Thursday, September 15, 2011

If you're going to make sauce ...

Jars of sauce sit in their hot water bath.

If you're going to make tomato sauce invite friends. Flatter them. Get excited about it. Sound enthusiastic. Organize a pot luck. Let them think it's going to be the most fun they could possibly have on a Saturday.

Joleyn, left, had never canned or made tomato sauce, and my mom had
made sauce and canned jam, but neither on this scale. Just before I brought
the camera out, Beth went home to put her kids to bed, but she came back.
None of them had any idea what they were getting in to.
Don't they look like they are having fun?

This was the first season I got serious about canning tomatoes. I learned a few things in the process and inviting friends was definitely something I did right.

What else did I learn?

Making sauce is a good idea. I wanted to make sauce and I wanted it to last all winter. We eat homemade pizza about once a week and it's definitely better with homemade sauce than with the stuff from a can. Out of all the canning projects I wanted to do this season, this is the one that is the most practical. This is the one that is going to help me keep eating local even during the dark days. Even after the following, I'm still glad I made my sauce.

 A bushel of tomatoes ready
for processing.
Unless you live on a farm or have a huge garden, don't depend on the tomatoes you grow yourself. I've been planning on making sauce since I planted my tomato plants this spring. It became clear pretty early, that my 10 plants, while giving me lots of yummy tomatoes, were not going to produce enough for sauce -- at least not all at once.

Because I got about a half-dozen tomatoes ripe at any one time -- too many to eat, barely a small fraction of enough for sauce -- I froze them as I went along. The frozen tomatoes I will use this winter in recipes that call for whole, dice or crushed tomatoes.

For my sauce, I bought a 20-pound box from KFF and picked another bushel at Hand Melon Farm. Together with what my friends brought, we ended up with a bit more than two bushels of tomatoes.

This leads me to my next lesson ...

Don't even consider picking tomatoes and canning sauce on the same day. Seriously, what was I thinking? Someone out there may have tips on getting the job done faster, but in my experience, four women cannot tackle two bushels of tomatoes in half a day. In the end, I ended up taking the last batch of sauce out of the canner at 10:30 p.m. of the second day -- alone.

Be forgiving.  When your friends call it a night, while you still have sauce simmering on the stove, remember they weren't expecting the project to last for two days. Consider youself lucky that you're still friends after the "party" turned into a form of mild torture.
Sauce simmers in one pot, while tomatoes are blanched for peeling in another and the
canner starts heating up to process the first batch of sauce in jars.

Sauce takes a long time to cook. Even with all the time we put in, we still ended up canning some pretty thin sauce. The stuff we made the second day got on the stove earlier and ended up thicker, but on day one we (my mom stuck it out) had to call it quits around midnight and just can what we had, regardless of how thin it was. I'm not going to say precisely how long a pot of tomatoes needs to simmer to become thick sauce, but the one batch that came out kind of thick probably cooked for about 8 hours.

Yup, the clock says 1:06 a.m. That was the first night (uh, morning), and there
was still nearly a full bushel of tomatoes sitting in my kitchen

Clear your agenda. Choosing the weekend of my anniversary and hoping to go on the cheese tour the second day, were mistakes. I did try to make some food ahead of time to cut down on meal prep, but I could have done more. It also wasn't ideal to have my sauce weekend crammed in between two six-day weeks. It couldn't have been helped, but next year, I'm going to try to take a couple of extra days off in September specifically for canning.

Although this year's sauce-making experience was far from perfect and produced far-from-perfect sauce, I don't regret a bit of it (well, maybe picking and canning on the same day). I learned my lessons, and will remember them next year. I will have to cook my sauce down further when I open my jars in January, but at least I'll have homemade sauce to eat in January -- if I have enough to last that long.

Hopefully, this post doesn't scare you all away from making sauce, because I'll need friends to join me for next year's sauce party.

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