Homemade vs. Store-bought: Tomato Sauce


March 22, 2011 by Leah

I’ve been saving tomato sauce for the last (for now, anyway) entry in this series, because it’s expensive and time-consuming to make and I really don’t know what my final judgment will be on the homemade vs. store-bought front.

The tomato sauce recipe I use is from that estimable master (mistress?), Julia Child. Specifically, Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Swoon.) I make Coulis de Tomates à la Provençale whenever I have the time, energy, and tomatoes. In fact, I prefer to make at least a double batch because the main recipe, which calls for three pounds of tomatoes, usually makes about three cups (Julia says about two).

The ingredient list, with approximate prices (for the bigger-ticket items), is as follows:

  • 1/3 cup finely minced yellow onions – 20 cents
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil – 78 cents
  • 2 teaspoons flour
  • 3 pounds ripe red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped – $7.50
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 cloves mashed garlic – 5 cents
  • A medium herb bouquet: 4 parsley sprigs, 1/2 bay leaf and 1/4 teaspoon thyme, tied in cheesecloth
  • 1/8 teaspoon fennel
  • 1/8 teaspoon basil
  • Small pinch of saffron – 75 cents
  • Small pinch of coriander
  • A 1-inch piece (1/4 teaspoon) dried orange peel
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Salt and pepper

So that’s $9.28, or maybe $9.30 or so to account for the commodity-type ingredients I didn’t bother including in the calculation. For about three cups, or 24 oz., of tomato sauce. Since this “coulis” is much more similar to the fancy pasta sauces that come in jars than to the canned tomato sauce we are all familiar with, I’ll pick Classico Pasta Sauce Tomato & Basil as the store-bought comparison. (I had some affinity towards the Classico brand  in my college years.)

A 26 oz. jar of Classico is available at Albertson’s for $3.59 ($2.99 with your Preferred card, at the moment, in fact). So far, this isn’t looking good on the front of the homemade sauce. I could save $6 by just buying the sodium and preservative-laden sauce from the supermarket, and get two extra ounces to boot.

Obviously, my calculation was based on a $2.50 per pound price for tomatoes. This is kind of painful, especially when one is planning to reduce them to sauce. I had the embarrassing experience of having to put back some of my tomatoes at the market last week as I had run low on cash.

The price disparity gets worse during the summer when organic tomatoes are more widely available at our farmers’ markets. I can get lovely, local, no-spray-but-not-quite-certified-organic tomatoes year-round for between $2 and $3 per pound. The certified organic tomatoes can hop up to $3.50, and into the $4.50 to $5 range for organic heirloom tomatoes (which taste. so. good.). If I make this same sauce with organic heirloom tomatoes at $4.50 per pound, I’m paying over $5 per cup of sauce.

What to do, what to do… Well, let’s look at the ingredients in Classico: diced tomatoes, tomato puree (water, tomato paste), onions, garlic, pure olive oil, salt, basil, spice.

Okay, there’s really not much to argue with there unless they are hiding nasty chemicals in the “spice” bit. There’s not even any added sugar. (Maybe this is why I have an affinity for Classico pasta sauces.) The ingredients aren’t organic or non-GM, and the sodium is mighty high (390 milligrams per serving, of which there are six in the jar, so 1690 mg per jar), but as long as you don’t eat many high-sodium processed foods on a regular basis, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

But… I like to eat organic. And hey, there’s a jar of Amy’s Organic Pasta Sauce, Light Sodium Marinara, selling on Amazon for $17.99. Wow, that makes even my homemade organic heirloom sauce made with $4.50/lb tomatoes look like a bargain at $15.30.

Ooh. There’s also something called Dave’s Gourmet Organic Roasted Garlic & Sweet Basil Pasta Sauce retailing for $8.99 for 25.5 oz over on buy.com. That’s not too much different from the $9.30 price tag on my most recent batch of homemade sauce.

What gives here? It has to be the tomatoes. The tomatoes are 80% of the cost of my homemade tomato sauce, and there is a wide variety in tomato prices even at my local farmers’ market. (For the record, tomatoes on the vine at another local grocery store recently were $2.99/lb and organic were in the $4 range.)

