This is it, guys. Arguably the biggest day of the year in our family (or at least, it used to be). It’s Saturday in late August. Earlier in the week, Dad packed the station wagon with bushels of plum tomatoes from Brooklyn. Blankets were outstretched on the basement floor. The bushels were let loose and every walkable space was covered in red in anticipation of the weekend. On Saturday, no one rests. We kids start sorting through the tomato stash in the early morning, picking out the bad ones. Our parents prep the giant food mill, making sure everything is clean and ready. Mom and Dad are eager to get started so we’re not stuck working into the night. My brothers and I (or maybe just me) are fidgety, wondering how soon we can escape upstairs into the air conditioning. Breakfast is fast, conversation is tense, and moods are unpredictable.
That was the start of our typical sauce-making days growing up. As I’ve mentioned, my feelings for this epic family event have been mixed over the years. I’ve been thrilled, embarrassed, lazy, resentful, and regretful, depending on my stage in life. But I’ve finally taken the time to get it right.
I spent last weekend in New Jersey making sauce with my mom. It’s the first time I willfully participated in the ritual. I actually requested we do it. It’s one of those traditions I’m scared will slip away if I don’t take the time to learn. My parents already stopped once we kids moved out. I never truly understood how to do it. So guess what? If I don’t pay attention, learn, and remember, that will be it. Done with me.
My family gets bushels of plum tomatoes from our Brooklyn grocer available between mid August and early September. Depending on where you are, the availability window may shift by a few weeks. Call your local farm, grocer, or supermarket to find out when bushels are available in your area.
Before you commit, understand this: It’s hard work. You will inevitably look at the ocean of red sprawled out before you and wonder why the %#$! you signed up for this. Don’t worry. Power through. It will be worth it. We only made three bushels this year and they still felt infinite. Growing up, we made 10 to 15 bushels at a time.
Once you’ve mentally prepared for back-breaking work, get to it. Get your bushels a few days in advance so they can ripen if needed. Unless you have organic, plant-ripened tomatoes, they’ll need time to fully ripen. We lay them on a sheet on the floor and leave them for about three days. When the big day comes, get on the floor and start picking out the bad guys. Start early in the morning and move fast. Set aside any tomatoes with mold spots, bruises, or green patches. You can still use them, but you’ll have to cut off the bad areas before you do.
Working in manageable batches, wash the tomatoes.
Prepare your mason jars by sterilizing them in a dishwasher. If you don’t have a dishwasher, try this method of stove top sterilizing.
The next stage is where the disagreements will set in (if they haven’t already). Different families, generations, and know-it-alls will argue over the best approach at this point. We’ve done it two ways:
1. Boil batches of whole tomatoes until they split open. Once split, remove them from the heat and run them through your food strainer.
2. First quarter each tomato, removing dark seeds, green spots, or anything that doesn’t look great. Boil the cut tomatoes until they’re soft, then run through the food strainer. This extra step takes hours, and some people (like my grandfather) argue that it’s unnecessary. But some people (like my mother) insist it’s necessary if your bushels had a lot of bad tomatoes. Any bad spots, mold, etc., can turn the sauce sour, so she advises taking extra care to remove unwanted spots.
Whatever method you use, if you want a thicker sauce, use a slotted spoon to transfer tomatoes to the strainer to remove excess water. You can even bypass the straining altogether and jar the tomatoes whole. Just boil and put them in jars. Chop or strain them in a little food mill when you’re ready to use them.
Straining is the only stage during which we really had a problem. In the past, we’d always used a heavy-duty mill, like this one. This year, we realized too late that it was broken. Being the resourceful ladies that we are, we didn’t let that stop us. We just used the next best thing: a hand-held food mill. It was fine. Just, er, a little slow.
But hey, we got through it. Once you finish your straining stage, drop a few fresh basil leaves in each sterilized jar and fill them with sauce (or whole tomatoes, if you skipped the straining). Be careful! The jar’s rim needs to be completely clean to get a good seal; be sure to wipe away any sauce splashes. Cover and screw on the lids.
Using a canning rack and a giant pot, place the jars in water and bring to a boil. Let boil for about 20 minutes to seal the lids. Be careful again! Let the jars cool in the pot until they’re comfortable to touch. This means you’ll need more than one pot to keep the process moving quickly.
Store the jars in a cool, dry place. Be sure to mortify your adolescent children by lining your cupboards with tomato jars. They’ll last a good year, and probably more.