Great pasta sauce for canning, sharing!

Amazing pasta sauce… even though you’ve already canned yours.

DSC_0080smallThree quarts out of 20, labeled Batch 3, 2 stars (very good). Surprise ingredients here – red wine, balsamic vinegar, beef stock base…

Thanks, but it’s too late.

I know, I know. It’s too late. You’ve canned your tomatoes already, one way or another, and I want to write about canning pasta sauce and what’s the point? It’s too late! You’re done! And I’m done! Maybe this will help for next year… or maybe there’s an off chance you’ve got 50 pounds of tomatoes and have no idea what to do with them. No. Nobody who grows 50 pounds of tomatoes has no idea what to with them in late September.

How’d John Havlicek get in here?

John_Havlicek_1960s

Why don’t we drop the pretense and call canning what it really is? Jarring. Oh, but that won’t work because that was Johnny Most’s nickname for John Havlicek. Jarring John. Jarring John is an upsetting phrase. Sure, he jarred people on the basketball court, but in the off-season was he canning/jarring tomatoes? Maybe. I don’t know the man.

(publicity still, Creative Commons license)

Ingredients, tips, and BALL-derdash

So I’ve done my pasta sauce (20 quarts, thank you) and some diced tomatoes and the salsa is yet to come, maybe next week, from the sad little end-of-season guys (tomatoes) I have tucked into their snuggly sealed-up brown paper bag to ripen at their own leisurely pace. But regardless of how pointless this is, I want to tell you about this pasta sauce – which has won raves from people we’ve given it to – and how some of the tips from the Ball jar people in Muncie, Indiana are just plain BALLderdash.

First, my pasta sauce ingredients, for 1 quart of sauce (but I usually do 4-5 quarts at a time):

  • Tomatoes. Can’t tell you how many, maybe 6-8 decent sized ones. They’re cored and usually cut in half, then steamed over (not in) boiling water for 6-9 minutes, depending on how ripe they are (less time for really ripe ones), then peeled (so much fun!) and put in a stockpot and mashed with a potato masher, then in a food processor for 3-4 pulses and that’s it.
  • Tomato paste from a can. Oh no, cheating! Yes, it hurts my pride, but the paste is a good thickener, and it has citric acid in it, and citric acid (like its cousin acetic acid, or white vinegar) is a good preservative. I use about 4 oz. of paste per quart, sometimes a little more.
  • Better Than Bouillon beef base. More cheating! I can’t give my sauce to vegetarians because of this, which leaves more for my wife and me. I use about a hefty tablespoon of the beefy/salty goo per quart. It provides some salt, some richness to the color of the sauce, and a je ne sais quoi to the flavor. Call it umami.
  • Garlic. As the air we breathe is to our lungs, so is garlic to pasta sauce. 2-3 fat cloves, pressed or minced, per quart. You can saute ahead of time in olive oil, but hey, it’s more work, and not necessary.
  • Red wine. About 1 to 1 1/2 oz. Part of the magic!
  • Balsamic vinegar – more magic! About a tablespoon.
  • Olive oil. About a tablespoon. I use regular olive oil, not the extra virgin, which I think is too heavy and greasy.
  • Brown sugar – about 2 tsps, but only if the sauce isn’t sweet enough.
  • Oregano and basil – about 1 tbsp. each. I use fresh basil from the garden, finely chopped.
  • Cayenne pepper to taste for some extra oomph.
  • Green bell pepper, chopped. About 1/2 a medium sized pepper. Don’t include the white fleshy membrane stuff – too spoogey. The pepper goes into the mix at the very end.

Get ready to combine all this stuff into a large stockpot. Maybe you’re doing five quarts at once – good, but that’ll max out your stockpot (usually).

Tip 1: When ladling your mashed tomatoes into the food processor, fill it to about 16 oz. with both tomatoes and liquid, but for the next 16 oz. use a slotted spoon to fish out tomato meats without the liquid. This will save lots of time when reducing the sauce on the stove. 3 to 4 quick pulses, and pour into your stockpot. Add everything else (except the chopped pepper), mix well, and get the sauce gently bubbling over low heat.

