Passata is fresh tomato sauce. It’s an Italian summertime staple which can be purchased bottled in grocery stores, or made at home.
There is something so satisfying about canning your own foods. The jars sit in the pantry like jewels. They remind us of the seasons past.
This activity is in fact dictated by the season, by vegetable garden yield and by tradition. During the summer-long tomato harvest, Italian families get busy canning tomatoes into preserves-form for the winter. Most households make gallons of it all summer long, with the flood of tomatoes reaching its peak in August.
Another telltale sign that it’s passata season is when come June, grocery stores in Italy start stocking canning jars and lids by the ton.
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Fresh, ripe ingredients are key. Fortunately you can find organic heirloom, plum or San Marzano tomatoes in virtually any farmer’s market, in case you don’t grow your own.
Choose red, firm tomatoes in any variety that grows locally where you are, and that doesn’t release as much water (Eg. cherry, vine-ripened or beefsteak tomatoes) which could extend the cooking time.
Below I listed quantities that yield approximately 4 large jars of homemade passata.
- 5 lbs plum tomatoes, stems removed and cut into pieces
- 2 carrots, unpeeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 rib of celery – leaves and all – cut into 2″ pieces
- 1 large onion, unpeeled and coarsely chopped, root end removed
- 2 large bunches of fresh basil
- 3 tbsp. sea salt
- 150 ml (3/4 cup) good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 4 sterilized 17-oz capacity mason jars with their capsule screw caps*
Choose a wide, heavy-bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid, and big enough to hold all the ingredients at once). Arm yourself with a sturdy wooden spoon: your best friend for the hours to come.
Wash all the vegetables and without drying them, place them – along with the salt, basil and olive oil – in the pot. Place the pot on the stove and cook over a lively flame, covered. Once the tomatoes begin to fall apart and exude liquid, uncover and simmer, stirring occasionally, summoning patience. Sipping wine helps.
Cooking times for massive amounts of passata can average 4-5 hours, but for the quantities listed above, you should be looking at no more than 2 hours, approximately. Variables include tomato variety, altitude and stove power.
When all the vegetables are soft, and the rich, soupy sauce is a deep terracotta color, it’s time to take the pot off the stove.
The next step is the most labor intensive, so recruit helpers.
Crank the sauce through a food mill and discard the pulpy, seed-filled residue. During storage any skins and seeds of the tomato and other vegetable discards would make your passata bitter and oddly textured.
The passata––which literally means, “puréed”––will need to cook for 15-20 more minutes. If the sauce is still very liquid, thicken it by cooking uncovered for an additional 10-15 minutes.
Pro tip: The sauce is done when a silky spoonful of passata on a flat white plate no longer gives off a large, watery halo around the edges.
Transfer the boiling-hot passata at once into clean mason jars, scooping it with a ladle. I swear by my wide mouthed canning funnel, which makes filling jars much easier and reduces the inevitable mess. Fill each leaving a 1/4″ gap, and screw the lid on.
Place all the jars huddled together, cap side down, and cover them with a thick wool or fleece blanket in a dimly lit room, away from drafts. Leave them untouched like this overnight.
This rather mysterious procedure is the technique that guarantees pasteurization.That is, a partial sterilization involving heat treatment that makes products safe for consumption and extends shelf life. Thanks to the heat of the “huddle,” jars are hermetically sealed, and through natural vacuum, air is expelled. The result will be that the capsule in the lids of the jars will no longer “pop” when pressed down on.
Note: If you’re accustomed/more comfortable boiling your filled jars to pasteurize and create vacuum, by all means go ahead. I just find that the upside-down-huddle technique works just as well and is one less thing to do stove-side.
If once completely cooled the vacuum capsule still pops, repeat your preferred pasteurization process with a new lid. Once the jars are vacuum sealed, store them in your pantry for 10-12 months.
Your passata is now ready to use. Employ it as a condiment for pasta, or as a base for vegetable and meat stews, to top pizza, or use it as a healthy dip. Also, since this sauce is already cooked, all you have to do on the day is pour some out in a serving bowl (any left over in the jar needs to be refrigerated). Add cooked and drained pasta al dente. Drop in a curl of butter and a generous dusting of grated Parmigiano. Voilà, “pasta al pomodoro” is ready and steaming on the plate.
Every time you’ll open one of the jars in the middle of winter, you will close your eyes and inhale the delightful scent of these crazy, unprecedented summer days.
* Obtain safe and hygienic preserving by using new jars and special lids with soft rubber seals. These ensure an airtight environment during pasteurization, and provide an effective, long-lasting vacuum seal. If you’re recycling used glass jars (not the metal caps, which you can boil separately), you can sterilize them by popping them in the microwave for 3 minutes at max heat.
The jars and lids I use are Quattro Stagioni.