Canning, Recipes

Italian Red Sauce

I’m working now to process the tomatoes I froze during the summer and the ones I box-ripened after the last fall picking. I’m making Italian Red Sauce. People know this sauce by different names. Italians call it marinara. It’s marketed in jars as pasta and pizza sauce. Many of us who lack Italian heritage just call it spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters that you make it. Here’s how, although this is more about a technique than a recipe. (Lots of parentheticals in this one.)

Marinara (or as I call it, Italian Red Sauce) is a tomato-based sauce that can indeed be used for all kinds of pasta dishes, pizzas, and dishes like Chicken Parmesan or Eggplant Parmesan. What else you put in your red sauce depends on what part of Italy you or your ancestors were from. Since no part of my heritage is Italian (mine is Irish, English, Dutch, Cherokee, and who knows what else), I am free to use whatever I like in my red sauce. And I like it all.

I use garlic, onions, dried basil and oregano (because I’m always making this in the winter time and don’t have any fresh herbs, except maybe parsley), dried or fresh parsley, red wine, and a little sugar if my box-ripened tomatoes seem to need it. I will sometimes make this sauce entirely of box-ripened tomatoes, or, if I’ve had a good tomato year and have frozen tomatoes as they’ve ripened on the vines, I’ll mix vine-ripened and box-ripened tomatoes. I’m adding a lot of flavor with the other ingredients, so even if I use only box-ripened tomatoes, I still get a good sauce.  These are the last of my box-ripened sauce tomatoes below.

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This sauce takes some time because it has to reduce. Tomatoes are mostly water, even sauce tomatoes (this year I grew Romas and San Marzanos for sauce, but I had so many heirlooms, they ended up in the sauce as well). And because I hate the way a big pot of tomato sauce spits all over the kitchen as it gets thick, I finish reducing my sauce in the oven. This oven-baking technique gives extra flavor to the tomatoes, which is a good thing if they are box-ripened. It’s the same method I use for reducing my apple butter, and it means that I have less clean-up and can walk away from the pot without worrying about scorching when it starts to get thick.

I’m tired by this time of year, and sick of canning, and I’m out of shelf space for full jars (boxes of applesauce, apple butter, green tomato relish, and green tomato marmalade—all the fall canning projects—are reposing under my bed). So I freeze my red sauce in quart freezer bags rather than canning it.  Below is a picture of my no-mess method for filling bags.  I put a quart freezer bag in a quart jar, then insert a canning funnel into the mouth of the jar, which holds the bag open.  This keeps whatever’s going inside the bag from getting all over the zipper closure.

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In the summer, I almost never get enough tomatoes at any one time for sauce-making. And I don’t want to be making sauce when it’s still 90 degrees outside. So I am thankful for my two big freezers. They allow me to freeze foods like blackberries and tomatoes as they ripen in the summer, and then I can deal with them in the fall and winter when it’s cold outside, and I don’t mind heating up the house with big, boiling pots or the oven, and when I don’t have other pressing tasks. In fact, the by-product of heat from preserving in the winter time is a bonus.

Freezing tomatoes whole is as easy as it gets in garden preservation. You just rinse them, let them drain, cut out any bad spots, core them if you wish, but you don’t have to, and pop them into a freezer bag. In a deep freezer, the little bit of moisture left on the tomato skins will ice-glaze them, and they will keep like that for months before you have to do something with them. They don’t stick together when they’re whole, so you can take out and thaw them one at a time to be added to dishes where you want a little tomato flavor, or you can thaw out the bags and process the tomatoes all at once. For me, this means making one big batch of sauce in the late fall or early winter. Then it’s done, and my freezer is less full and ready for the next adventure.

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One side benefit to freezing tomatoes before cooking with them, I’ve discovered, is that when they thaw, the skins slip right off, and you can just pinch out the core with your fingers if you didn’t core them before freezing. If you don’t mind tomato seeds in your sauce, you can put the thawed, skinned, cored tomatoes in a big pot, get them started cooking and breaking down, and puree them with a stick blender. You can also puree them in batches in a counter-top blender. But I’m old-fashioned, and I like to get all the flavor I possibly can out of my tomatoes, so I cook them with the skins on until they are soft, and then run them through a chinois, or cone colander, to create a smooth texture and separate pulp from the skins and (most of) the seeds. If you have a Squeezo Strainer or a strainer attachment for a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, you might find that easier. For me, the chinois is easier to set up, take down, and clean up.

