is perfect for killing fungus which thrives on moist fruit, like tomatoes. When you clean your tomatoes, some will be a bit squashed or their skin split. Avoid using these ones as they will not taste right.

If you intend to do all your work outdoors … because it is a messy job … then make sure you have a place to cook the tomatoes. We have a large gas burner for this purpose. It is a good idea to check that you have enough gas so you don’t run out!

Making tomato sauce

There are a few steps in making tomato sauce. In summary, they are:

Step 1: Boil the tomatoes whole

Some families don’t do this step. We like to as we feel it kills off bacteria before bottling and also reduces the time taken to bring the Preserving step to the boil.

Essentially, you fill a large pot with whole tomatoes then fill it with water. If you are using a large pot, it is best to place the pot on the burner, then fill it with tomatoes and water in situ. That way you don’t have to lift the heavy pot and hurt your back.

Bring the pot to the boil and leave to boil for 5 minutes.

Step 2: Drain the cooked tomatoes

Once the tomatoes have cooked for a few minutes, you will need to drain them of as much water as possible. You want to ensure that there is only pulp left. Pour the cooked tomatoes into a large colander and using a spatula or spoon, gently fold the tomatoes around in the colander to remove excess liquid.

When the bulk of the water has been removed, leave it to stand for about 10 minutes before folding the tomatoes again and removing even more liquid. Any liquid from the second fold is seriously tomato flavoured. If you are frugal (like we are), this is the perfect time to capture some tomato flavoured water to start a risotto or some pasta cooking for lunch!

Step 3: Mince the cooked tomatoes

The drained tomatoes now need to be minced. There are some pretty serious mincing machines out there. The one pictured above is driven by an electric motor, but you can also use a mouille (see below).

When we mince our tomatoes, we also add at this point a few handfuls of herbs; mainly basil and/or parsley. When added during the mincing process, the flavour is infused throughout the entire sauce and you don’t need to add any herbs when cooking. Some families also add salt at this point but we tend not to as the amount of salt you use in a dish when cooking is variable.

Step 4: Bottle the cooked tomatoes

Once enough tomatoes have been pureed into a paste, it is time for bottling.

Using a funnel in the top of a bottle, scoop in the paste. Ensure that the funnel does not have a seal around the bottle lip as this will stop the sauce from flowing in smoothly. You may need to encourage the sauce in if it is very thick. A skewer or the handle of some cutlery usually does the trick.

Once the bottle is filled to around 4cm from the top, add a round 1-2cm of olive oil to the top of the bottle. This will help preserve the sauce in storage by preventing oxygen from reacting with the sauce.

Next, you will need to cap the bottles. There are many different ways to do this and simple machines you can use also. The cap needs to seal the bottle completely.

Step 5: Preserve the bottled tomatoes

Now comes the fun part … boiling the bottled sauce. You will need to boil your bottles in a large pot for around 2-3 hours. The base of the pot needs to be lined with old rags before you pack your bottles in, this will ensure that the heat from the cooking element will not heat the bottles at the bottom too much. We wrap our bottles in old socks (sexy I know!) to stop them from rattling against each other when being boiled. Also, we wedge other rags between bottles for the same reason.

Once all the bottles of sauce have been cooked, store them in a dark and cool place. They should be provide you with some awesome sauce in the years to come!

Hope you have fun at your next “Sauce Day”.

 

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