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Canning recipe: Marinara sauce

It took a while for our tomatoes to really hit their stride, but at the end of August, they started ripening a thousand a minute or so. Since the whole goal of learning to can was to do something with our tomatoes, this was very exciting.

Marinara sauce is a huge part of that goal. We both enjoy simple, quick dinners involving pasta, cheese and tomato-based sauce on weeknights. It cuts into our Stargate: Atlantis viewing time much less than a full-blown meal involving 27 pans and a blowtorch. So why not make a sauce that was so tasty, it could stand on its own with some whole wheat pasta? Why indeed.

I scoured my favorite canning book, The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, but it had nothing that looked exciting enough. Surely having both onions AND garlic in a tomato sauce does not result in instant death-by-botulism. It was my massage therapist, Natalie, who eventually pointed me the right direction with a link to Canning USA. Warning: their html will hurt your eyes and heart.

Since I have both renegade canning and mathematical adequacy in my genes, I couldn’t help but a) notice some non-death-inducing improvements that could be made (like caramelizing the onions and adding dried oregano), and 2) figure out that their input/output claims were nonsensical. You cannot gather that quantity of ingredients, reduce it by a third, and have 9 quarts of sauce.

So, here’s what I came up with. Tomato quantity and lemon juice are increased. I feel in my heart that it’s acidic enough to be safe, but, you know. Make this at your own peril. If the USDA kicks your door down, don’t come crying to me.

Marinara sauce

Yield: 9 quarts
Active work: 2 hours
Total time: 6.5 hours+-


1/2 c olive oil
3 lbs white or yellow onions, chopped
20 lbs tomatoes
3/4 c freshly chopped garlic
1 bottle red wine (try a cab)
1/4 cup sea salt
lots of black pepper
1/4 c dried oregano
3 c fresh herbs (try parsley, basil, and Greek oregano)
1 1/2 c bottled lemon juice*
Aviation gin, a couple of limes, some sparkling water, and ice


In a really, really large pot that’s stainless steel, begin caramelizing the onions in the olive oil. Heat should be medium to medium low. Adjust the heat on the onions as necessary so you don’t incinerate them. Don’t forget to stir them occasionally.

During the 45+ minutes that will take, roughly chop the tomatoes. Peeling and seeding is optional.

Fill a large glass with ice. Pour a shot of gin over it, squeeze a half of a lime in, and top off with sparking water. Give a gentle stir. Begin drinking. There’s not much chopping left.

When the onions are caramelized and smell like awesome, throw in your garlic and saute for no more than two minutes, until the garlic just begins to turn golden.

Add the chopped tomatoes, the wine, the salt, and the pepper to the onions. Stir a bit. Measure out the dried oregano and briefly crush between your palms before adding to the pot.

Simmer the sauce until it’s reduced by a quarter to one third. This will take 3-4 hours.  During that time, you can nap, pull out the remnants of the lemon cucumber plants, or drink the rest of the gin. It’s all up to you.

At the three hour mark or so, begin sterilizing your jars. Hurray, dishwashers! Also, heat up water in the other humongous pot you happen to have around the house.  It should be deep enough to conceivably cover lots of jars with about an inch to spare once their mass is displaced. Your lids shouldn’t be boiled, but rather heated gently in water so they are clean and stuff.

Process the fresh herbs with the lemon juice until chopped, about 15-20 1-second spins in ye olde Cuisinart.

Add the herbs and lemon juice to the tomatoes and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Fill your sterilized jars, working one at a time, leaving about a half inch of head space. Wipe down rims, center the lid, and screw on the ring until it’s finger tight. Oh yeah, baby.

Process the jars of sauce in boiling water for 35 minutes. Turn off heat, let them rest in the water for five minutes, then remove them and place them on a towel in a draft-free area. Let them rest for 24 hours.

Check and make sure they have sealed. If they have, you can remove the ring (if you want to) and store them in a dark, cool place. If they haven’t sealed, you’re pretty much screwed, since the weekend is shot and you may or may not have time to re-process half-spoiled marinara sauce.

I don’t know, though, since all of mine sealed and are now sitting happily in the kitchen. There was an extra cup or so that was really, really delicious. I ate a good portion of it using potato chips as a spoon. Ummmm…yeah.

*Why bottled lemon juice? Because it’s a known acidity, unlike fresh lemons or limes. Yeah, I initially revolted at that one too.

6 comments to Canning recipe: Marinara sauce

  • This one time, I read East of Eden and the dirty prostitute who was the bad guy in the book took over the whorehouse by killing the house madam by poisoning her food and blaming it on canned food gone bad. Something similar also happened in the book/movie 1,000 acres (I think that was the name–the movie had Jessica Lange and Michelle Phipher), where an older sister tries, but fails, to kill her younger sister with poisoned canned food. I read both books in Ukraine and I remember thinking at the time that canned foods are a bad idea because someone might try to kill me. Can you promise me that I’ll be safe if I try it your way with the sauce?! I’m seriously concerned. :-)

  • Natalie

    Ah! Sounds absolutely delicious. I am so going to try this recipe next canning season! Thanks for posting. And ps, you’re right about the canning USA site. Ugly huh?

  • Natalie, thanks again for pointing me to the original!

    Thomas, you’d have more to worry about in the good ole days than now. I hear people (ahem, my mom) used to can jams with a wax seal. No processing. My paternal grandma canned with no water bath. Just heated stuff up, plopped it in a jar, and screwed a lid on. Funny thing is, none of them got sick using those Russian roulette methods! My mom certainly does not recommend them, though. And I don’t either, having a fondness for living.

  • Lucia

    Dear Christine: As a hard-core foodie (and an Italian to boot), I was looking for a way to use up my 20 pounds of leftover garden tomatoes (our tomatoes are just finally ripe up here in Canada). Your marinara—along with the requisite Gin cocktail—is VERY good. Thanks for a tasty recipe. I’ve already passed it along to my sister-in-law who just plucked about 80 pounds of ripe tomatoes … pass the gin.

  • I laughed out loud at your instructions, but imagine my horror in just searching for processing time for marinara after mine were already processing just to learn that i need lemon juice! ack! i forgot that! Am i going to poison myself? you know, i just don’t see it happening with tomato sauce. i’m a live on the edge kind of girl. i’m going to risk it. but thanks for the laugh…and the gin tip…although that probably would have made me burn my sauce.

  • I made this like you instructed – and with a few mods based on qty I had – of course. But Holy Shit, Woman. This is the heroin of marinara sauce. I added some hot pepper flakes because we love spicy, otherwise, pretty much as you described.

    I hope I have enough tomatoes next summer to do at least three 5 gallon batches of this. We have a local marinara fave, but this recipe takes it to town. And then doesn’t call it the next day.

    Please post more.