Tomato Sauce: The yearly ritual

I have been making my own tomato sauce for over 25 years.

It all started when I was living in the Dundas/Bathurst area of Toronto – at that point a community that was 1/3 Portuguese, 1/3 Chinese, and 1/3 Anglo & others. There was a corner hardware store right at Dundas and Palmerston – and like all good Portuguese hardware stores of the time, it brought in tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and grapes in bushel baskets for the intense canning and wine making in the neighbourhood.

A friend at work suggested I get into it, and I thought it a good idea.

Needless to say Luisa at the hardware store was more than willing to help out me getting started. I still have the 2 50K BTU burners, still the original press, still the same 100L & 150 L pot from way back then.

Nowadays, I keep it all up at our cottage  – by far a nicer environment to do the canning.

And – I do it outside.

Interesting doing your cooking outside – without a nice hard, clean floor beneath you – on the ground. Dealing with tomatoes that themselves may have dirt and sand on them  – and one has to get it into the pots and then the jars cleanly – no dirt, only food. Like anything else one devises ones methods. Mine involves a hose, lots of water, 2 white plastic restaurant bus bins, a sharp knife, and temporary ergonomically suitable platforms and clamps for the equipment  – as you can see in the picture.

My tomato grinding set up - temporary 2-by-x and posts to hold the grinder and bin in place.

My tomato grinding set up – temporary 2-by-x and posts to hold the grinder and bin in place.

But lets get to the recipe. 1 bushel of Romas makes 20 litres. This includes 1 medium onion per litre, a couple of cloves of garlic, and (this is all approximate) 1tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1 tsp ea of basil, thyme, oregano, and a bay leaf. And oil. Enough to cook the onions and spices in beforehand. Usually a couple of cups for the 4 bushels I make with my cottage neighbour, L. I’m sorry I can’t be more exact – but the recipe is fairly forgiving – except where the salt and pepper are concerned. Less is better – you can add more when a batch has all come together.

The day before I do our 4 bushels we cut the onions and garlic – definitely a tedious job – and best done outside with a glass of wine on the side in eager anticipation of the treat to follow the next day. I do ALL of the onions, garlic, herbs and spices  – mix them all together. First thing next morning I cook them up in the pot, covered, low flame, stirring frequently until the onions are cooked. They are then separated into 3 bowls to be added to each batch of tomatoes as they are ground.

So for each bushel  – one grinds, pours into the cooking pot, add the onion and herb mash,  work at the grinding until the bushel is done, reduce the sauce (when the pot is full you can boil the hell out of it as long as you stir occasionally.

Meanwhile heat up our litre jars in another  – larger (120L or so) pot on another burner  – once you are near to the sauce being done, remove them, fill them with sauce, and can them – I do 25 minutes on a rolling boil. Remove, inspect, store.

The first bushel has been processed and is cooking down. To the left is the pot for boiling the jars.

The first bushel has been processed and is cooking down. To the left is the pot for boiling the jars.

That is basically it. It takes all day for a couple of us to put up our 4 bushels. Make sure you have nothing else going on!

The day before I prepare the setup  – burners, propane, grinding stand. 

Tomato sauce

Ingredients for 80 litres (Adjust as needed for the quantity you have!)

  • 4 bushels (MUST BE ROMA) tomatoes
  • 8 pints large onions
  • 10 large bulbs garlic
  • approximately 1/2 cup each of basil, oregano thyme
  • 20 or so bay leaves
  • enough sunflower oil to cook the mash – a cup or so.
  • 2 tbs pepper
  • 400g (.5tsp/litre) salt – check to taste later

And  – I’m guessing for most starting out that 1 bushel will be challenge enough. Here are the proportions for a batch of 20L:

  • 1 bushel (MUST BE ROMA) tomatoes
  • 2 pints large onions
  • 3-4 large bulbs garlic
  • approximately 2tbs each of basil, oregano thyme
  • 5-6 or so bay leaves
  • enough sunflower oil to cook the mash – a 1/4 cup or so.
  • 3/4 tbs pepper
  • 100g (.5tsp/litre) salt – check to taste later (+1 tbs/bushel at end of cooking)

Other stuff needed

  • a good food processor
  • 2-3 full bbq tanks
  • 1-2 large boiling pots
  • 1-2 large cooking pots
  • 2-3 outdoor 50k btu burners
  • 2 -3 small tables
  • containers to transport finished sauce
  • 1 large spoon (i.e. 1m in length)
  • 80 L of jars – 1 L, 1.5 l sizes
  • 2 tongs – canning tongs and bbq tongs
  • 4 l measuring cups
  • sharp knife
  • breadboard
  • hose and water
  • collander
  • oven mits
  • matches
  • tomato press


  • (the night before) Cut onions, garlic  – food processor with slicing attachment used
  • Prepare jars, separating lids, tops and jars. Discard any questionable lids. Place lids in a collander that can be easily inserted then removed from boiling water.
  • Add in spices and oil
  • Cook mash until onions are translucent
First step - cook up the mash!

First step – cook up the mash!

  • Divide mash into bowls according to how many bushels you have
  • Set up: make sure the grinding operation and 2 burners form a triangle around you – about 1.5 metres apart
  • The grinder must be on a firm surface with space. There needs to be a place for the seeds to fall, and a surface for the sauce to drop. There needs a place for the breadboard and knife to the right of the grinder, a pot of rinse water beside it, and a platform for the bushel basket to sit on above the pot.

The set up

  • Fill the canning pot half way up with water, and put in the jars.
  • Pour one patch of herb mash in the cooking pot, and begin grinding the tomatoes, adding to the mash. Light the burner once the first bowl of tomato juice has been prepared. Keep on a high boil, stirring frequently. (This is the key to a thick and reduced sauce). Once the bushel has been ground and is cooking, taste and adjust for salt.
  • Reduce the sauce  – full boil while stirring for about 30 minutes
  • Remove heated jars and lids from the canning pot and fill leaving 1/4″ at top
  • Place caps on, boil for 25 minutes. Let cool, make sure all the lids have popped down.
On the shelf!

On the shelf!


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