I married an Italian, so in my house we call it gravy, but no matter what you call it there is really nothing quite as tasty as a tomato sauce made from scratch. I’m going to let you in on a little secret, too…it really isn’t all that hard to make. There are parts that are more tedious then others, but on the over/under it is well worth the effort. I don’t use any kind of pre-made tomato sauce. Like ever. Many, many moons ago I would buy the jarred and doctor it up, but then I realized that was a stupid thing to do given my career choice and quit it. I make my sauce from scratch.
Now when I say ‘Homemade For Real’ I’m talking about tomato sauce made from real, live tomatoes…not the ones that come in a can. I am not knocking canned tomatoes, I use them all the time to make tomato sauce and all sorts of other things when tomatoes are out of season, but they really do pale in comparison to the real deal. The unfortunate part is the real deal is really only feasible this time of year when tomatoes are in their prime and practically falling out of the sky. I do my best to take advantage of that fact and make batches of sauce & freeze them for use when it’s not tomato season so I always have yummy tomato sauce on hand.
Let’s start with the tomatoes. This is, as I am sure you may have guessed, the most important part. I got 20# of beefsteaks from the Farmer’s Market for my sauce. You can use Romas, they are quite delicious & when I buy canned I almost exclusively buy plum or romas, but they are also quite small which means more work. I don’t know that they are worth it, I have never been able to discern in this sauce a difference between the 2 so when I am the one doing the prep work I go for the bigger ones. They don’t need to be perfect – ugly fruits & veggies need love, too! They just need to be ripe.
I would not make sauce out of grocery store tomatoes, make the trip to the market (or garden if you are really lucky) to get vine ripened tomatoes. The ones you are sold at grocery stores, unless they are clearly marked as farm or vine ripened, are sold in bulk cases and are lacking in flavor. They are usually picked when they just start to turn orange and are ‘ripened’ in the cases. They are fine for general use, but not worth the effort for sauce, they just don’t taste right, so if you are going to go to the trouble to make sauce from scratch it’s worth the trip to get good ‘maters.
The most tedious part of the sauce is getting the tomatoes ready to go. When you are making a sauce from scratch you want to remove the skins and most of the seeds, neither add anything to the sauce and make it taste watered down. Though tedious, the process isn’t hard; you core the tomatoes, blanch them for about a minute in simmering water then chill in some cold water to stop the cooking process, peel & seed. The blanching loosens the skin making it slough right off & seeding is just a fancy word for squishing. Once you get past this part its a little bit of chopping, a smidge of sauteing and a whole lot of waiting.
Peeling & seeding the tomatoes starts with a simmering pot of water. I use my big 3 gallon stock pot which lets me do the tomatoes in 2 batches, about 8 at a time. You can do it in a smaller pot, but you also need the big guy for the actual cooking of the sauce when making a batch from a peck, around 20#, of fresh tomatoes. Fill your stock pot with 2 gallons of water, salt it a little and let it come to a simmer. The simmering part is also important. At a rolling boil the tomatoes can get beat up some and it lessens the margin of error for getting them out of the water before they are too cooked; the goal here is not to cook them but only to get the skins to easily peel away.
So the pot is on the stove, time to get the tomatoes ready. First step is removing the core from each of them. I do it with a paring knife, a tomato corer will also do the trick if you happen to have one. After you core the tomato flip it over and cut a shallow cross on the bottom, you don’t want to get through to the flesh, really, just pierce the skin. This allows the skin to loosen up while blanching & makes the peeling process easypeasy. This what you should have when you’re done.
Next step is to get a big bowl and fill it with ice water, ideally, or cold water, I recommend setting it in the sink so as not to bathe the counter or stove top. When the tomatoes are done blanching you want to halt the cooking process as quickly as possible so the tomatoes don’t get mushy & hard to handle (another reason I prefer big tomatoes, much larger margin of error in this step because of their size), dunking them in a cold water bath, obviously, makes them not hot anymore.
The water is simmering, the cold bath is, well, not simmering and your tomatoes are cored…we are about half way there. Start dunking the tomatoes into the simmering water, in the big pot I do it in 2 batches. The tomatoes need to stay in the simmering water until the skin starts to peel back & pop at the places you cut it, about a minute or so. Once you see that happening use a slotted spoon to get them out of the hottub & into the pool to cool off. You can see in the pic below the skin on the blanched tomatoes looks loose, thats the desired effect!
Time to peel. The skin should come off really easy without any tools outside of the 2 on the ends of your arms. I peel into a colander because I do not have a garbage disposal & hate scooping tomato gunk out of the sink. When they are peeled you will have pretty, bright red, skinless perfection. When they are peeled cut them all across the belly, like in the fourth picture, and squeeze out the seeds over the colander. I do it like a lemon, hold it cut side down, palm the tomato half and give it a squish. Not gonna lie, this part is pretty fun. Perfection is not the goal here, a few tomato seeds will hardly ruin the sauce, but you want to get the majority of them.
When you are done you will have a bowl of peeled & seeded tomatoes, all that’s left to do is chop them up. Little chef lesson – if you see ‘tomato concasse’ on a menu or anywhere this is what it means – peeled, seeded & small diced – it is a much neater way to present diced tomato & the flavor is cleaner & less watery. I don’t small dice, mine are more a large dice for this application.
You can see there are a few seeds floating around in there, but like I said, nothing to loose sleep over it. Out of the peck of tomatoes I bought I got 2 gallons, by volume, of tomato concasse, thats pretty awesome!
