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If you’ve seen a few neighbours toiling away late at night over a pot of tomato sauce in their garage, you know it’s tomato season.

Every year, Italian families gather together to get the key pantry staple for their house ready for the winter. Canned, or jarred, tomatoes. If you don’t do this often, this massive undertaking seems a bit mysterious and I’ve been asked by friends and neighbours, “how” and “why??” for years. Here’s a bit of insight into how it’s done:

Italians take their food ingredients seriously: freshness and seasonality are two key tenets to this. When vegetables, or meats, are in season they need to be preserved for the winter so we always have that taste of fresh tomatoes whenever we put a pot of sauce on (or the multitude of other dishes that tomatoes can be used for).

There’s a few different ways that tomatoes can be preserved in jars. My preferred method is plum tomatoes: taking heirloom tomatoes, seeding and peeling them, jarring and boiling the jars. When used later these tomatoes need to be broken down through cooking or blending. Some people also put fresh small tomatoes in jars and bake the jars. (I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m told it works).

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Below though, is the most common process, using San Marzano tomatoes. These small tomatoes are treasured for their flavour and “meatiness”, that is that they have a lot of flesh so you don’t loose a lot of vegetable when you remove the core and seeds. In this process, the base to tomato sauce (passata) is made by cooking the tomatoes, crushing them and jarring. These jars can rest in a cool place for up to 2 years and when broken open are used to make sauce for pasta, though you’ll add in meat or other vegetables and continue to slow cook until you get a thick and flavourful sauce.

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While Italians do this by the bushel-ful, the same process can be used for any number of tomatoes, so even if you only want to make a few jars.
Here’s what you’ll need:
– San Marzano tomatoes
– Fresh basil leaves
– sterilized glass mason jars and lids
– a large pot (and heat source like a stove or outdoor burner)
– a few large bowls
– a tomato crushing machine
– knives, funnel, ladle, jar handler
– towels, lots of towels

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Wash all of the tomatoes and lay them out on old towels or tablecloths to dry a bit. Using a paring knife, core tomatoes, remove any seeds (this can add a sour taste to your sauce) and cut the tomatoes in half or quarters. The more people you have, the faster this process is.

Cook the tomato pieces in a large pot (do not add any other ingredient or any water, they will make their own as they break down), for about 30-45 minutes.

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Remove the tomatoes from the heat and pour, by the ladle full into your your tomato crushing machine. This is the messiest part of the process, you are essentially crushing the tomatoes and separating the peel and any remaining seeds. The machine will pour out the crushed tomatoes, to be caught in your large bowls, with the peels coming out through the filter part (which will need to be cleaned every few minutes to keep things moving smoothly). Discard the peels.
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Now that you have your crushed tomatoes, there are two options for jarring.

In the first method, line up your sterile mason jars and insert 2-4 basil leaves per jar. Using a funnel and ladle, fill the jars with the crushed tomatoes, leaving about a ½ inch empty from the top of the jar. Place on a lid (always using brand new lids that have been boiled) and ring and tighten to “finger tight”.

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Line the bottom of your large pot with a dish towel (this keeps the jars from banging around too much), fill with as many jars as you can, top with water and bring it to a boil. Boil the jars in this water bath for 40-45 minutes. After this time, shut of the heat and once the boiling subsides, remove the jars from the water with a jar handler. Allow to cool, then make sure the jars have formed a tight seal: the centre of the lid is indented. You can remove the rings and store the jars in a cool, dry place.

The alternative method to the one above is similar but does without the water bath (which is recommended for all canning and some people swear by). In this method, the crushed tomatoes are returned to the large pot and boiled for up to two hours to evaporate more of the water in the mixture. When the crushed tomatoes have reduced by 1/3 to ½ in volume, line up your sterile mason jars and insert 2-4 basil leaves per jar.

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Using a funnel and ladle, fill the jars with the hot crushed tomatoes, leaving about a ½ inch empty from the top of the jar. Place on a lid (always using brand new lids that have been boiled) and ring and tighten to “finger tight” and place in a cool location overnight. In this method, the heat from the crushed tomatoes is what forms the seal on the jar. In the morning, make sure the jars have formed a tight seal: the centre of the lid in indented. You can remove the rings and store the jars in a cool, dry place.

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So the next time you see this typical scene in a garage near by, you know what we’re up to. Ask to join in – you’ll probably get a few jars of your own to take home!

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