I’ve been champing at the bit to bring you this post ever since I decided to fly home to Perth a few weeks ago and join my family at our annual sauce making day. After taking 1000 shots, editing it down to 100, editing it down again to 30, and then undertaking the excruciating task of making the final selection, I’m delighted to bring you my family’s ultimate ‘how to’ for Italian tomato passata.
Tomato passata is the base for all Italian tomato sauces. It is uncooked tomato puree without seeds or skins which is seasoned liberally with salt, bottled and preserved to be used in sauce dishes throughout the year. Essentially, it is tomato sauce in its rawest form. It can not be eaten directly from the bottle as it requires cooking until the tomatoes’ raw acidity is neutralised and the sauce is thickened for eating.
Tomato Sauce Day is when Italians all around the world get together with their families to make, bottle and preserve tomato passata to stock up the cupboards and use for the year. The call of Tomato Sauce Day is felt loud and strong across each family as it stands for so much more than the end product of having passata to take home. It mostly stands for family, for a coming together of all the generations and for making something together that is shared between all.
Both my sister and I moved from Perth to Sydney over ten years ago, and during that time, we have never been back for sauce day. For many years, we have been relying on the generosity of our family to make the sauce for us and bring it to Sydney in 12 bottle cases whenever they came to visit. A thousand thank yous to my family for forgoing the option to check in luggage just so they could bring us sauce.
This year, we finally managed to coordinate our schedules, and Deanna and I headed to Perth to join my family in making an epic 364 x 750ml bottles of tomato passata. This will provide our four families (Mum and Dad, Adam’s Family, Deanna’s Family and Scotty and I) with enough sauce for the year. Don’t let the scale of our sauce day scare you – it can be done in very small batches too!
In preparation for sauce day, mum sent through a note on how the day was going to roll (It is important to note that every member of my family is crazy organised), so in the interests of giving you a rare glimpse into my family, I thought it would be fun to share the note with you, because it had Scotty and me in stitches:
Have I prepared you sufficiently for the epic tomato passata making process? Well, hang on to your hats because its going to be a fun and messy ride showcasing an authentic Italian sauce day!
While sauce making is often done in large numbers to last 12 months, it can be done on a much smaller scale. To determine exactly what you will need, you first need to decide how many bottles you want to make and then work backwards. Every 1kg tomatoes will make approximate. 1 x 750ml bottle of passata. For our sauce day, we made 364 bottles from 34 x 12kg cases.
There are only three ingredients for our family passata – Tomatoes, Basil and Salt. Like with all Italian recipes, the key to a great passata is sourcing the very best produce available.
It’s stating the obvious, but we have to start with the tomatoes of course as they are the hero of passata (and Italian cuisine more generally). For tomato passata, it is important that the tomatoes sourced are vine ripened. Whichever breed of tomato you go for, if they aren’t vine ripened, they won’t yield enough flavourful liquid for your passata. I’ll talk about this more in the process section, but the flavour of the tomato passata comes not just from the tomato juice, but mainly from the tomato skins. While you can make passata from many different varieties of tomatoes, our family always uses vine ripened roma tomatoes as we feel it yields the best results for us.
I mentioned earlier that the date of Tomato Sauce Day is dictated by the tomatoes themselves. This is because the tomatoes are sourced direct from the grower so their ripeness (and hence readiness for passata) depends on the climate and weather patterns in each year. In Australia, the tomatoes are usually ready around mid to late February (our Summer) but final confirmation of the sauce making day comes after a number of phone calls to the grower prior to the ripeness to see how the tomatoes are tracking and when they will be ready.
The basil we use in our passata is grown in my father’s garden as it is very fragrant. After Christmas my father stops trimming his large basil plants so that the leaves grow large. During the passata making process, a large basil leaf is placed in the bottom of each bottle before the passata is poured in so that it infuses the liquid as it is stored in cupboards during the year. If, like me, you can’t seem to get basil to grow, as long as you find fragrant basil leaves, you’ll be fine.