Still, in this contest, the frugal person would almost have to admit defeat. There is widely available cheap tomato sauce made entirely from ingredients I recognize. The effort I put into blanching, peeling, seeding, and chopping six pounds of tomatoes every few weeks is ridiculous. While it did feel good to serve homemade pizza with homemade tomato sauce to visiting relatives on Friday, I’m not sure it’s worth the extra money.

Unless there’s an alternate solution. Like at the garden store. Where they sell seeds. For between $1 and $3 a packet.

I think I’ve decided what to do with the gaps left by any plants in the new garden that I can harvest early, and with the soil formerly inhabited by lettuce and chard in the eager and empty Bed 1. And any spare containers I find lying around.

Watch out, Aaron-my-dear, because our living space is becoming a tomato seedling nursery. And if I have to spend three weeks of our summer making and canning tomato sauce, I will, and I will LOVE it. I’ve been meaning to try that tomato sauce recipe from Barbara Kingsolver’s family  in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, anyway.

I’m also going to feel just fine about buying tomato sauce at the store.


5 thoughts on “Homemade vs. Store-bought: Tomato Sauce

  1. David G says:

    The solution is to grow a few plants. Each plant can produce 20-50 pounds each, depending on variety! All they need is hot weather, deep watering, and tall staking. If your interested I have 8 packs of heirloom tomato seeds that I would be happy to send you a few-dozen of each. There is more than I will plant this year, and it would save you $20.00 to buy more seeds than you could possibly plant in a year. Just give your address to Kristina and I’ll mail them to you.

    I have ground cherry (Strawberry Husk Tomato), Sungold Select II cherry tomato, Purple Cherokee, Great White, Green Zebra, Arkansas Traveler (red), Tomato Pineapple (yellow meat with red stripes), and Money Maker (red). If you ask nicely I might even send you a purple heirloom tomatillo that is sweet and can be eaten strait from the vine.

  2. leahkathlyn says:

    That is SO NICE of you and, it seems to me, an offer no one should ever refuse. Whatever you want to send, I’ll take! Thank you!

  3. Kim_F says:

    Tomato sauce was also the one area I hadn’t really ventured at all, and was really reluctant to (primarily from a cost stand-point,) ESPECIALLY before moving here. BUT THEN, last fall I scored 30lbs of local, organic, heirloom tomatoes for something like $17. Not only did I eat several of them like apples (OMG, so good…) and several more in caprese salads (with local mozzarella and local basil… also OMG, SO GOOD!) but I also dried several pounds (awesomely delicious snack I’m still working on 6 months later) and made several jars of tomato sauce, marinaraetc. I didn’t do the math, but it was well worth the cost and time then.

    I’m growing tomatoes in my own garden this year too(definite upside to leaving AK summers for NC summers, though I see few others.) But I’m also hoping to score another 30lbs from the same farmer. 🙂

    Oh, and a tip, for when you need tomato sauce type things, but before you have any you’ve grown available. While I hadn’t made my own, completely from scratch, sauces before that score, I stopped buying the jarred pasta sauces ages ago. I found a happy medium btw/ making from scratch and utter convenience that was still cost effective and felt a bit like real cooking: Bionaturae and Pomi. Both companies make organic tomato products such as strained tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes etc. Both make products that are low in sodium & additive free. And both package in glass and/or aseptic boxes. Really, they allowed me to find the happy place between wanting real food and just needing to admit that I also wanted tomato products in spite of the fact that I was not able to grow them myself and buying them locally was cost-prohibitive for such tasks.

    Anyway. I can’t wait to hear about your heirloom tomatoes! 😀

    • David G says:

      Great advice, if you don’t grow enough tomatoes try asking for culls, tomatoes with a split, bad spot, or that are just ugly. You can often get these for a fraction of the cost of pretty tomatoes, when you know the farmer. Also Tomatoes produce lots of tomatoes just before the first frost, so ask in fall for a discount on bulk tomatoes, most people have eaten as much as they want by then. A word of warning though yellow and orange tomatoes have lower acid than red varieties so it is a good idea to add a little citric acid, or vinegar to the sauces that you put up.

      I also make most of my tomato sauces form canned tomatoes either my own or store bought when tomatoes are not in season. They taste better out of a can than “fresh” tomatoes from the grocery store in December.

  4. […] to this, I’ve been thinking about tomatoes a lot after my post on homemade tomato sauce, where I discovered that almost anything you do with whole tomatoes other than eat them whole is […]

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