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Don’t throw the skins and seeds away after straining! I save skins and seeds, and either spread them on parchment-lined cookie sheets and dry in the oven on low (170 degrees or lower) until crunchy, or spread them on the fruit leather trays in my dehydrator (set at about 135 degrees) and leave them until they’re very dry, and then grind them to powder in the blender. (More about how to use this flavor-packed powder in these posts: Dried Tomato Skin Rub and Pulled Pork, and Braised and Barbecued Pork Spareribs.) I don’t know about you, but I just don’t want to waste a single bit of those wonderful garden tomatoes.  This powder can also be added to soups and stews for an extra punch of flavor.

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After pureeing or straining, what you will have is thin, watery, tomato juice with what seems like very little pulp. At this point, if you’re a tomato juice lover, you might not want to go any further! You might want to can your tomato juice in pints or quarts or make homemade V-8 juice and can that.

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But if you’re still game for sauce, get your tomato juice into a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pan and start boiling it to reduce it. It might seem like this stuff will never turn into sauce, but it just takes time and heat. Don’t fill your pot too full; you don’t want it to boil over and lose part of it after all the work thus far. Use more than one pot if you have to so you can boil it on high heat for a while. At first, there is so much liquid in the juice, it won’t stick and can be boiled on high, but keep an eye on it. After a while (and the time depends on how what variety of tomato and its water content as well the level of heat and the kind of pot you used—I like stainless steel), you’ll notice that your juice has reduced and is beginning to thicken into a sauce. I can give you a general guideline and tell you that you will have to reduce your juice in volume by about half to get to this point. And you’re not done yet!

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But persevere, because that juice is about to turn into sauce. And here’s where this technique (I won’t have the gall to call it a recipe!) can be intimidating if you’re the kind of person who has to have specific amounts to add to recipes. But if you are such a person, I say: free yourself from such restraints. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Add ingredients a little at a time, cook and taste, until you achieve something you like, that suits your tastes. You might not be a big fan of garlic, or oregano, like I am. If so, add small amounts of those things, tasting as you go, to get a sauce you like. Your taste buds are your most important tool in the kitchen. When you use them, you will not go wrong.

When the juice has reduced by about half and thickened somewhat, it’s time to add your aromatics and seasonings—the chopped onion, minced garlic, and whatever herbs you choose (oregano, basil, and parsley for me), as well as a little salt and pepper. As a general guideline, I will give you approximate measurements for my most recent batch of red sauce. If you’re good at math, you can cut them down if you wish.

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I started with 7 gallon bags of frozen tomatoes and 1 gallon of box-ripened tomatoes that hadn’t been frozen. That’s 8 gallons of tomatoes. (There’s no point in trying to make sauce with a gallon of tomatoes. You’ll only end up with a quart of sauce. It’s too much work for what you get out of it.)

I cooked those tomatoes down in their own juice (another benefit of using frozen tomatoes—no need to add any water to the pot to keep them from sticking). I had about 18 quarts of juice after straining, maybe a little more. I didn’t measure it, but I can guestimate from the size of my big pans. One is 12 quarts and was almost full. The other one holds 7 quarts and was almost full as well. (I needed three pots to cook down the tomatoes, but I got about two quarts of skins and seeds for the dehydrator after straining.)

To those 18 or so quarts of tomato juice, after it had reduced enough in two pots to transfer it all into the big, 12-quart stockpot so that it was nearly full (probably about 10 quarts of thickened juice/sauce), I added three onions and 1 full head of garlic (all chopped in the food processor), 1 cup of red wine (and not anything expensive either, no matter what they tell you on Food Network!), 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons of crushed dried oregano, 2 tablespoons of crushed dried basil, and 2 tablespoons of crushed dried parsley. (I had fresh parsley in the garden, but it was raining, and I didn’t feel like going out in the rain and then having to wash mud off the parsley.) After cooking a bit longer following these additions to meld the flavors (and by now the sauce is thick enough that the heat must be lowered to medium to keep it from sticking), I added two tablespoons of sugar. I almost always add a bit of sugar to my pasta sauces to mellow out the acidity of the tomatoes, whether I’m making sauce from scratch, making it with home-grown, home-canned tomatoes, or using diced tomatoes or tomato sauce out a can. The red wine also has a sweetening effect, but I like just a bit more sweetness, especially with box-ripened tomatoes.

Remember that as sauces reduce, flavors intensify. I don’t add salt or sugar to my red sauce until it has cooked down quite a bit. And then I add just enough to taste. I can always add salt or sugar as I’m cooking with the sauce, but I can’t take it out after I’ve put it in and reduced it.

