The nights are dipping below 50 degrees with precious dew blanketing the dried grass and sweet cool air to breathe in the morning. After a long hot, dry summer I am thankful for the coming of fall. Flour corn ripening on the stalk and the last flowers brimming brightly around the garden are early reminders of our impending first frost. With these last moments of summer it is time to take stock of what can be preserved from the garden for winter.
We have dug potatoes, cleaned the garlic and put totes of beets in the cellar for later use. There are chilis to string, grapes to pick and a bounty of my favorite fruit: tomatoes! Tomatoes are the gem of my garden. There is truly nothing like a ripe heirloom tomato. So versatile and overwhelmingly delicious. I have a really hard time wanting to buy tomatoes in the winter from the grocery store. They are mealy, watery and lack the intensity of flavor that makes me love them. Luckily, there are countless ways to preserve tomatoes so you can enjoy their luscious and tangy flavor until next summer comes around.
One of my friends made tomato paste this week, which requires quite a lot of tomatoes but is dense, flavorful and a little will go a long way. In the past I have made sun dried tomatoes but found it difficult to dry them properly in the late summer when we have cool moist evenings in Southern Oregon. You can of course use a dehydrator but I have never been able to get a nice chewy texture that way. Usually, I would make a few different tomato products for storage. Salsa is an excellent choice and I have even canned Brandywine tomato juice for Bloody Mary’s. However, my time is short this September and my garden is much smaller than in past years. We had a cold wet spring and the paste tomatoes did not quite take off as they have in years past. With all that in mind I will just be canning a simple tomato sauce.
We grew Ropreco paste tomatoes, an Italian heirloom variety. They are excellent for canning, fairly disease resistant, and determinate so they all ripen in a short window instead of over a long period of time. They have a nice uniform quality. Generally you would use paste tomatoes for canning because they have a denser texture, less water and less seeds then slicers or beefsteak varieties. Ropreco tomatoes are also the perfect size for use in a food mill as you do not have to cut them to fit in the opening.
Tomato Sauce Recipe
Start by picking any tomato that has color on it, even just a blush colored end is enough color to pick. Clean the tomatoes with a damp rag and separate them into hues, greenish, orange and fully ripe. Sort out any that are damaged or cut the damaged parts off with a paring knife. You want to use high quality produce when you are preserving by canning method. Separating the tomatoes by ripeness sets you up for a couple of rounds of canning over a week or two.
After you are finished sorting, process the tomatoes through your strainer.
I use a Victorio Food Strainer, it has a few different screens depending on the texture you are looking for. One of them is perfect for salsa, but I use the applesauce/tomato sauce one because it separates seeds and skin from the tomato so you get a nice smooth texture for the sauce. I like to use a strainer because you can put fresh tomatoes into it and take out the arduous task of boiling or baking the tomatoes to slip the skins. You can of course make sauce with seeds and skin in it, that is totally a personal preference.
Before I had a strainer I would cut the tomatoes in half and place them on a baking sheet center side down and then bake them in the oven until the skins wrinkled and were easy to pull off. This takes a little time but the baking process will pull out some of the moisture which lets you cook your sauce for a shorter period of time.
After all the tomatoes are processed, pour the tomato mixture into a large pot and cook it down until you have the consistency of sauce that you would like. I usually look for about a third of the liquid to be gone. Have your clean jars lined up and ready to fill. I like to put a couple basil leaves and a few slices of chili at the bottom of each jar. This gives the sauce a really nice flavor. Beyond that I do not add anything to the tomato sauce. This way you can use it in a lot of different recipes over the winter.
You need to add lemon juice and salt to the bottom of the jar as well. Successful canning is a balance of acidity, which is necessary to avoid issues like spoilage/botulism. For one quart of tomatoes add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and one teaspoon of salt. For one pint, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and ½ teaspoon of salt. Then fill your jars with the sauce leaving a ½ inch of headspace. Wipe the lip of the jar with a clean cloth and then place the lids and rings on the jars. Process in a water bath for 40 minutes. The water processing time will vary slightly depending on your altitude.
Take the jars out of the water bath and leave them in a place where they can cool down and settle. This lets the seal set properly. If your cans do not seal separately you can use the sauce immediately or you can freeze them.
Canning is a pretty safe way to save food but for general guidelines I refer to the “Complete Guide to Home Canning” published by the USDA. The recipe I provided is not complete so be sure to check a reference to determine water processing time and there are acidity charts that can help you make your own recipes up.
This sauce is great for pasta, pizza, soups or as a base for braising meat.
Good luck in all your preserving adventures and remember canning is best done in the company of others. Invite your friends or family over for the project and share in the bounty of your harvest.