Passata di pomodoro (or passata for short) is the multi-purpose tomato purée that every aspiring Italian cook should learn how to make. Fortunately, it’s really quick and easy, but you do need one special piece of equipment: a food mill.
The method is simplicity itself: You take ripe tomatoes, simmer them just long enough so they’ve softened a bit, and sieve them though a food mill. You’re done! Passata has a million and one uses in Italian cooking, starting with homemade tomato sauce. The taste of tomato sauce made with freshly made passata is incomparable. But passata can be used in any recipe calling for tomatoes—the kind Italians refer to as in rosso—and as we all know, there are a whole lot of those in Italian cookery.
You can buy passata di pomodoro in jars at fancy supermarkets and Italian delis, but it’s so quick and simple to make at home, why spend the money? And with tomatoes at the height of their season, now’s the time to get started.
Makes enough for one mason jar
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) fresh tomatoes, preferably plum tomatoes
- A pinch of salt
- A basil leaf or two (optional)
Cut your tomatoes in half and put them all in a saucepan.
Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, cover the saucepan and let the tomatoes simmer over moderate heat, stirring from time to time. After about 5-10 minutes, they should have softened and just begun to melt, like so:
Pour the tomatoes into a food mill positioned over a large mixing bowl. Here’s my set up:
Let the tomatoes cool off for a couple of minutes. By this time, depending on your tomatoes, there will be either a little or quite a bit of liquid that will have drained into the bowl. Discard it before proceeding.
Re-position the food mill on top of the bowl and rotate the handle until all you have left in the food mill are skins and seeds:
You’ll want to throw this stuff away, of course. What you’ll have in the mixing bowl is your passata:
Transfer the purée into a mason jar or any other container you want. If you like, nestle a basil leaf or two in the passata. Let it cool off completely before closing the container. Passata is good for about a week in the fridge, and it freezes successfully. You can also put it up for out of season enjoyment (see Notes).
A food mill is essential for making passata di pomodoro and, in fact, it’s essential equipment for any Italian kitchen in general. Food mills are very affordable and you can buy them most anywhere that sells cookware or online. They may be a bit old-fashioned, but technology hasn’t managed to replace them yet. I love blenders and food processors, but they won’t do for some jobs. The beauty of a food mill is that it filters out the stuff you don’t want while it purées, like tomato skins and seeds. The alternative would be skinning and seeding the tomatoes before you purée and that’s tedious work. Food mills usually come with 2 or 3 disks that produce finer or rougher purée. I usually opt for the ‘medium’ disk, it lets a few of the seeds through but it produces a slightly rough texture that I like. The finest disk will produce a perfectly smooth, seedless passata, close to the kind you will usually find commercially. Avoid any disk with very large holes, as it will let all the seeds through and bits of skin as well.
The best tomatoes for making passata are the oval-shaped plum variety. These babies are meant for sauce—and indeed plum tomatoes are sometimes called ‘sauce tomatoes’ for that very reason. They tend to be less watery, with more flesh and fewer seeds, than other tomatoes. But, in a pinch, almost any type of tomato will do, so long as they are ripe and full of flavor. You may need to let the tomatoes drain a bit longer if you’re working with larger, more watery varieties.
If you want to put up your passata for enjoying out of season, you should proceed just as if you were putting up whole peeled tomatoes: sterilize your mason jars before filling them, seal them tight and then boil the jars for a good 45 minutes. (Perhaps one day soon I’ll do a post on that, too.)
The only slightly tricky part of making passata di pomodoro is the brief simmering step. You’ll be simmering your tomatoes ‘dry’, i.e. without any oil or other cooking medium, so you need to be a bit careful to avoid scorching. A few tips will help here: Add a pinch of salt to draw out the tomatoes’ own liquid, use moderate heat and stir from time to time. Oh, and make sure you don’t get distracted and walk away from your tomatoes. They will burn—trust me, I know from experience!