I made sauce! It was ok. After watching several YouTube videos and reading a few blog posts (sources below), I felt confident that I knew enough to get started. I certainly will not have 10,000 hours to practice my sauce making, so it was important to start practicing quickly.
One of the challenges when making sauce for canning is that there are strict safety guidelines for long-term preservation. The USDA strongly discourages people from canning “any old” recipe, and instead recommend sticking to a carefully tested recipe. Any sauce that is canned using water-bath canning techniques (boiling water) cannot have any oil or meat - those recipes require a pressure canner (higher temperatures kill all bacteria, including botulism spores). Furthermore, the canning process continues to cook the sauce, and so the canning time must be taken into account when deciding where the sauce should fall on the spectrum from “fresh” flavor (short cook time) to “deep, rich” flavor (long cook time).
As a first attempt, I decided to try a simple and straightforward approach, and avoid canning altogether. Once I am able to refine a simple recipe, I’ll work to adapt it to preservation. I tried a mix of tomatoes based on the advice of this guy at SeriousEats - as his name implies, he seems to take his craft seriously. He knows what he’s looking for, and is able to articulate how he makes it happen. His recommendation is to make a tomato paste in the oven (low and slow heat) for a deep, rich flavor component, a simpler “base” sauce with a blend of varieties, and a fresh component, cooked only for 10 minutes to preserve the flavor. They’re mixed together just before serving. Various other sources that I found on YouTube and blogs used a wide range of recipes - from canned tomatoes and dried herbs, to artisan recipes with only fresh, organic ingredients, to hearty sauces with peppers and mushrooms. While the tomato garden is growing well, the future sauce fruits are very green and far from ripe. Due to the time constraints of this learning project, I needed to purchase tomatoes for this first learning batch.
This is where I learned my first major lesson: all the YouTube wisdom in the world can't make up for mediocre tomatoes. The tomatoes at the local farmer's market beckoned, but there were no plum tomato varieties (also called "paste" varieties, these are ideal for sauce because of their high flesh to water ratio, and few seeds). The supermarket was the next stop, and this was where things went downhill. The heirloom varieties that they offered were fine, but the plum tomatoes were hard and underripe. Although any honest midwestern feller would have scoffed, my simple city-dweller eyes were fooled. While the tomatoes looked sufficient in the store, you can see in the photo above that the pale, pinkish peeled fruits were merely imposters, feigning tomatohood. Without other options readily available, I decided to continue on, knowing well that this was a major compromise.
Details will come as my technique is refined, but suffice to say for now that it turned out OK - even with compromised ingredients. I am generally encouraged, and convinced that with better, riper, fresher fruit and herbs, the end product will be substantially enhanced. My next steps are to try a second round with better ingredients, a third to refine the recipe, then subsequent tests to figure out a cooking and canning technique that preserves the flavors that I’ve created. Stay tuned!