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.