Large Batch Processing: Tales of a Home Canner

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A garden’s bounty is one of the true pleasures in life.  With time and effort, seeds you sow in April and May become mature plants rewarding you with produce later in the season.  And later in the season it is.  As we draw near the end of September, we are still blessed with a wonderful tomato harvest.

fresh minced garlic

fresh minced garlic

Tomatoes wait for no man.  To truly capture the flavor of summer, what can’t be eaten fresh should be preserved to enjoy during the fall and winter months.  And if you have a large garden(s), that means that you have more than a couple of pounds to preserve at a time.

Through out the fall and winter months, we enjoy our stuffed shells, lasagna, bucatini, and spaghetti.  These are hearty meals made more flavorful by using our own pasta sauce.  And while the ingredients may vary based upon what we grow, the basic ingredients remain the same: tomatoes, assorted fresh herbs (thyme, basil, and oregano), garlic, and salt.  These few ingredients make one of the most sublime flavors around.  But in order to achieve sublime, time becomes an invisible ingredient.

Now while some folks out there may blanch their tomatoes and then freeze them with some herbs for use as pasta sauce later, I am old school.  A batch of sauce generally starts with 40 pounds.  Why that quantity?  Well… that is what will fit in my 12 quart stock pot.  And if I am going to take the time to can, I want more than just a few pints to show for my efforts.

To be successful with large batch processing, preparation is key.  Otherwise you may feel that the task is too daunting.  To make the task of processing a large batch more manageable, I always start preparing the day before.  Here is a basic checklist of items that can be done in advance:

  • Gather jars, lids, and rims.
  • Peel all the garlic.
  • Gather all canning tools: ladle, jar lifter, food mill with pestle, and funnel.
  • Harvest fresh herbs.
  • Dice onions.
  • Fill the water bath canner (I have a 31 quart electric water bath canner).
  • Harvest and wash tomatoes.
tomatoes in a vintage food mill

tomatoes in a vintage food mill

As I begin the task of prepping 40 pounds of tomatoes, I mentally prepare myself to spend the day in the kitchen.  My style of pasta sauce truly takes a day to prepare.  As I blanch tomatoes, I scoop them up and place them in my grandmother’s food mill and set about the tasks of pressing the juice and flesh with the wooden pestle.  The skins and majority of seeds are left behind.  (Personally, I do not like the texture of tomato skins in a sauce and I have found that tomato seeds can add a bitter note to the final product.)

Multitasking is key to the day of processing.  So as tomatoes are blanching and being run through the food mill, I prepare the preserving pot, otherwise known as my 12 quart stock pot.

The 12 quart pot is placed on the stove over medium heat.  A generous quantity of olive oil is poured in (enough to thoroughly cover the bottom of the pot).  Once the oil is hot, I add the diced onions (and sometimes carrots which add a sweetness) and sweat them for approximately 5 minutes.  Next, I follow up with a garlic lover’s quantity of fresh garlic (minced).

As tomatoes go through the food mill, their resulting juice and pulp is placed in the preserving pot.  Depending on the types of tomatoes used, you may have quite a bit of tomato juice.  Don’t toss that out!  Put that in the preserving pot along with the tomato pulp.

I keep a bowl next to the food mill.  All skins and seeds go into this bowl as well as any other vegetative scraps such as onion skins and carrot tops.  This saves numerous trips to the compost bin.

reduced pasta sauce

reduced pasta sauce

Here is where time factors in as an invisible ingredient.  Good sauce takes time to make.    Since I am a fan of thick pasta sauce, it generally takes about 7 hours to slowly cook down the sauce to the desired consistency.  It also takes time for the flavors to meld so that the herbs, garlic, and other ingredients come through rather than just the taste of tomatoes.

What I have found in my experience is that the flavor of the sauce when it goes into the jar is the same flavor when the jar is later opened.  This means that I have to ensure that I am satisfied with the taste of the sauce before jars go into the water bath.  As the sauce reduces, I periodically taste the sauce (always use a clean spoon… no double dipping).  If there are certain ingredients such as garlic and basil whose flavors are weak, I add more, keeping ingredients on the counter next to the preserving pot.  This saves me trips to and from the refrigerator.

pasta sauce ready for pantry

pasta sauce ready for pantry

Approximately 1 hour prior to the sauce being reduced to the desired consistency, I turn on the water bath canner.  Note: since this is a 31 quart canner (volume of water it will hold), it takes some time to bring that much water to the boil.  If I follow this format, the water bath canner generally comes to a boil when the sauce is ready.

Large batch processing takes time.  There are no short cuts.  Skipping steps results in a thin and weak flavored sauce.  Dedicate yourself to making the best sauce possible and allow yourself the luxury of spending a day in the kitchen.  Your patience will be rewarded!

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