The hard part is over, all thats left is building the sauce & waiting for it took cook. We will get to that part in the recipe. For now though I want to talk abut herbs…
Herbs: Fresh vs. Dry
My spice cabinet is a thing to behold. I think I might have just about every dried spice known to man living in there. Ok well maybe no ALL, but pretty damn close. As much as I prefer to use fresh herbs as often as possible, they don’t always work the way you need them to & dried are necessary. Dried herbs are meant to be used for long haul cooking where they have time to infuse into the dish & develop flavor, fresh herbs not so much.
Fresh herbs are delicate. If you are cooking something for an extended period of time, like a tomato sauce, putting in fresh herbs at the beginning is a waste. The flavors die after being on the stove for an hour. They get bitter and just fade away. Most fresh herbs, there are a few exceptions like rosemary & thyme but even they are best when used late in the game for the best results in most applications, are not meant to be effective for long cooking, they are meant to add a bright punch of flavor in the end and will do exactly that if used properly.
I use both dried & fresh in my sauce. I add dried oregano & bay leaf to the sauce at the start, letting those flavors cook into the tomatoes and give the sauce some depth. Fist-fulls of fresh basil go in at the end, letting that fresh brightness permeate right before I pull it off to puree it. Aside: you could use dried basil in place of the oregano I just don’t like it. Dried basil has an anise-y flavor to it I don’t dig, I prefer the combo of dried oregano & fresh basil for ideal flavor.
For most long cook dishes I find a combination of both dried & fresh is ideal to get that balance between depth of flavor and fresh herbaciousness. (Yes, that totally is a word!) and use my fresh herbs judiciously and late in the cooking process for maximum impact.
Before we get into it – this tomato sauce is not a technical recipe, meaning you can be close enough or a little bit over on all of the ingredients and it has little effect on the end result of delicious sauce as long as your close enough to the ratio of tomato-liquid-seasoning. The quantities below are what I measured while I was cooking my sauce but in that most of this recipe is from produce there are a lot of potential measurement discrepancies…so fudge it when you have to.
Also, I use wine, a whole bottle of a dry red. It adds depth and richness and is also completely cooked down so there is no alcohol present in the final sauce. I think the sauce without it is flat, but if you don’t want to or have an aversion to cooking with alcohol omit that step. For the record I honestly don’t recommend that you do though.
Let’s make some sauce!
Homemade From Scratch Tomato Sauce yield around 2 1/2 gallons
- 2 gallons Peeled & Seeded Tomatoes, by volume (about 20# fresh tomatoes)
- 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 each Large Spanish Onion, medium dice (around 2# by weight)
- 2 bunches Garlic, minced (yes bunches, yields a heavy 1/2 cup chopped)
- 4 Tbsp Dried Oregano
- 4 each Bay Leaves
- 1 Tbsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
- 3 Tbsp Salt
- 1 bottle Dry Red Wine (I like Chianti or a nice Cabernet)
- 1 gallon Water
- 4-5 bunches Fresh Basil, trimmed of stems
- 1/2 cup Tomato Paste
Your tomatoes need to be done first according to the instructions above. Once you have a big bowl of concassed tomatoes get the rest of your prep done – medium dice the onion & mince the garlic up. This cooks for a while & then gets pureed so sincerely no need for exact cuts.
Dump out the blanching water from the tomatoes and get the pot back on the stove over medium heat. Add the olive oil & let it warm up. When it gets hot add the onion, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, salt & pepper. Sweat over medium heat, not allowing the vegetables to get any color, until the onion & garlic smell sweet and loose any harshness. This takes about 5-7 minutes.
When the onion & garlic are sweated out add the bottle of wine and bring to a simmer. Let the wine cook down until it is reduced by 2/3. This takes about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally while this is going on.
Add the tomatoes and water to the pot and bring to a boil. Once it boils reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. This is the part where it cooks FOREVER, about 3 hours. In that time the tomatoes soften up & liquify, the flavors develop & melt together and the liquid reduces by a few inches in the pot. You’ll want to cook it uncovered to let the steam escape, stir periodically and adjust the heat as you need to – as the liquid reduces the heat will need to be turned down.
Start looking at it around the 2-2 1/2 hour mark. Taste it and see what you think about the seasoning, it may need some more salt & pepper. By now the mixture should be less watery and more tomatoey, thickened up some as the tomatoes cook down but not quite ready to be off the stove yet.
Enter fresh basil. Remove the stems so all you have is leaves and add the pile to the sauce. Stir it in so it wilts and add the tomato paste, bring back to a simmer and cook in the herb & paste for about half an hour. At this point the sauce should be ready to puree. Aside – you can skip the paste if you want, but it also adds to the depth of the sauce.
By now the sauce should be cohesive, not at all watery, and ready for the final phase. I use my super awesome hand blender right in the pot and puree until smooth, takes abut 3 minutes to get the job done with next to no clean-up, I like that. A food processor is also acceptable, though much messier, but will produce a smooth sauce. If you prefer a chunkier sauce use a whisk or potato masher at this point to squish it up some, or not if that’s what you like, at this point how you finish it is totally your choice, I like it smooth.
I ladled the sauce right on top of the stuffed hot peppers I was making it for and let the rest cool in the pot. When it cooled I packaged it in freezer-friendly 2qt containers, lidded it and tossed them in the freezer to be used another day.
I froze 6 dinners worth of sauce, not bad for a total of 2 hours work if I say so myself, and flavor wise worth every second. Fresh tomato sauce has none of that acidity that makes store bought hard to eat and making it with fresh tomatoes in there prime also means no need to add sugar, the tomatoes are more than sweet enough already. Definitely a cooking project, but one that yields one hell of a bounty of delicious and really isn’t all that hard to pull off for anyone.