Tip 2: The good people at Ball tell you, for a basic sauce, to reduce the mix by one half. BALL-derdash!! That’s a lot of time, propane, and stirring. I think they expect you to want a really thick, gooey sauce, which is fine if you want to mimic store-bought pasta sauce, but no, this is your sauce (and mine) and it doesn’t have to be thick and gooey. I suggest reducing the volume of the sauce by one quarter at most. After all, they’re your tomatoes, and who wants to see half of them vanish into steam? But it’s your call: reduce the sauce until it has a texture and thickness that appeals to you. When you’re nearly done, throw in the green peppers.

Tip 3: The good people at Ball also tell you to add a teaspoon of bottled lemon juice to your quart jar when you’re canning. BALL-derdash! The lemon juice adds citric acid, which extends shelf life (this may be their lawyers talking), but you’ve already got plenty of acid from the tomatoes themselves, the tomato paste, and the balsamic vinegar. Skip the lemon juice, unless you like a really sour sauce that tastes a little like lemonade.

An assortment of canning tips: This is a hot water bath canning process, so fill your canning pot with hot tap water to within about 6 inches from the top (for 5 quart jars). Using a jar lifter, lower in the jars (without the lids), filling them with water, and turn the burner on high. In a separate small saucepot, heat some water and put in 5 lids and bands. You want the jars, lids and bands to heat to about 180 degrees, but not boiling. Important: it’s risky using “last year’s lids” – lids that have already been pried open. They usually won’t seal again because they’ve been crimped. Always use brand new lids.

When they’re all heated up, ladle the sauce into the jars with a funnel, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Keep the rims of the jars clean. Now put on the lids and bands. The people at Ball tell you to tighten the bands finger-tightBALL-derdash!! That’s not tight enough – you should tighten with your whole hand. Tight, but not super tight. I’ve done “finger-tight” before, with tragic results I’d rather not share.

Put the jars into the canner making sure you have at least 1/2 ” of water over the tops of the jars, and when the water boils, cover, and let it boil gently for 45 minutes. When done, remove the cover and leave the jars alone for five minutes or so before removing. Lids may “pop down” even when they’re still in the hot water, but usually they pop down after you remove them. I place the jars on a dishtowel and wait to hear 5 popping sounds. Success!

Oh, I nearly forgot: let the jars cool on the dishtowel before storing them, and don’t tighten or loosen the bands! Later, the Ball people will tell you, remove the bands and just leave the lids on – the seal will remain tight. BALL-derdash!!  Sure, the seal will stay tight, but if you use only, say, half a jar of sauce some day, how are you going to store the jar in the fridge without a band to secure the lid, since the vacuum seal is broken?

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It was a pretty iffy summer for tomatoes, weather being what it was. Still, we did fair to middling, with some deer damage and late blight only at the end. Of all the places I’ve lived, tomatoes here come out on top:

  • New Mexico (mainly Taos area): nearly impossible to get really good tomatoes.
  • Atlanta area: impossible. “Fresh” tomatoes come down to farm stands from Tennessee, and they’re not very good. Firm, mealy, tasteless.
  • Olympia, WA: Mealy. Maybe we shopped at the wrong farm stands. Or maybe it’s just too rainy.

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Late note: I want to thank Steve Hungsberg (his comment below), who works at Ball in Muncie, for checking in with his advice on using the bands once the canning is complete. Steve, you’re quite right! (I’m not on Facebook so I can’t respond directly). But when I ship pasta sauce to family and friends at holiday time (I’m not supposed to do that, but I do anyway), I leave the bands on loosely – just for their convenience.

I’ve spent some time in Muncie, and plenty in New Castle (just south of it) and the Ball Company is solid. Good folks, great products. Thanks, Steve.

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.