The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to make spaghetti sauce out of whole tomatoes

Roma tomatoesI used to hate spaghetti night when I was a kid.  My parents made the sauce from scratch, and the result was both watery and chunky --- pretty much par for the course with homemade tomato sauces.  When I was finally introduced to storebought spaghetti sauce, I fell in love.  Three years of trial and error later, I finally figured out how to make a full-bodied tomato sauce with homegrown tomatoes that tastes even better than the stuff in the jar and is just as good for you as the kind my parents made.

Start with roma tomatoes.  There are two main types of tomatoes when it comes to cooking --- romas and everything else.  Roma tomatoes have less water and more flesh than any other kind of tomato, and they also tend to have few enough seeds that I make my sauces with skins and seeds in.  It's okay to include some extra slicers and tommy-toes as long as the romas overpower their wateriness and seediness.

Preparing tomatoesGet out your biggest skillet.  The trick to making a spaghetti sauce that turns out creamy and not watery is to let the pectin in the tomatoes do its magic --- you're basically making tomato jam.  To that end, you're in a race against the naturally occurring enzymes that start to break down the pectin in your tomato as soon as the flesh is cut.  The enzymes are activated by air and then denatured (made inactive) by heat, so you need to keep your tomatoes intact until the last minute, then heat the whole mass of tomatoes up as fast as possible.  Thus the skillet --- more surface area on the burner means your sauce comes to a boil faster.  Plus, there's more surface area through which excess water can cook off.

Squeezed tomatoesPrepare your tomatoes.  Romas don't have any core to speak of, so after a quick rinse, you can just lop off the very top where the stem was attached.  Quickly chop each roma into three pieces and toss them in the skillet.  (Note: I'm of the "skins and seeds are good for you and taste fine" school of thought.  If you disagree, you'll want to remove both at this stage.)  Once you've cut all of the tomatoes into large chunks, take big handfuls and squeeze them until there's enough liquid in the pan that the tomatoes won't stick to the bottom and burn.

Sliced squashAdd other ingredients.  Put your skillet of tomatoes on the stove on medium-high heat (stirring the contents occasionally so nothing sticks) and add anything else you like in your spaghetti sauce.  One of my large skillets holds about a gallon of tomatoes, and to this I generally add 1 onion (sliced), 3 cloves of garlic (pressed), 3 or 4 dried bay leaves, and some salt and pepper.  At the very end, I'll also add a lot of fresh basil leaves and will vainly try to fish the used bay leaves out.  If I'm going to add hamburger meat, I usually cook it up separately and add the meat at the end.  Squash, peppers, or other vegetables can go in about thirty minutes before the sauce is done.

Bubbling spaghetti sauceCook the sauce until it thickens.  Delicious spaghetti sauce has to be cooked long enough for the pectin to do its work.  I start the pan on medium-high until the contents are boiling hard, then turn the heat down a bit at a time over the next hour or two until the setting is on medium-low.  During that time, the tomatoes will cook down to about half their original volume.  For quite a while, you'll be stirring a pan of tomatoes and onions, but then, all of a sudden, you can barely see individual components and the sauce tastes and looks like sauce.  Success!

Don't worry if you scorch the bottom.  I tend to forget to stir nearly every batch at a critical stage and a bit of sauce sticks to the bottom and burns.  Whatever you do, don't scrape that burnt bit back into the sauce and don't ignore it and keep simmering.  Instead, quickly pour off all of the good sauce into a new skillet and set the scorched pan in the sink, filled with water, to soak.  As long as you don't stir the burnt sauce in or let the good sauce sit on top of it long, you won't be able to taste the error at all.  (Maybe if you could, I'd be better about stirring and wouldn't always let my spaghetti sauce burn?)

LasagnaLasagna is better for you than spaghetti.  By now, I'm sure some of you are wondering why I go to so much trouble to make spaghetti sauce when we've deleted spaghetti from our diet and cut grains down to a bare minimum.  The same sauce can be used to make a high protein and high vegetable lasagna that keeps my body healthy and my spaghetti-loving tastebuds happy.  To assemble a 9X13" pan of lasagna, I use about a skillet and a half of spaghetti sauce, half this potsticker dough recipe for the noodles (which can be layered in uncooked), 1.5 pounds of hamburger meat (cooked), quite a bit of cheddar, mozarella, and parmesan cheeses, and any subset of cooked leafy greens, sliced summer squash, and sliced mushrooms.  Starting from tomatoes on the vine, it takes perhaps three hours to make up a big pan of lasagna, but then we have quick leftovers to heat up for lunch nearly all week!

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Our chicken waterer keeps the flock entertained even when forage is running low, so they peck at the nipple rather than at each other.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Oooo, I love homemade tomato sauce. I figured out pretty early that the trick to it was treating it like apple butter: cook it long and slow in a heavy-bottomed pan; you never want to hurry tomato sauce. I always thought that what I was doing was just cooking off the extra water, so I was very interested to find out that pectin comes into play too (I suppose that's the case for apple butter as well). Thank you for the information!