Salt is certainly not the hero, but plays a very important role. It is added to the passata just prior to pouring and sealing the bottles to both season the sauce but also to help preserve the passata which will last in the bottles for up to 3 years.
- Large buckets – for washing and storing the tomatoes
- Small paring knives – for coring the tomatoes
- Large aluminium stock pot – for boiling the tomatoes
- Large triple ring gas burner – used with aluminium pot and metal drum
- Large full gas bottle (depending on the amount of tomatoes, you may need to refill it)
- Large stainless steel strainer
- Large piece cheesecloth (or a tea towel for small quantities)
- Electric tomato press (required for large batches, or a mouli for small quantities)
- 750ml beer bottles – with bottle cap top (1kg tomatoes makes approx. 1 x 750ml bottle of passata)
- Bottle caps and a capping machine
- Large metal drum – for boiling the bottles (or use large aluminium pot for small quantities)
From mum’s note in the introduction, you can see that she has listed an overview of the day’s proceedings. But, if you really are keen to try an Italian family sauce day for yourself, here’s all you need to know about how to do it!
To start, ensure your sauce bottles are clean and sterilised before beginning the process. We reuse our bottles each year and the weekend prior to sauce day, the bottles are properly washed and sterilised.
Fill large buckets halfway with water and add as many tomatoes to each bucket as possible. Using a paring knife, take each tomato out of the water, wipe the tomatoes then remove the centre core and any bad bits of the tomatoes you can see. Then set cleaned tomatoes aside in washed crates ready for the next step.
Fill the large aluminium pot half full with water and heat over the gas till boiling. In batches, blanch the tomatoes till softened, and the skins start to peel slightly. Scoop them out with the strainer and place them on the cheesecloth.
Twist the cheesecloth gently to drain off any excess water from the tomatoes (you want to ensure that you are only removing water and not tomato juice) and then transfer the tomatoes to a large bucket ready for the tomato press (or mouli).
At this stage, it is important to start working in batches. Place a large sterilised bucket under the spout of your tomato press where the juice will extract and another small bucket under spout where the skins will extract, and gently guide the blanched tomatoes through the press. After the first pass of a batch of tomatoes, take the skins and seeds and pass them back through the tomato press another 3 times. The skins are really what provides the flavour and the thickness to the sauce.
Each time the skins are passed through, it becomes harder for the machine to process them. You will need to press down on the skins to guide them, but ensure you listen to the sounds of your machine and ease off if it sounds under strain.
Season the passata to taste with salt, and stir in with a large spoon.
You are now ready for the bottling stage. Push a large basil leaf (or two smaller leaves) in the spout of each clean bottle and fill with the prepared passata using a funnel.
Ensure you leave a gap of a couple of centimetres at the top and then seal each bottle using a capping machine.
The final step in the process, and the step that ensures the sauce’s preservation, is to boil the bottles. To prepare the bottles for boiling, place your drum over the gas hob. Put a thick towel in the base of your drum, and start layering the bottles in, ensuring that you use old rags (or newspaper) between the bottles so that when they are boiling they don’t hit each other and shatter. Continue to build up the bottles in the drum until you are out of space, or out of bottles.
Fill the drum with cold water and slowly bring it to a boil over the gas. Boil for 30 minutes and then turn off the gas and allow the drum to cool overnight (the bottles and water will take a long time to cool enough for them to be removed from the drum without burning you).
Remove the bottles gently and then store in a cool, dry and dark place until you are ready to use.
Thus concludes the epic walk through of how to make passata. Even though we made ours in a large batch, it really is very easy to scale down into a much smaller batch and I encourage you to try it. My sister and I have been thinking about our desires to start a Sydney branch of the Michetti family event ever since that day, and now that our training is sufficiently ‘refreshed’, we have convinced Mum and Dad to come to Sydney next year to do it with us!
For four of my favourite recipes that feature our family’s homemade tomato passata, see the suggested posts below.