In the UK, the word passata is specifically applied to savoury tomato juice in a jar but in Italy the word passata means ‘passed’ as in passed through or made smooth and is applied to the action and end result rather than one specific fruit or vegetable.
Passata has a bad rep in the UK but here in Italy it is the base ingredient (along with garlic and onion) for all those beautiful pasta dishes and pizza sauces that are part of our everyday culinary landscape. You don’t have to make it yourself but knowing the secret to cooking it will change your pasta forever.
The process of making passata begins with planting and growing your own tomatoes. As any vegetable grower knows tomatoes love the sun and grow really well in fertilsed soil that is covered, we like to use hay and they need regular watering so they can gain their optimum juiciness. We like to plant a mix of tomatoes as it gives the passata a richer taste but the most important, if you can grow them, are beef tomatoes or as we call them in Italy ‘European’ tomatoes.
The main trick is to make enough passata to last until the next years harvest. This means big batches and roping in as many family members possible. Everybody brings their collected boxes and everybody joins in with the jobs. Over summer it is one of the most important things to do – it happens once every two weeks over July and August, much to the collective sighs of everyone involved, me included! The results are worth it though – we eat gourmet with every dish of pasta we make.
The 13 Steps for Classic Passata:
- Collect all your super ripe tomatoes, make sure your bottles are clean and get the family together.
- Find all your big pots and pans, set up some work stations, get a fire going.
- Wash your tomatoes, remove the green stalks. If you have any really ruined ones, give them to the pigs.
- At the cutting station, use a serrated knife to cut way the tops of the tomatoes, cut away any bad bits and roughly chop the tomatoes to release the juices. No need for chopping boards just do it quickly and freely.
- At the cooking station, get your big copper cooking pot over the fire and add the prepared tomato pieces.
- Leave it to cook whilst you have a coffee break – its ready when the tomato juices have been released and the flesh has broken down.
- Get your passata machine and pass the cooked tomatoes through it – this separates the skin from the pulp for a smooth passata. Warning! it is HOT!
- Pass the discarded pulp again to get all the good bits out of it.
- Pour the passata into a tea-urn type decanter and separate into bottles. Feel free to add a bit of salt at this point, its not necessary from a preserving POV but it tastes good.
- Attach lids to the full bottles.
- Put the full, sealed bottles in a large vat of rolling-boil water to sterlise.
- Wait for the water to cool down and remove the bottles.
- Store the bottles in a cool dry place, use as needed.
How to Cook Perfectly with Passata:
- If you can, buy a good quality passata. By our estimates if we wanted to sell our bottles, the minimum price would be around £2.90 per bottle. I know it seems steep for what is essentially just a bottle of tomatoes but you will immediately notice the difference in the quality and flavour of your sauce. If you can’t don’t worry, it will still taste good.
- Onions, garlic and olive oil – these are the holy trinity of a good pasta sauce base. You can add anything else along the way but if you have these three things plus passata (maybe it should be a holy quadinity?) you have yourself a pasta sauce.
- Add the olive oil to your chosen pan and set a low-medium heat.
- Thinly slice and chop your onions and cook gently until golden.
- Crush and chop your garlic and add to the pan with the cooked onions.
- Leave to gently cook for about 1-2 minutes.
- Add the passata and a little bit of salt.
- Bring the mixture to boil then turn down to rapid simmer.
- After about 7-10 minutes reduce heat back to low-medium.
- The sauce will go from mostly liquid to a thick, almost creamy tomato sauce. This will take about 15-20mins which is the perfect time to cook your pasta!
- Once the pasta is cooked, keep aside a little of the cooking water.
- Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce in the pan.
- Add the cooking water and stir vigorously – this helps the sauce stick to the pasta.
- Add a little olive oil if it needs it and if you have it you can add some fresh basil.
- Eat and enjoy…YUM!