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September 1, 2010 in canning and freezing10 comments

is canning your own pasta sauce worth it?

canned pasta sauce - yum!

I like to can with an eye on the benjamins. What food products can I preserve that are costly to buy in the store, or rare to find? Canning tomatoes, on their own, feels virtually worthless. Commercially-canned tomatoes are cheap and good quality. There’s no point, man. That’s the cost half of the equation.

Peaches are an example of the “rare to find” category. Canned peaches aren’t rare per se, but good-tasting commercially-canned peaches are not merely difficult to find, they simply do not exist. In the case of peaches, it makes sense to put forth the effort because the reward is so delicious.

But what can be done with the humble tomato? Sauce and plain canned tomatoes are out, since the effort to cost/quality ratio is too high. I decided that, hey, spaghetti sauce is pretty expensive, especially for good-quality varieties. So let’s look at how to can spaghetti sauce and make some. And let’s calculate at the end the true cost and do a comparison!

prepping the tomatoes. prepping, prepping

First, pick 45 pounds of tomatoes.


15 pounds of opalka plum tomatoes

Oh. Whew. It’s only 3 of these baskets’ worth. Each basketful came in around 15 pounds. Those aren’t your typical little plum tomatoes. Those are Opalka plums.

Put on your pirate voice. Now. Giant monsters they be, yarrr. A typical Opalka plum measures about 6 inches long. I was able to dig up about 25 pounds worth of those and supplemented the rest with Black Krim, Eva Purple, and Sudduth’s Brandywine varieties, all of which are basically gigantic beefsteak heirloom tomato varieties.

opalka plum tomatoes: that ain't some tiny paring knife

Opaklas, unlike the beefsteaks, have virtually no juice and no seeds, making them perfect for sauces. You don’t have to cook them down as long to get a thick sauce, which is key when you’re making spaghetti sauce in 90-degree heat without air conditioning.

That’s right. Things just got serious. Without. Air conditioning.

it puts the tomatoes in the pot, or it won’t get the hose when it gets hot

45 pounds of quartered tomatoes

Let’s take a bigger look at the pic in the bottom right, above.

And here’s what 45 pounds of tomatoes, quartered, looks like. Now keep in mind that perspective may be distorted. Those are giant tomatoes in a giant stainless steel bowl. That bowl is so huge my mother stores it above the cupboards in her laundry room, because otherwise it would give all the normal bowls complexes with its huge size and its bragging ways. If it helps, peek at the small bowl to the back and to the left. That’s a normal large bowl. Teeny, ain’t it?

tomatoes in the pot

Now that the tomatoes are washed, cored, and quartered, it puts the tomatoes in the pot. They didn’t all fit into the giant pot at first, of course. Oh, yeah. You’ll need a giant pot for this too, if you do the whole recipe. Too bad there isn’t a Giant Kitchen Store somewhere. Damn, I just gave away a million-dollar idea there!

So just cook them a few minutes and the rest of the tomatoes can be smushed in too. All the spices et al go in now.

gettin' saucy

Bring to a boil. This will take approximately forever minutes. Then you’re going to simmer the tomatoes and spices for 20 minutes. In the meantime, you get to set up the instrument of the tomatoes’ destruction.

a medieval torture device for tomatoes

let's put the tomatoes on the rack

This is a Vittorio strainer, or food mill. It’s a pain in the ass to set up but it does the job. You put together this Rube Goldberg machine and then, ladle by ladle, run the burgeoning tomato sauce through it to smush it all real good (!) and get rid of all the peels and seeds.

Most (not all) of the ready-to-cook-down sauce. Stand mixer and giant bread machine are in the background for perspective.

The resulting stuff is a tad watery. You don’t want to can that!

cooking down the sauce

So you dump it all back into the giant pot and cook it all down. This will take a couple hours. Get a book or go take a swim and make someone else give the sauce a stir once in a while. Ooh, look, it’s about half cooked down. Time to can! \o/

here’s where things get hairy

it's canning time!

It’s at this point that my picture-taking skills go entirely to hell, because there’s so much going on. I mean, look above. That’s not at the beginning of canning. That’s after filling up the canner once and waiting for the water bath to do its job. Which gives you time to clean up a tad and downsize the sauce pan from Godzilla to Morlock.

making a mess

Not to mention all the peels and other garbage!

that’s some purty sauce, but is it worth it?

canned pasta sauce

I got 11 pints of thickened, seasoned, delicious red sauce for pasta from this recipe. How much does it really cost, with and without labor included? I suspect it’s more than the $2–$3 I’ll pay to get good spaghetti sauce on sale from the grocery store. If you leave labor out and assume you already have canning equipment, and just need to pay for canning lids, olive oil, and spices, along with tomato seeds and onion sets, my calculations came to $0.74 per pint. That’s not including labor, electricity, jars, canner, and so forth, which are all somewhat serious investments.

