Canning Tomato Sauce

pile of tomatoes

pile of tomatoes

We planned to let all the gardens grow undisturbed this year in case we had perennials, so I didn’t have any tomatoes to put up (can). Fortunately, Craig’s List is for more than buying and selling old furniture.

I recently posted that I needed tomatoes to can, and Adam, a fellow Mt. Jackson resident, let me know he had plenty. I drove to a new-to-me part of Shenandoah County, where I found that he and his daughter had picked four 5-gallon buckets full of tomatoes for me.  At $10 a bucket, I walked away with probably 80 – 100 pounds of tomatoes.

After lugging them all into the house, sorting out the overripe and split fruit, and giving them all a bath, I’m left with a huge pile of usable tomatoes. The splits I tossed out near the forest (no compost pile yet), and I hope some animals will enjoy them.

sorted tomatoes

sorted tomatoes

The rest needed a second sorting. While I’m a relatively experienced canner for my age, I’m still wary of using any fruit that are less than perfect. I don’t want to risk a sauce that has mold spores, botulism, or anything else already there. It’s not only a health risk but a “I don’t want to waste my time” risk.

So for the second sort, I look for perfect fruit: no black spots, no bug holes, no strange growth cavities or healed splits. Tomatoes are susceptible to any number of viruses, bacteria, and fungus problems. One causes hard spots in tomatoes. Another causes black spots. All of those are sorted out.

For the fruit with just cosmetic damage — small bites, healed splits, growth cavities — I’ll make a second batch of sauce for freezing. The unusable fruit will end up outside for the animals.  My second sort yields approximately 40 pounds of perfect fruit.

coring and quartering tomatoes

coring and quartering tomatoes

The next step is get the tomatoes cut up for processing. (Note I did not peel the tomatoes. I plan to put the pulp through a foodmill, and that will also remove the skins. It just takes a step out of the process.)

I cut off the blossom (“bottom”) end of each tomato. There are enzymes in the blossom end which I believe can affect the acidity of the fruit. I also remove the hard core of each tomato and then cut it into quarters. (In the future, I will probably then squeeze the juice and seeds out into a separate bowl. It will save time cooking down and during milling the fruit.)

I place about 6 quartered tomatoes into my big Lee-Valley Tools Jam Pot, which is one of my favorite pots. It has two handles and holds a lot of fruit. I crush the first six tomatoes and get a good boil going. I then add the rest of the tomatoes (quartering as I go). There’s no need to crush the newly added fruit because they soften as they cook.

pot of freshly milled tomatoes starting to boil

milled tomatoes starting to boil

Working in batches as the tomatoes are soft, I mill them with my Foley food mill. (See my canning peach butter post to see the mill.) I then return the milled, crushed fruit back to the pot. I also sieve the cooking liquid and add it back to the pot. (In the future, I’ll save the cooking liquid and freeze it separately to save some “cooking-down” time.)

My 40 pounds of pre-cut fruit fills my jam pot up to the rim with some left over. I save the leftover to add to the freezer sauce I’ll make later. There’s no need to waste the fruit.

Now begins the somewhat tedious and boring part of the process… the boiling. Because tomatoes have a relatively high sugar content, they can scorch easily, so I stir the pot frequently. I also skim off the foam that cooking fruit naturally produces.

I planned to make a thick sauce, but that would require reducing the sauce by approximately half. After three hours of boiling, it’s reduced by about 1/4 (it doesn’t look like it in the picture or video, but the diameter of the pot is greater at the top than the bottom, so it’s about 1/4 reduced).

After an hour, I get my big canning pot/water bath canner and eight quarter jars. My lids and rings will go into a separate saucepan. After two hours, I turn on the water bath canner to simmer the jars in boiling water, and at about 2.5 hours in, everything is set up for canning.

canned tomato sauce

canned tomato sauce

I follow the Ball recommendations for canning tomato sauce, adding two tablespoons of lemon substitute to each jar to adjust acidity. To keep the sauce neutral and usable for a variety of chilis, soups, stews, and sauces, I don’t add seasoning. I end up with 6 full quart jars and one additional half quart. The half quart cools to go in the fridge, and the 6 quarts are processed in the water bath canner for 45 minutes.

After cutting out bad spots, coring, quartering, and cooking down the remaining tomatoes for freezing, I end up with an additional 3 quarts of sauce. So 9 quarts of tomato sauce and two quarts of tomato juice for $40… plus about 20 pounds of tomatoes for the wildlife. Not a bad price for homemade sauce. Next year I hope to make a lot more sauce, using my own organically grown tomatoes, which will further reduce my price. I love the thought of a cold, snowy winter night topped off with a big batch of homemade tomato soup.

quick skillet bean and beef chili

quick skillet bean and beef chili

**Update — One quart of the freezer sauce didn’t make it to the freezer. The next day I pulled it from the fridge to make up a batch of quick skillet chili. (I generally use a big pot and make enough to freeze about 4 meals’ worth.) The chili is a very basic version: chopped onion and green pepper along with a little minced garlic sauteed with a pound of lean beef. Quart of tomato sauce added along with salt, pepper, and other spices. (Tim doesn’t like his sauce too spicy, so I left it mild.) I add a large can of kidney beans (quick, remember, so no dried bean soaking.) About 45 minutes of simmering, and we have a really yummy beef-and-bean chili that Tim says is the best I’ve made. The tomato sauce might have something to do with it :)

*** This site is comprised solely of the opinions of its author, Stacey Morgan Smith. She works to promote gardening and tourism in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, from Roanoke to the Potomac River.***

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