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Practicing the basics: tomato sauce

Tomato sauce is a basic staple, especially of Italian cuisine. It’s also ridiculously easy to make and customize to your own preferences. All you need to get started is a can of diced tomatoes, half an onion, and a dash of salt. Then it’s up to you to decide where you want to take it. You can quickly make a tomato sauce for pasta, or to spread on a pizza, or even as a sauce to be served over meat — or a dozen other uses.

You can use canned or fresh tomatoes, but make sure that you’re starting with uncooked ones: cans of “diced” or “whole” tomatoes are fine, but don’t use “stewed” or “tomato sauce” as these have already been cooked. Also, as confusing as it sounds, don’t start with pureed tomatoes: much of what we are trying to accomplish by making tomato sauce from scratch is to achieve a certain texture somewhere in between “chunks of raw tomato” and “smooth liquid,” and pureed tomatoes are already so thin and smooth that if we start with them we don’t really have an option to aim for something chunkier.

In cooking a tomato sauce, we’re trying to achieve two things: texture and taste. The texture side is simple to understand: the longer you cook it, the more the texture of the tomatoes (and any other aromatic vegetables you added) changes from solid and chunky to smooth and liquid, and the more of the water will boil off. Taste, however, is more nuanced. Uncooked tomatoes have a bright, fresh flavor, and as they cook they lose the freshness but pick up a tangy “cooked” flavor. They also gain complexity by blending with the other ingredients in the sauce: meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, alcohol. You can make a great tomato sauce anywhere on the spectrum from “uncooked” to “slow-cooked for hours.” Again, it all depends on the texture and flavor you want to achieve.

Of course, perfectly aligning the texture and taste can be a bit of work. Your best tool for doing that is deciding how finely to cut up your tomatoes to start. The smaller the pieces, the less time it will take them to break down and form a smooth sauce. So by starting with finely-diced tomatoes, you can get a smooth sauce that tastes less “cooked.” Or by starting with big pieces of tomato you can get a tangy sauce that still has chunky texture. It turns out you can also get a mix of both, by keeping some of the tomatoes in reserve and adding them near the end of the cooking process.

If you’re just learning how to make tomato sauce, I encourage to make your first batch the “bare bones” version below, and to taste it regularly as it cooks so that you can experience the way it changes in taste and texture as it cooks. Once you have that base of knowledge, you can start experimenting with different customizations.

Suggested reading:

Time to cook: 20-25 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 medium-sized white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, or 2 lbs. fresh tomatoes, diced

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a medium-sized saucepan or pot. Add the onion, salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Yep, this is the standard “saute aromatic vegetables” step at the start of most sauces.

2. Add the tomatoes, and stir to mix. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer, stirring once every few minutes, until the sauce reaches the desired texture. First the chunks of onion and tomato will break down, making a smooth and thin sauce (stirring more often, while not necessary, will help to accelerate this process). Then the water will boil off, thickening the sauce. If you want it absolutely smooth, then puree the sauce for 30 seconds in a blender before serving (but be extra careful with hot foods in a blender! Process it in batches so that the blender is never more than half-full).

3. Season to taste and serve.

Tips and suggestions:

  • Everything you typically do to make a sauce you can also do here. If you want to make it a meat sauce, then brown some meat in the pan first (before sauteing the vegetables), set the meat side, and then add it back in after the tomatoes have begun to cook. Try different combinations of aromatic vegetables. Add 1/4 cup of white or red wine between the aromatic vegetables and the tomatoes (let the wine boil off about half its volume before adding the tomatoes).
  • Throw in some herbs. For Italian-style dishes: oregano, thyme, basil, parsley, and tarragon are all good options to try, either alone or in a combination that you like. Herbs are sensitive to heat and tend to lose their distinctive flavor as they cook and blend in with the other ingredients, so don’t add them before the tomatoes and add them very late in the cooking process if you want to be able to pick out their flavors in the final result.
  • Throw in some spices. Tomato sauces are common in many cuisines that tend to favor spices over herbs, including Indian, Spanish, Mexican and many South American cultures. Red pepper, chili pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika are all interesting starting places for experimenting with spices in tomato sauce. If you’re nervous about finding the right combinations in the right proportions, you can pick up a jar of “taco seasoning mix” or “garam masala” (a blend of Indian spices) at the grocery store as starting places or shortcuts. Spices benefit from intense heat that allows them to “bloom,” so try adding spices to the pan just as the aromatic vegetables are almost done softening, and allow them to cook for 30-60 seconds before adding in the tomatoes.
  • Stir in a bit of grated parmesan cheese (around a tablespoon for the recipe above) right at the end. It adds some more tanginess and a bit of saltiness. If you plan to do this, you might want to go easy on adding salt before this so that the end-product isn’t too salty.
  • Throw in 1-2 cups of coarsely-chopped vegetables (3/4-inch cubes) about five minutes before the sauce is done. Broccoli, zucchini, carrots, and bell pepper are all great options. The vegetables will soften a bit but won’t disintegrate into the sauce. This is a great, healthy vegetarian pasta sauce option and a wonderful way to get more veggies into your diet.
  • If you really enjoy the “cooked” flavor of tomatoes in your sauce, then turn the heat down to simmer, cover the pot, and let it slow-cook for an hour or more. Check it from time to time, adding more water if necessary so that it doesn’t dry out and burn (though covering it will slow the process of water boiling off).