When all this is boiling again (and starting to spit and stick to the bottom of the pan), then I put it in the oven, uncovered, at 300 to 325 degrees to reduce. (It was at this point during the sauce session on Saturday that Dennis took a look at it and said, “Oh, that looks like you could put it on spaghetti!” No kidding, honey. All I could do was laugh.)

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It may take several hours to finish reducing, so you can go on about your other business while the sauce cooks in the oven.

(You can finish reducing the sauce on the stovetop, but I did mention the spitting earlier, did I not? The sauce will reduce faster if cooked on medium to low heat on the stovetop, but it has to be stirred very frequently to prevent sticking. There is no way to prevent spitting. It will spit right through a grease screen; I’ve tried one, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. And then you have to clean the walls or backsplash, adjacent countertops, and stovetop of all the spits of red tomato sauce. No, thank you.)

I stir the sauce about once an hour, scraping down the sides of the pan with a silicone spatula. After an hour of cook time in the oven, I taste the sauce. Does it need more herbs? I remind myself that as the sauce continues to reduce, the flavors of salt and pepper, herbs, onion, and garlic will continue to intensify, but if I think it needs more of anything, I add it now. I let it reduce some more and taste again. Does the sauce seem too acidic? If so, I add a little more sugar, and if I think the sauce seems bland, a little more salt and pepper.  (With this batch, I added 1/2 teaspoon more salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and another 1/4 cup of sugar.) I continue reducing until I have a sauce that will stick to pasta. Not as thick as ketchup, but with some body. This may take several hours in the oven, and if it looks like it’s going to go late into the night, I just reduce the heat to 200 and let it sit in the oven all night. At that temperature, a big pot will be fine until morning.

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When the sauce is as thick as I want it (and thick enough for a wooden spoon to stand up in it is a good guideline), I do a final taste and seasoning, if needed, with salt, pepper, or sugar, cook for just a few minutes more to meld the flavors of anything I just added, and take the pot out of the oven to let the sauce cool down. I figure that I’ll end up with roughly a quarter of the volume of juice I started with, so if I started with 18 quarts of juice, I should get about 4 ½ to 5 quarts of sauce. That might not seem like much, but it’ll be the base of about 9 or 10 dishes that will give Dennis and me several meals from each dish.

The Italian Red Sauce doesn’t go in the freezer bags until it has cooled to room temperature. At that point, I usually bag it in two cup measures, put the bags flat on cookie sheets, and put them in the freezer. After they’ve frozen hard, I gather them into one or two gallon-sized storage bags so I can find the sauce in the freezer when I want it.

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This Italian Red Sauce takes some doing, but it is well-worth it if you have the tomatoes. I love having my own, homemade red sauce (or marinara, if you prefer) hanging out in the freezer whenever I want to make an Italian-inspired dish. It can be tossed as is with any kind of cooked pasta for a vegetarian dish, be added to browned meat or meatballs for spaghetti, be reduced and thickened further for pizza, be used in my Gluten-free Eggplant Lasagna (with or without meat), or be added to a soup. It’s versatile and delicious, and it’s a good way to use up box-ripened tomatoes in the fall. When I have an abundance of tomatoes in the fall and have already canned up my Charred Salsa and Tomato-Apple Chutney, and don’t need any Red Hot Sauce, Italian Red Sauce is as good a way as any to use them up.

Postscript:  I got a late start on Saturday getting this sauce underway.  I wrote this post as the sauce was cooking.  By bedtime, the sauce wasn’t as reduced as I wanted it to be, so I turned the oven down to 200 degrees and went to bed.  All night, I dreamed about pizza, and I woke up thinking about pizza in the morning.  It was because of that sauce, perfuming the whole house while I slept.  The sauce had reduced enough by morning, so I set it on the counter to cool before I bagged it.  I had pizza on the brain, so I put most of the sauce in two-cup measures into the bags, but I decided to put some up for pizza too, so that went into sandwich bags in 1 cup measures. They’ll all be gathered into a recycled gallon bag after they’re frozen solid.  I got 6 bags of 2 cups each, and 3 bags of 1 cup each, marked for pizza.

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And I saved a cup to reduce a little further on the stove and made gluten-free pizza for dinner.

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6 thoughts on “Italian Red Sauce

  1. Ahhhhh – I still have a half bushel or so of frozen romas. I had forgotten all about them. I think they may be destined for V-8.

    I like that you reduce in the oven. Makes good sense. I also add shredded carrots to my marinara. it thickens and sweetens.

    • I remember now that you use carrots in your sauce, Kelly. I wish I’d remembered that when I was making mine; I’d have tried it. I have all the carrots Bryce pulled to do something with now!

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