Doing the Tomatoes
We are now in the season of preparation and preservation for the coming winter months. I love it! I’ve been blanching corn and beans every opportunity I have. Bagging fruit, shredding zucchini, making jam; everything I can to load up the freezer and enjoy some tasty local treats come February. This Saturday I’m attending a “Canning Party”. Yep, no high kick dance moves here, it’s all about the business of canning bushels and bushels of local tomatoes for our future pastas and stews. To prepare, I reached out to the most authentic tomato paste maker I know, Kristina Koski. Here is a woman that has not only grown up in an Italian household, making homemade tomato sauce (likely) from the womb, but also has a craft for the written word AND a great sense of humour. She has done us all a great favour by documenting and dictating her family’s traditions so we may learn a thing or two from the culture that has simply perfected “doing the tomatoes”. Thanks Kristina! You went above and beyond the call of duty here, we all appreciate it! Enjoy! Dane xo
Doing the Tomatoes with Kristina Koski
Labour Day weekend is most definitely NOT a weekend of rest. At least not for any Italian. For many, it not only signalled ‘back to school’ but also hinted spending long hours cutting, stirring, cooking, grinding and canning summer tomatoes.
Yes, “doing the tomatoes” sounds more like a weird dance move than a cultural tradition where a family preserves enough fresh tomato sauce to last the year, but now it’s something we all look forward to. It’s a family gathering. It’s hard work. It’s extremely messy. It takes for bloody ever. It’s fun.
I’ll be honest with you. Nobody in their right mind actually grows the quantity of tomatoes needed for the process. They haven’t for years. It’s just too much damn work. Back in the 50s and 60s my grandmother and her sister and their kids would pile into the car and drive to a nearby farm where they’d pick their own and pay for however many bushels they purchased on the way out. Of course, part of the tradition is also to see how many “bushels” you can get away with smuggling out of the farm.
“We got-a tree bushels!” Which was true… sort of.
While the yield of many a backyard tomato variety is plentiful , they’re generally not the right type of tomato to yield the flavour and consistency needed for the perfect sauce. Purists will tell you San Marzano (seeds imported from Italy) is the only way to go. Others will say the Roma variety is a great alternative. These are the kinds of tomatoes found canned in most North American grocery stores. Many still will say “either, as long as I get a good deal.” Bottom line, what you’re looking for is a low water/seed content and high pulp content. And the reddest fruit you can get your hands on. But make sure you start making your sauce within a couple of days as they’ll turn from perfect to putrid on you pretty quickly.
Expect to pay anywhere from $18 to $25 per bushel. I think $22 is the going rate this year. Each bushel will weigh about 50 lbs.
Your sauce yield is a delicate balancing act. While yes, you need to extract some of the water or else your final product will separate and you’ll wind up either pouring off copious amounts of water before cooking your dishes, you don’t want to squeeze out too much of the tomatoes natural juices or else you’ll wind up with tomato paste which will need to be diluted. Adding water to it later will result in a less flavourful sauce than if some of the naturally occurring tomato “water” (which has LOTS of flavour) was retained in the process. Long story short – aim for 12-15 jars of sauce per bushel and you’ll be in good shape.
Now onto the process.
Firstly, the tools: Some are essential, some are optional. It depends on how hardcore you want to get. In all things culinary, my family leans far more to the hardcore side than most so don’t be intimidated by our equipment. In the photos and descriptions that follow, I’ll offer more urban and/or apartment friendly alternatives.
What you most definitely need are:
- A large pot
- Knife (serrated steak knives are my personal recommendation)
- A vegetable mill (manual cranked or electric)
- Sterilized 1L Mason Jars with unused seals (rings and lids)
- A few SUPER CLEAN buckets.
- A wooden spoon
- A slotted spoon and colander
- Coffee and/or Beer*
*I consider these to be mandatory for anything domestic that takes more than 1 hour to complete.
Step one: Wash your tomatoes
We find the double-rinse method works best. Transfer the tomatoes from the bushel to a bucket of clean water, swish them around, and then transfer them to a second bucket of water for another swish, and then into their final clean bucket.
