Last week, I had a freezer full of tomatoes, a deer waiting to be butchered and nowhere to go with the meat. If I had more time before hunting season or planned better, I wouldn’t have had that problem. I would have turned my tomatoes into sauce before hunting season to clear room for any meat we might get. But I didn’t. I was actually really excited to turn this batch of tomatoes into sauce. It’s always been such a daunting process to me, but I’ve learned a few things over the last couple of years, and I finally figured out how to make a really easy tomato sauce.
My experience with turning tomatoes into sauce has always been a really slow one. While there are different aspects that can be time consuming, it’s the cooking down of the sauce that always gets me. It takes forever to cook down a few bushels of tomatoes. I have some nice-sized pots, but fill them too full, and your tomatoes feel like they will never cook down. If you add your tomatoes a little at a time, it’s really not much better. And I always had something else in the canner at the same time, so I could only use 3 burners at once.
I couple of years ago, I found out that freezing your tomatoes is not only a brilliant stall tactic, it also saves a lot of cook time. Then it hit me this year. I needed more surface area. A deeper pot doesn’t cook things faster, a shallow one does. But obviously, using a bunch of pots on the stove was still really slow. I needed a different solution. I was chatting with one of my homeschooling friends, and she confirmed that cooking tomatoes in the oven is the way to go. I think the best part is that you don’t really have to stir or watch a pot for hours like you do with pots on the stove. I cooked some fresh tomatoes down using this method and discovered that it was, indeed, much easier and faster. With the right pans, I was cooking down sauce without feeling like I was doing any work at all.
What really had me excited was that if I combined my oven method with the freezing method, I could cut down my cook time even more. Yes, indeed, I was able to take what had been 15 gallons of tomatoes and cook them all down in less than an hour. Okay, enough with the stories, let’s get to it!
If you’ve already canned all of your tomatoes for the year, bookmark this information so you can save yourself some trouble next year! You can just cook raw, unfrozen tomatoes with this method, and still save a lot of time, but the combined method of freezing and oven roasting will save you a lot of time.
Star by washing your tomatoes, removing any spots, plus the stems. You can keep the cores in if you want to save a little extra time. Put the tomatoes into gallon freezer bags and freeze until you have more time/enough tomatoes to make your sauce.
If you want, you can cut your tomates up to fit more into each bag. It also makes water draining out a little easier, and allows you to fit more tomatoes per pan when cooking, but it’s not at all necessary.
Once you are ready to make some sauce, thaw out your tomatoes by placing your bags of tomatoes into a bathtub. Leave them in sealed bags, and fill up the tub with enough hot water to submerge the bags of tomatoes. They WILL float, but you want the water to stay warm enough long enough to thaw out the tomatoes. It took me about two hours to thaw out a tub full of tomatoes. Just fill the tub and walk away.
After the tomatoes have thawed, drain the tub, and then carefully drain the bags of tomatoes from all the liquid that will have leaked out of the tomatoes from the thawing process.
Put the tomatoes into any large, oven-safe dishes you have, like a large roasting pan or some 9×13 baking dishes. The idea is to get as much surface area as possible over as many tomatoes as possible, filling up your oven if you have that many to use. You can fill the pans pretty full, but you’ll need to drain water off at some point, so don’t over fill. You can also fill up an electric cooker, like a Nesco. I could get a LOT of tomatoes in my Nesco. You can pick your oven temp, but 250 is a good temperature that will allow you to cook your tomatoes relatively fast without needing to stir constantly or without burning your tomatoes.
If you are doing the combined freezer and oven methods, your sauce could cook down really fast, so you might want to be able to stay close by. If you are using fresh tomatoes, you should be able to walk away for an hour or two and not worry at all. It’s good to stick around for the first 15 minutes and stir occasionally, especially when using a Nesco, but once it gets cooking, you really don’t need to supervise. Resist the urge to smash the tomatoes up. Let the water pool from the tomatoes. The longer you cook, the more red the water becomes.
You can start draining off water whenever you want. The water can be poured off fairly easily. I just used a slotted spoon to hoold the tomatoes in the pan while I drained water off. Once the are cooked to the desired consistency, use a slotted spoon to remove the tomatoes and place them into a blender. This makes the milling process much easier. It also breaksdown cores that you would otherwise removed or struggle to mill.
After it is all blended, run it through a food mill to remove seeds and skins. You can always leave those in if you like that kind of consistency, but for me, I’d rather have them out of the sauce. The milling process can feel a bit tedious, but if you have more than one mill you can use, a large mill, or an electric mill, it would speed the process up quite a bit. It’s a small price to pay when your options are to peel before or mill them out. It takes much less time to mill them. Even if you freeze your tomatoes (the skins come off really easily), it still takes substantially longer.
Once the sauce is milled, you can can your sauce following safe canning practices.
Instead of taking all day for days in a row to get all of my sauce done, I could have done it all in a fraction of one day. I’ve chosen to space things out to make my life a little easier, but this is definitely the method I will use in the future. My sauce is thicker because I don’t feel impatient to be done cooking I don’t have to stand around all day, stirring a pot, only to have it scorch in the last 10 minutes of cooking.
In case you are wondering, there are several benefits to freezing your tomatoes:
- You don’t have to let any tomatoes go bad while you wait to have enough ripen… I don’t use enough tomatoes to have any sitting “in limbo.” Freezing them allows me to store them until I have enough to cook with. Plus, it keeps the freezer full, which helps it to not have to work so hard to stay cold.
- I don’t have to overheat my house when it’s already warm out because I’m cooking down my tomatoes. Canning heats up the house enough without making it even warmer by boiling tomatoes all day long.
- I’m already busy canning beans and corn and carrots and apples… I don’t need another item to be processing all at the same time. If I can delay the cook time on the tomatoes, I can make sauce when I have more time, when the house is colder and the air drier, and I don’t lose my mind putting up our food.
- My favorite, it saves a substantial amount of cooking time. Well over half the water is removed from the tomatoes through the freezing and thawing process.
My plan is to get my hands on a larger food mill, as well as an attachment for either our KitchenAid or our LEM meat grinder. That way, we could have multiple mills running at once to speed up the milling process. It’s really not that bad, but I have to mill a lot of apples as it its, and we could sure use the extra stuff to help with all of our processing!
I still have a half a freezer filled with tomatoes, but I’ll wait to turn those into sauce until after the holidays when I have a little more time. Do you have any other tips for speeding things up? I”d love to hear them! Leave a comment below. And let me know if you have any questions!