When I was new to gardening (and new to canning what came out of my garden), homemade tomato sauce was one of those projects that always felt a little intimidating. Every recipe I came across called for boiling a pot of water, blanching the tomatoes, plunging them into an ice bath, then making X-shaped slits in the bottom to release the skins. Some recipes went a step further, telling me to run the peeled tomatoes through a food mill to remove the seeds.
Frankly, it doesn’t sound all that bad… until the first time you’re faced with a sink full of tomatoes (especially smaller tomatoes) that need to be peeled, one by one. All that work, all that mess… I actually started to dread the peak-of-summer harvests when I had more tomatoes than I could use right away!
But then one summer, I thought… Why go through all the trouble of peeling and seeding tomatoes? I actually like the flavor and texture of their skins and seeds, and when I cooked them down, the skins seemed to disappear into the sauce anyway.
That tiny revelation became my go-to method for making a quick and easy tomato sauce that requires not much more than a food processor (or blender or immersion blender). And if you decide to do a double/triple/quadruple batch, you can rest easy knowing you won’t be adding hours (or even days!) to your tomato processing.
The Secret to a Fresh and Flavorful Tomato Sauce
This is a basic sauce that omits the labor-intensive blanching, peeling, seeding, and straining of more traditional sauces. It’s all tomato — and nothing else. (Unless, that is, you’re planning to can the sauce for storage, in which case you’ll need to add bottled lemon juice for safe canning.)
I prefer to keep the sauce simple as it gives me more leeway when cooking. Some nights I might be feeling classic Italian with basil, oregano, and garlic, other nights I might want a little arrabbiata action, and there are nights I might go for this spicy minty tomato sauce. Whatever the mood may be, I like having a neutral sauce that I can add my garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, and spices to, without being tied down to a specific flavor profile.
Pasta sauce isn’t the only thing you can make with your pureed tomatoes, however — the unadulterated tomato sauce is a good base for homemade ketchup, chutney, and salsa as well, or you can simply stir it into minestrone soup or any recipe that calls for crushed or diced tomatoes.
I tend to cook the tomato sauce for less time than most recipes recommend, since I know I’ll be cooking it even more when I make the actual sauce. A shorter cooking time (I usually never go more than half an hour) means you retain more of that fresh tomato flavor.
How Long Should You Cook the Sauce?
In general, aim for 30 to 90 minutes of simmering on the stove. Any longer than that, and you’re on your way to tomato paste.
At 30 minutes, the sauce will be thinner (reduced by about one-third) but have a lighter fresher flavor. At 90 minutes, the sauce will be thicker (reduced by half in volume) but have a deeper cooked flavor.
I use a deep, wide-diameter pot (this Dutch oven is great for the task) to allow the liquid to evaporate quicker. If you use a pot that’s taller than it is wide, you may need a longer cooking time.
Types of Tomatoes to Use
Any blemish-free, vine-ripened, firm-fleshed tomato can be used for sauce. Traditional recipes often call for paste or plum tomatoes, like the Roma variety, since they have thicker skin, firmer flesh, and less moisture (which means they peel easier, boil down faster on the stovetop, and make a denser sauce in less time).
But because this sauce requires no peeling, I’m a fan of using any and all tomatoes, including cherry and grape varieties. Use the excess harvest from your garden, or seek out tomatoes at farmers’ markets, which sometimes sell their slightly bruised or blemished fruit in bulk for a great bargain. Just be sure to slice off any blemishes before using them.
If you love tomatoes as much as I do, you can even make a rainbow of tomato sauces from all the colorful heirloom varieties available. I’ve turned out green tomato sauce (from ripe green tomatoes), orange, yellow, white, even a stunning maroon from a batch of beautiful purple-black fruits. It’s fun, it’s different, and it can dress up an otherwise ordinary dish.
How to Safely Store Your Tomato Sauce
The sauce will keep in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months (for optimal flavor).
For long-term storage, you’ll need to add bottled lemon juice in order to raise the acidity for safe canning. The proper amount is 2 tablespoons for each quart jar. Don’t substitute fresh-squeezed lemon juice for bottled lemon juice, as acidity levels vary widely among fresh lemons you buy or grow.
You can, however, substitute citric acid (at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon per quart jar) for the bottled lemon juice, if you already have that on hand. Properly canned tomato sauce will keep for at least 1 year in a cool, dry, and dark environment.
Easy Peasy Homemade Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 to 6 quarts (depending on length of simmer time)
15 pounds tomatoes, stems removed
8 tablespoons bottled lemon juice (optional, if canning)
Step 1: Working in batches, quarter or coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to your desired level of chunkiness.
Step 2: Transfer the tomato puree to a large stockpot, then repeat Step 1 until all tomatoes are processed.
Step 3: Place the stockpot over medium-high heat and bring the puree to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 90 minutes until the tomato sauce is thickened to your liking.
Step 4: When the sauce is finished, let cool to room temperature, then transfer to jars and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Alternatively, you can transfer the cooled sauce to freeze-proof containers or zip-top bags and freeze for up to 3 months. (Tip: When storing the sauce in bags, portion them into 2-cup or 4-cup servings for ease of cooking, squeeze out the excess air and then flatten the bags before stacking and freezing.)
You can also freeze the tomato sauce in mason jars if you follow these tips!
Prepare a boiling water bath and 4 to 6 quart-sized canning jars.
Follow the directions above through Step 3. Remove the stockpot from heat.
Transfer the hot tomato sauce to warmed jars, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. Stir in 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice per jar. Wipe the rims with a towel, then seal with lids and bands. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 40 minutes, adjusting time for altitude as needed.
Properly canned tomato sauce will be shelf stable for at least 1 year.