A rough calculation including labor for canning time at minimum wage made the sauce cost about $3.50 per pint.

So in the end it comes down to time. Are you able to eke out the time to spend most of a day at home, with about half that time actively working on the canning? If your time is really scarce, buying spaghetti sauce still makes sense.

But if you have the tomatoes and the time, this spaghetti sauce from the Ball canning book is, as the kids say, awesomesauce. Ha ha.

canned spaghetti sauce

This works not only for pasta, but for lasagna and makes a good pizza sauce as well. Get step-by-step instructions on how to can spaghetti sauce using a boiling-water canner here. Adapted from

Yield: 10–11 pints of thick spaghetti sauce

    45 pounds tomatoes, preferably plum/paste or a mixture
    6 cups onions, chopped*
    12 cloves garlic, minced
    ½ cup olive oil
    2 tablespoons dried oregano
    6 bay leaves
    ¼ cup canning salt
    1 tablespoon black pepper
    1½ tablespoons sugar
    1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
    bottled lemon juice or citric acid powder (such as Fruit Fresh)

Select fresh tomatoes free of blemishes. Wash tomatoes and drain. Remove core of tomatoes and cut into quarters. Set aside until you’re ready to use them.

Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil in a gigantic pot until soft. Add quartered tomatoes, oregano, bay leaves, canning salt, black pepper, sugar, and crushed red pepper flakes, if using. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the sauce is simmering, set up your food mill or strainer. After the sauce has simmered 20 minutes, remove the bay leaves and run the mixture through the food mill or strainer. You’ll get a watery sauce with some pulp in it, which you’ll keep, and seeds and skins and whatnot, which you’ll discard.

Bring the sauce to a boil. Lower to medium-high heat and cook down until sauce thickens — until it’s reduced in volume by half or more.

To can, add 1 tablespoon of the bottled lemon juice or or ¼ teaspoon citric acid to each pint jar, and fill with sauce, leaving ¼-inch of headspace. Adjust caps and process in boiling-water canner for 35 minutes.

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your comments

  1. Kathy Hester says:

    I haven’t made sauce this year, but I’ve been cooking and freezing diced tomatoes like I think I’ll never see another one!

    This year I cooked them down in the slow cooker to keep the house cool. It takes longer to cook a sauce down, but it works well if you turn it on high and leave the lid open a crack.

    Kudos to you to use the stove without a/c, I have it and I’m still trying not to use the stove!

  2. Julianne says:

    Did you grow all those beautiful tomatoes? Where do you get your seeds?

  3. Debi says:

    Those are awesome looking tomatoes. They made me want to bite them. Good job!!

  4. Bobbi says:

    I just discovered your website and read with great interest about canning spaghetti sauce. I’m a new canner so am still trying to figure things out. I would like to can my husband’s homemade spaghetti sauce (without meat) and using store-bought canned tomatoes. Do you know if this can be safely done? He puts in the sauce tomatoes, onions, garlic, sugar and dry herbs. I guess I would pressure can putting maybe 1 T lemon juice per pint.
    Thanks for any help.

  5. gary says:

    I use turkey fryers for canning, this way your house doesn’t get too hot. It’s pretty convenient!

  6. chris says:

    How long is it good for once canned?

    • Amy says:

      The peaches will be good for at least a year — but I’d be surprised if they last that long! Canned peaches in winter are a wonderful treat. The USDA says to use within 18 months. There’s a lot of good info on this page of theirs, so I’ll paste this excerpt:

      Are canned goods still safe after a year? Two years? Longer?

      Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Store high acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit up to 18 months; low acid foods such as meat and vegetables, 2 to 5 years.

      Canned meat and poultry will keep at best quality 2 to 5 years if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

      While extremely rare, a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum is the worst danger in canned goods. NEVER USE food from containers that show possible “botulism” warnings: leaking, bulging, or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; canned food with a foul odor; or any container that spurts liquid when opening. DON’T TASTE SUCH FOOD! Even a minuscule amount of botulinum toxin can be deadly.

      Can linings might discolor or corrode when metal reacts with high-acid foods such as tomatoes or pineapple. As long as the can is in good shape, the contents should be safe to eat, although the taste, texture and nutritional value of the food can diminish over time.

      Good luck. I’m looking forward to doing peaches very soon!

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