How to Can Tomato Sauce: A Rite of Passage in Italian America
August is the time of year when Italian Americans (and apparently Pinterest stars and serious foodies) begin teaching how to can tomato sauce. A haze of tomato clouds envelops the kitchen and mammas say a little prayer every 15 minutes as the process tests the air conditioning, stovetop, not to mention marriages and the will to survive. During an unprecedented pandemic, canning tomatoes has become more than the usual necessity; now it’s a way to stock the safe room — err, pantry — for the Apocalypse, too.
Prepare your home for what’s coming.
Pull out the old sheets — the ones nonna uses as a tablecloth when she knows the vino will be flowing on Sunday Funday (ah, remember those) — to cover your tables and chairs. And put on your rags. Despite these best efforts, you will find tomato juice on the ceiling, in your hair, and on the baby if you have one. You’ll still be cleaning up this mess in December, I promise you.
I recently described tomato season as one of Dante’s rings of inferno, which I call Passa Pomodoro. But in every jar you’re preserving nonno’s dedication to the tomatoes in his garden, a love of natural and delicious food, and most of all family traditions. So, you will carry on and whip out the necessary equipment, including: the electric food mill, giant pots for boiling tomatoes, a serrated knife, a canning pot replete with insert to hold jars in place, jar funnels, and ladles. Of course, you will have sterilized all the mason jars you have ever had in your home and the new ones you will buy for this task.
Most nonnos do not have enough room to grow the required amount of tomatoes to jar a year’s supply. If that’s the case, you can either jar only your garden tomatoes and treat each one as though it’s pure gold, or you can buy bushels of plum tomatoes. In our part of the world, Corrado’s Market in Clifton, N.J. is the supplier of Italian America’s tomatoes in August and grapes (for wine making) in October. Sometimes, you’ll find boxes instead of bushels. You can always buy bags and bags of plum tomatoes at your local grocery store.
Make sure you have enough mason jars, sealing lids, and rings. Boil the glass jars in the canning pot. Wash the lids and rings in warm, soapy water. There is some debate about whether to boil these items, too. But we stick to the hand washing.
In the old days, you would also prepare for the arrival of grandparents and maybe cousins and aunts and uncles, who would sleep over and hamper the process under the guise of coming to help. Despite the inconvenience, now that many of my elder relatives have passed away, I can’t help but taste the nostalgia as I smell every Sunday dinner and holiday courtesy of tomatoes bubbling up in my giant pot, which happens to be a family heirloom.
Boil the tomatoes.
The first step is to cut the tomatoes into quarters with the serrated knife. Place them in one of those big pots, fill it with water, and bring to a boil. The steam will cause the temperature in your home to rise to inferno levels. Here comes Dante again. And you may find condensation on the vents of your air conditioning system. The condensation will drip onto you, and you will be dripping with sweat, and it will all end up on the floor, which will remain slick for about a week. Next, the tomato juice will begin to fly at the start of boiling. Your stovetop will have a tomato film on it for years to come. Can’t find a steam cleaner to get it off! This is when the fun—and mamma’s tears — begin.
Pass the tomatoes through the food mill.
Get an expert in the family to put together the machine. If this is your initiation, then watch a YouTube video or read the instructions. Our machine is probably 100 years old, so I haven’t seen that document maybe ever. My husband figured it out. My mother supervised. If you’re using a manual food mill, I send my sincerest condolensces.
Maybe you thought the tomato juice was bursting when the tomatoes were boiling on the stovetop. Just. You. Wait. When you push the tomatoes through the mill, the sauce will spit at you, not to mention any object or person within a three-foot radius. The majority, however, will still land in your bowl through the tomato sauce slide that is part of the mill. Yes, you should make sure there is a clean bowl or large bucket to catch the tomato sauce as it comes out. You should also put another bowl under the part of the mill that spews the seeds and skin, which will look like red snakes that you wrangle and toss in the garbage every so often.
Fill the jars with your sauce and love.
Head back to nonno’s garden and pick some hefty bunches of fresh basil. Wash it and place about four to five basil leaves in the bottoms of your sterilized jars. Then, use a jarring funnel and ladle to fill each jar with the sauce. Top each jar of sauce with 1 tsp of salt. Put the sealing lid on top of the jar and carefully screw on the ring. Do not over tighten.
Boil the filled jars to seal the deal.
Carefully place the filled jars into a canning pot with a metal insert to help them stay put in the rolling water. Fill the pot with water so that the lids of the jars are all covered. Keep a high flame under the pot and use the pot cover. Once the water begins to boil, set a timer for one hour. After an hour, you can shut off the flame and use a jar lifter for canning to remove the jars from the pot.
You may suffer injuries during the course of the jarring process. Among them are tomato juice to the eye, criticism from nonno as a result of your maltreatment of his tomatoes, or a severe burn to your hand because you thought a pot was cool and it really, really wasn’t. Don’t say I didn't warn you. Wear the scars proudly.
Feel the satisfaction.
Line up your jars, however many you have filled, and look in wonder. This hard work will make the winter warmer. It will feed your need both to survive and thrive for the tomato sauce is the star of your kitchen. During the height of the coronavirus crisis in the New York tri-state area, Governor Andrew Cuomo waxed nostalgic about Sunday dinners with his grandparents. He remembered the meatballs and the sausage and the memories, such as how his grandfather would say his vacation was over at the end of the meal. His is our story. The bonds of our families all begin with a jar of that tomato sauce.