Step two: Core your tomatoes
This is a pain in the ass. There, I said it.
This takes the longest, and generally is the reason why we get up at 6/7 AM on a Saturday to do it. It takes hours. Pour some coffee, put on some tunes, take lots of breaks and try not to cut yourself too many times. Slice your tomatoes in half, give them a gentle squeeze to get rid of some of the excess water and seeds, and remove the core using a V cut with your knife (serrated steak knives work best). A tip: when halving your tomatoes, cut just on one side of the core as opposed to cutting through the core itself. This means you can remove the core entirely with your v cut, as opposed to having to do it on each half of the split fruit. It doesn’t seem like much but when you’re doing it for hours, saving that one extra step makes a big difference. Discard and/or cut way any bits that may be rotten.
You can also just slice the top of the tomato off entirely and give it a gentle squeeze but we find that you end up wasting a lot of the usable fruit. Do whatever you want though, you won’t offend me. As my father says, “you are your own boss of your tomatoes.” At least we have control over SOMETHING in this world…
Step three: Cook em up
Dump your cored tomatoes into a large pot and heat until “foamy.” You will know what this means when you see it. This is when the skins will have loosened enough from the pulp, and the fruit will have begun to release their liquid. Stir as required so the tomatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. We have an industrial-sized burner and aluminum pot in the garage for this process, but you can do it on the stove if that’s all you’ve got. It works just as well.
Step four: Drain
We use the original bushel lined with an old table cloth on top of a milk crate or plastic patio chair as an industrial-sized makeshift colander, but if you don’t have the space for it, just use whatever colander you have, but note you’ll need to do it in batches. Let the bulk of the water strain off. *Tip: this water still is super-flavourful. Catch it and use it for chilled soups, or snazzy cocktails – my personal favourite concoction is the “Blondie Mary” – a version of the bloody mary using tomato water instead of the usual red juice. Or muddle some fresh basil leaves in the bottom of a cocktail shaker, add some pepper infused vodka.. etc.
Step five: Mill
Feed your strained tomatoes through the vegetable mill. Don’t be scared to do it twice. You’ll be shocked at how much pulp you still get through the second milling. We do it a third time through a separate mill, but don’t feel obligated to do that. You don’t get very much out of the third mill and well, we’re a little crazy in my family.
Step six: Jar
Fill the jars with your tomato puree to the bottom of the threaded neck of the jar. If you feel so inclined, put a sprig of basil in there, but not much else. Don’t put any onions or garlic in there as they’ll spoil. You can add your other ingredients as needed when using your preserved sauce throughout the season.
Make sure the neck of the jar is absolutely clean and dry, and cover with the lid and ring. Finger-tighten the ring. Don’t over-tighten as the boiling process that follows allows the remaining air in the jar to escape, which is what seals the jars.
Step seven: Boil
In a large pot, completely submerge the filled and closed jars in water and bring to a full boil. Allow it to continue to boil for at least 15-20 minutes. This step will need to be done in batches.
After this, carefully remove the jars from the water and let them rest for a full 24 hours. Seriously, don’t touch them. Don’t even look at them. <insert Spinal Tap clip>
Step eight: Inspect, tighten and re-boil if necessary
The next day, check on your jars. Your lids should be concave and appear the way sealed jars in the grocery store do. These have been successfully sealed. Now is the time to put your back into it and tighten those jars all the way. If any haven’t sealed repeat step seven.
And that’s it. Now understand something here: If any of my fellow countrymen are reading this and say I’ve got it all wrong, they will also tell you that each family has their own tried and true way of “doing the tomatoes.” Each process is as unique as the people doing the work. I’ve merely presented here how my family does it. I’m sure if you do this you’ll find your own process and tricks that work best for you.
But the real question at hand is: is it worth it?
The occasional frustration? (Though this is where the beer helps.)
The tomato guts flinging every which way?
Will the experience be as much about the final product as it will be about the process?
There’s still time left this season to invite over a couple of friends or family members and give this shot. Try it out and let me know!
Is it worth it for me? Absolutely!Add to favorites