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Carefully fill jarsWelp, I’ve officially started to care more about my blog than my loved ones.

In that, I’m telling the world what they’re getting for Christmas.

I learned this trick from my mother.  When I turned 6 months old and became super duper picky about clothes (I don’t care about them, I just don’t want to wear what I don’t want to wear.  It’s tough.), she started shopping for me and my sisters each fall and having us try on tons and tons of things that we might like.  Then, she returned everything that didn’t work and wrapped everything else, with strict instructions for us to act surprised on Christmas.

This didn’t really happen when I was an infant – but for several years, this has been our MO for gift-giving.  It works great, for me at least.  I get to “shop” a few months before Christmas, which is fun, and then I get to have new stuff paid for by my dear parents, which is kind of the only way I can ever get new clothes because I spend all my money on boxed wine.

Aren’t you glad you know this?  It’s very important to this post.

Not really.

I have this thing where I want to give everyone and their mother and their dog and their dog’s bff’s from down the street a Christmas gift.

I also have this thing where I work in nonprofit and have no money, which can be hard  when it comes to the desire to give everyone and their mother and their dog and their dog’s bff’s from down the street a Christmas gift.

SO, this year I’m making my own.  Cue fake surprise on Christmas morning and a year of my loved ones getting food poisoning.

I wanted to can something.  I didn’t want anyone to have to race and use a gift from me, and I’ve been wanting to try water bath canning for a while now, so this seemed like a great time!

I did a TON of reading on canning, and there are a TON of different methods out there – everyone has the “right” way.  This is my way, which is a hybrid of about 6 different methods that looked good to me.  Take it or leave it.  It was really easy and a fun project.  In the interest of not spending money, I didn’t buy ANY special canning equipment – just jars and food preservative (fruit fresh, essentially), in case someone wants to save this for 7 years and I didn’t process it quite right.  I’m thoughtful that way!

Produce Protector

I went with canned marinara because 1. tomatoes are cheap and 2. I make awesome marinara sauce.  Sorry, it’s the truth.  Also, it’s kind of foolproof as a gift – I don’t know too many people who don’t eat spaghetti or pizza sometimes!

I made 7 pint jars of marinara, and here’s what I used for that:

  • 1 finely chopped large onion (like, LARGE)
  • 5 large cans tomato (2 whole, 3 crushed, but use whatever combo you like to get a good texture in your sauce!)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fruit preservative
  • salt

This makes a VAT, so I’d definitely recommend not making this whole recipe unless you’re going to do some freezing or canning!

For the sauce, heat a large pot to medium heat with the olive oil, onion, and crushed red pepper.

Start onion and crushed red pepper

Stir everything together for 4 minutes until the onion has softened, then add the garlic and a sprinkle of salt.

Stir onions then add garlic

Stir THAT together for 2 more minutes until the garlic is fragrant, then add the tomatoes!  Just pour in the crushed tomatoes….

Add crushed tomatoes to onion

…and use your fingers, a wooden spoon, or a potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes.  I like mostly smooth sauce with some chunks, so I never use diced tomatoes.  They’re too…..perfect.

Crush tomatoes by hand

Stir the sauce, and add the sugar and another sprinkle of salt.  Taste it!  Add more salt if you’d like.

Add sugar

Let the sauce simmer covered for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have, stirring every 10 minutes or so to move the sauce from the bottom of the pot to the top of the pot.

Simmering sauce


Let sauce simmer

Then, add the food preservative (if using, this isn’t totally necessary), stir again, and turn off the heat.

Add fruit fresh last

Now, you can definitely make the sauce a day or two ahead of when you’d like to can.  Just keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.  It’s nice if the sauce cools a bit too to prevent the possibility of cracked jars, which can happen when you fill cold jars with hot liquid.

Now, onto the canning!  You’ll need jars, lids, and rings.  The lids HAVE to be new.  Does anyone know why?  I don’t.  Something about the seal.  The jars and rings can be reused.  Run them through the dishwasher or wash them by hand really well before you’re ready to can.

Clean jars

The other prep you’ll need to do is fill a pot with water and bring it to a simmer for the jars.  The pot needs to be tall enough so that water can come AT LEAST one inch above the jars once they’re placed into the pot.  Be sure you have a tall pot!  I had to borrow one from my mom.  To make her Christmas gift.  I’m the worst child ever.  You’ll also need another smaller pot with simmering water.  Place the lids and rims in here so they stay very hot and sanitary while you fill the jars.

Allow lids and rings to simmer

The other tools you’ll need are metal tongs to insert and remove the jars from the boiling water.  We used a set of tongs AND a metal spatula to be sure none of the jars slipped.  Something about broken glass and boiling hot marinara made me cautious.

Now, once the marinara is ready and the two pots and utensils and jars are set to go, we can fill the jars.  Use a funnel or bowl with a spout to carefully fill the jars, trying not to get any marinara on the rims of the jars.  Leave one inch of space in the top of the jars – the marinara will expand while it processes and we need to allow room for that.

Carefully fill jars

Then, use a wet paper towel to carefully wipe off the edge of the jars.

Wipe jars clean

Use tongs to remove one of the jar lids from the simmering water, and carefully place it on the jar.

Place lid over jar

Then, grab a jar ring and place that over the lid.

Move ring to jar

Now, close the jar! Be sure that the lid is lined up over the jar and gently screw on the ring – just enough so that it won’t come off, but not tight at all.  This allows air bubbles to escape from the jar during processing.

Screw on lid gently

Look at these cuties!  All filled, sealed, and ready to be boiled.  We did 3 jars at a time, and filled the next three while these three were processing.  You want the jars in the pot of boiling water to not be crammed in, but if they’re close to each other it’s OK.

Get all jars ready to process

When you have the jars filled and ready to go, you can slowly lower them into the large pot of simmering water.  If the water doesn’t come 1 inch above the jars, add a little more.

Gently lower jars into simmering water

Cover the pot and bring it to a hard boil, then set the timer for 30 minutes – that’s how long these guys need to process!  Be aware – if you don’t use a canning rack (or maybe if you do, who knows), the jars will rattle their little booties off in the boiling water.  It’s kind of loud.

Let jars come to a boil for 30 minutes

When the jars have processed, use whatever ghetto tong setup you’re using to carefully remove them to a clean kitchen towel – they’ll need to sit still for 12 or more hours, so put the towel in a place where the jars won’t be in your way.

Remove jars carefully

About a minute after the jars come out of the water you’ll hear a loud POP.  That means that the jars have sealed correctly!  When you push on the “button” in the center of the jar it won’t go up and down.  You could remove the outer ring of the jar and the lid would stay on until you use a jar opener to remove it!  If some of your jars don’t seal completely, keep them in the fridge for a week or so and use that sauce first – no worries.

Let jars rest for 12 hours

The rest of the sauce can be gifted as you see fit or stored for ever and ever (or a year, whatevs) until you don’t feel like cooking one night.  Cool, huh?

This was great fun, guys.  I’ll definitely be doing it again in the summer with fresh tomatoes, but canned work just fine at this time of year!

What other homemade Christmas gifts have you gotten recently that were great?  I’m gifting this with pasta “stuff:” bowls, oils, pasta, utensils…all sorts of things!  Try this the next time you want a fun, affordable food project. It went really smoothly and you can definitely handle it!