On a side note, I'm not quite sure why lasagna should be healthier than other types of pasta. Is it just the extra vegetables? Because I tend to throw extra vegetables into everything I make - especially at this time of year! :)

Comment by Ikwig Mon Aug 15 07:47:14 2011

I live much farther north, so I am still impatiently waiting for my romas to turn red. When they do I will give your fresh tomato sauce a try. mmmmmm..... spaghetti sauce that does not have corn syrup in it...yum


Comment by Justin Mon Aug 15 08:08:00 2011
is lasagna better than spaghetti?
Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Aug 15 08:32:15 2011

Roland and Ikwig --- I should have been clearer in my post and said my lasagna is better for you than my spaghetti. It's all about the ratio of vegetables and proteins to wheat --- I only use one cup of flour per eight servings of lasagna and end up with a meal that's over 30% protein. Granted, I could add the same overload of vegetables, cheese, and meat to spaghetti, but it just doesn't taste right to me. It sounds like Ikwig does what I do, but pours the good sauce on spaghetti, and probably gets the same results.

Justin --- I should have added a note about sweeteners. I find that with real tomatoes ripened at home, you don't need to add any, although sometimes when I'm ripening up the last fall tomatoes inside, they don't turn out as sweet and I add a bit of honey. Yet another reason to make your own!

Comment by anna Mon Aug 15 09:26:19 2011
And here I thought I was all original and geniussy using a wide, low pan to make my tomato sauce. It dawned on me just last week that this would be a great way to getting it cooking fast and reduce quickly. I'm also skipping the skinning-and-seeding step and just run it through the food mill I picked up at some "antique" store. Chunky veggie sauce gets made differently but this method has been very useful for processing the little odds and ends of tomatoes I've been picking until the real harvest starts to roll in.
Comment by Mark Mon Aug 15 19:14:51 2011
Mark --- I always seem to burn my sauce before it thickens if I try to make it in a deeper pot. Last year, I was forced to when I filled up both of my good skillets and had more romas to be processed, but this year I'm putting extras in the food dehydrator. Such a good way to put away tomatoes for the winter in to time!
Comment by anna Mon Aug 15 20:11:06 2011

think alike. Or great tomatoes ripen at the same time. I spent yesterday afternoon making seasoned tomato sauce for the freezer, and spaghetti for dinner. Yum!

I find the Amish Paste variety is even better than Romas for "meatiness." They also grow much larger fruits than Romas, as well.

Comment by Debbi Tue Aug 16 11:28:08 2011
Debbi --- We've grown Russian Romas and San Marzanos, both of which are much bigger than our current variety of romas and are perhaps more like Amish Paste? For some reason, the bigger tomatoes seemed to get blighted really fast, which is why we settled on our current varieties. I have no idea if that carries over to Amish Paste, though....
Comment by anna Tue Aug 16 13:29:18 2011

I'll pretend to ignore the insult to my tomato sauce. Just a couple of comments: Anna's recipe won't work for a canned sauce unless you pressure can it--too many low acid veggies.

This year I am making a tomato puree using a Champion juicer with a solid blank instead of a juice screen. I clean and core tomatoes as needed, run them thru the juicer, heat puree in big pot until boiling, and can in quart jars in water bath canner for 30 min. I make the sauce when needed using canned tomatoes, spices, dried zuccini, grated carrots, onions, garlic, etc.

Comment by Errol Tue Aug 16 17:41:09 2011

Aw, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings! It's not just your homemade sauce --- I've only eaten one homemade tomato sauce over the years that didn't end up exactly the same way.

You're totally right that you won't want to hot water bath can the sauce --- I freeze it. (Well, and eat it right away...) Sounds like you came up with a very good method for canned sauce!

Comment by anna Tue Aug 16 19:48:13 2011
For what it's worth, I've always had much better luck with Amish Paste tomatoes than with any of the Roma varieties I've tried; they grew better, produced more fruit, seemed less prone to diseases and pest problems, and - to my tastebuds - tasted better. Having said that, I will note that the last two years, when blight has been so rampant, have been "years-without-a-garden" for me (argh, so frustrating not being able to dig my hands into anything but containers while we get work done on our house), so I only know how they deal with blight when it isn't really around. Also, I live further north than you, in a wet, clay-filled, suburban valley and as we all know, micro climates can make a big difference in how well a variety performs, and how it tastes! Still, you might want to consider adding them to your "garden experiment" list for a year or two, just to see how they compare! :)
Comment by Ikwig Tue Aug 16 21:26:56 2011
That description does sound enticing! I guess it wouldn't kill me to experiment with a few plants next year. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Aug 17 08:17:10 2011

Great article, I can't wait to try it. We have grown Romas this year and last year, and I was already eying the amish paste for next years seed order. I have tried making homemade sauce a couple of times now, and am excited at the prospect of a thicker bodied result. One tip I got from my father is to add a couple of pureed carrots for those that like a sweeter sauce but don't want to use brown sugar.

Also, we just recieved our 10 piece diy chicken waterer kit from you. Everything arrived as expected, and I am thrilled with the valves. Our flock of 4 week old hens took to them immediately, and they were super easy to install.

Thanks for all the great insight and info!

Comment by Joe Thu Aug 30 12:13:42 2012

Joe --- We've been enjoying our thicker sauces for a year now, and I still highly recommend the method! We did try Amish Paste this year, but were very disappointed --- they get blight very quickly if you don't treat them with copper or some other heavy-duty anti-fungal (which we choose not to.) Our favorite roma remains Martino's.

Thanks again for trying out our waterer! I'm glad to hear your flock likes them as much as ours does. :-)

Comment by anna Thu Aug 30 19:17:15 2012

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