I am a from-scratch cook. I like to make my own things–especially this homemade spaghetti sauce–for a whole multitude of reasons: 1) I just really enjoy cooking, 2) I like to know what is in my food, and 3) I’m cheap.
Spaghetti sauce is one of those things that is realatively inexpensive (depending on your tomato price, more on that in a minute) and simple to make. It’s time consuming, but the vast majority of that time is not hands on. I love to see the fruits of my labor at the end, with a row of jars all lined up and ready to eat.
That being said, there are a couple things to keep in mind before tackling homemade spaghetti sauce. First off is your tomatoes. In Alaska, and the price and quality of grocery store tomatoes is not great. I would prefer to buy them from local growers, but most people charge around $6/pound, which is so far out of my price range that it may as well be on the moon. Once when I was in the South visiting my in-laws, someone gave them a giant bag of tomatoes because they “had too many.” This is not a problem where I live. I wish. Boy, do I wish.
In the summer, I like to buy tomatoes from Bell’s Nursery. They sell their Alaska grown tomatoes for $2/pound, which I can and happily afford for fresh local tomatoes. In the winter, I make do with what I can find at Costco. If you can grow your own, I applaud you. I cannot. There is not a plant on this earth that I can successfully keep alive for any length of time.
I also like to freeze tomatoes. If I bought some that are past their peak for eating fresh (which is basically all the time, since I have a perpetual need to overbuy), I core them and freeze them in a bag. Once I’m ready to cook, I toss the frozen in with the fresh, and voila! No waste. I also toss any leftover tomato sauce/paste/whatever into my freezer bags.
The second factor is canning. I can my tomato sauce, since it is time consuming to make, I prefer to only do it once or twice a year (or, approximately whenever we run out). There is very little special equipment needed for water bath canning, so if you’ve never done it, I encourage you to try. Tomato sauce also freezes well, if canning is outside your skill set.
Allright! Let’s get this party started.
I started with 20 pounds of tomatoes. The three bags in back are the ones I’ve been freezing since the last time I made sauce, along with two flats from Costco.
Core each fresh tomato and slice in half.
Using the magic of the internet, we will pretend that that only took two seconds. Throw everything in a large stock pot. (Notice my son in the background, poking holes in the three tomatoes I decided to save for dinner the next day).
Put the pot on the stove to start cooking over a low heat. Remember that I have 12 pounds of frozen tomatoes on the bottom. The low heat starts the thawing process while I chop everything else.
Peel five onions.
And chop roughly into eighths.
Add to pot.
Go outside to clear the stinging from your eyes, because: onions. Be painfully and rapidly reminded that it is -12, and make the decision that it is better to have stinging eyes than to freeze to death.
Wash and chop 2 pounds of carrots into one inch chunks. No need to peel, no need to chop carefully (other than to avoid your fingers).
In we go.
Four ounces of fresh basil. Ah, basil. So, so yummy. It makes me think of summer, which, on freezing and unendingly cold days like today, is a miracle. Pull the leaves off the stems. Take a picture, and marvel at it for a minute (oh wait….that might just be me).
Add it to the pile. Add it to the stash. (10 points if you can place that quote).
This step is optional. I had some frozen, grated zucchini that I decided to add. This is approximately four cups.
Not nearly as cool looking, but yay for extra nutrition and tricking my kids into eating squash.
Last but not least, garlic. This extremely scientific method of measuring equates “a handful.”
I left everything on low for about an hour, while my frozen tomatoes thawed. After that, crank it up to high and let it boil away until the carrots are soft and the tomatoes are broken down.
And during that hour, I may (or may not) have ignored my laundry and messy kitchen and watched Fixer Upper. Also, red vines.
After an hour and a half. Notice the red ring around the top–the sauce has cooked down a bit, which is a good thing.
Get out your handy-dandy immersion blender for this step, and blend blend blend until there are no chunks left. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a regular blender or a food processor will work as well, but they’re messier and a bit more time consuming.
Tomatoes froth up quite a bit while being blended, and this is fine.
So here is the time consuming part. At this stage, your sauce is technically done, but it’s very watery. I want the sauce to cook down and thicken, but this takes a while, and every time I’ve done it on the stove top, it’s burned. Enter God’s magical gift to all busy moms: the crockpot. Load your sauce into a crockpot (or in the case of my massive 20 pound batch: three).
The two black ones are mine, the third I borrow from my neighbor periodically when I do crazy things like make 20 pounds of tomato sauce. (Thanks Jane!) We affectionately refer to this as “Crockpot Row.”
It’s important to prop the lid open a bit with a spoon because this allows the water to evaporate. Crockpots are famous for trapping steam inside, which is great for stews, but not when you want to cook sauce down. Cook on high for 6-8 hours. Cook one extra long after your kids unplug one to use the toaster, then forget to plug it back in (or not, your choice).
After eight hours, this is what I had–a crockpot full of beautiful spaghetti sauce that had reduced by about an inch, and had darkened in color. The natural sugars in the tomatoes carmelize while cooking, which helps produce the color and cuts down a bit on the acidity of the sauce.
I combined all three crockpots into my giant metal mixing bowl (I love this bowl). At this point, my husband walked by and comented, “That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.” I replied, “I started with 20 pounds of tomatoes.” His response: “Wow, that’s NOT a lot of spaghetti sauce.” Moral of this story: your sauce cooks down quite a bit.
While I was pouring the sauces into the bowl, I noticed that I still had a few chunks of onion and carrot that I had missed, so I broke out my immersion blender for a second time.
Then came 2 Tablespoons of salt (this may seem like a lot, but we made a lot of sauce).
I also added 1 cup of brown sugar. The sauce tasted pretty acidic, even with the carmelized flavors, so I tried 1/2 cup first, but it wasn’t quite right. The second 1/2 cup did it for me. Why the brown sugar, instead of white? My Mom added brown sugar when she made spaghetti sauce. I’ve just always assumed she was right. (Hi Mom!)
The sauce is now complete, and is ready to can, freeze, or feed 50 people. I canned mine in quart and pint jars, leaving 1 inch of headspace, and processing in a water bath canner for 20 minutes (quarts), or fifteen minutes (pints).
My grand total was 7 quarts and 5 pints, which equals (ugh, math) 38 cups. I canned the pints for the simple reason that I ran out of quart jars, but they do come in handy when making something other than spaghetti for my family–I use this for pizza sauce, mozzarella sticks, and when I make other spaghetti including meals that my kids refuse to eat.
Finished! It seems like so much when it’s sitting on my counter, but with Lent rapidly approaching, we’ll probably use most of it up by May.