Sauces

November 22, 2021

Classic Tomato Sauce

Classic Tomato Sauce

Making a big batch of this sauce at the end of tomato season will never serve you wrong. It's so fresh and plus what is better than being able to tell your friends and family that the sauce they are eating is homemade as opposed to the typical store-bought canned sauce? Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything either.

I don’t know about you, but growing up, all of my favorite dishes were pasta dishes and most of them were served with a traditional tomato sauce. Whether it was Spaghetti and Meatballs or Chicken Parmesan as a kid, or Zuppa di Mare and Bucatini all’Amatriciana as I got older, the memories of having a pasta dish paired with a hearty and flavorful tomato sauce always stuck.

While I will admit, most of the time (pretty much every time) the dishes I was eating were made using canned, store-bought tomato sauce,  I still loved them. It wasn’t until I started cooking professionally that I found out how easy it was to make my own sauce.

Origin of Tomatoes

By now everyone knows that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, but what many people do not know about the tomato is that tomatoes were originally indiginous to South and Central America, not Europe. In the US, when people hear tomato sauce, bruschetta, or tomato salad, they naturally think about Italy and Italian Cuisine.

The truth is that the Aztecs and other Native Americans throughout South and Central America were domesticating tomatoes dating back to 500 BC. It was not until the 16th Century, with the Spanish Explorers, that the tomato was brought to Europe. From Spain, the tomato was distributed throughout Europe and became a regional favorite. The tomato's ability to adapt and evolve to its surroundings made it perfect for the various geographical locations and habitats present in Europe. This led to regional-specific tomatoes such as the Beefsteak (British/American), the Black Krim (Russia), San Marzano (Italy), the Monterosa (Spain) and many more.

Ingredients for the Best Classic Tomato Sauce

  • Tomatoes: For this recipe, it really comes down to yield. While San Marzano tomatoes are a traditional Italian classic to use, you can use whichever tomatoes you want. The larger the tomato, the better the yield in regards to making the sauce, so for that reason, I wouldn't recommend the smaller tomatoes like cherry or grape tomatoes.
  • Tomato Paste: I always like to add tomato paste to my sauces because it develops a true depth of flavor.The paste adds a deep preserved tomato flavor similar to what you pick up on when eating a dried fruit. Also, the sugar content in the paste lends to you being able to caramelize the sugars and bring forward a naturally sweet flavor to the sauce. If you don’t have any paste, try adding a few sundried tomatoes.
  • Wine: Wine is an ingredient that not everyone likes to use in their tomato sauce but I love using it in my bases because it adds to the depth and sophistication of the sauce flavor. I like to use a mild red with full flavor such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir but it is hard to go wrong as long as the wine is not so bold that it overpowers the other flavors in the sauce.
  • Spices: It is NUTMEG! Nutmeg is the secret ingredient that is often used in Italian sauces that is so subtly present that you are left asking yourself what is different about the sauce.When used correctly, you should not be able to pick up on the presence of nutmeg but instead be left with the thought “what is that?”. That is when you know you have used nutmeg correctly.
  • Herbs: The combination of herbs I use in my tomato sauce usually depends on the time of the year I am making the sauce and which herbs I have growing in my garden. I always like to add either basil or mint into the sauce for freshness but parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram are also great options.

Tips for Making a Classic Tomato Sauce

Making a good tomato sauce is fairly simple by putting all the ingredients into a pot, gently simmering them for 3-4 hours, and pureeing until smooth. You could even use canned tomatoes, which some may argue is even better! However, you'll find that perfecting your own tomato sauce requires various tries! Learn what you like and adjust the next time.

When I started making a basic tomato sauce, I found myself always wanting to make it better time after time so I began doing research on traditional techniques and messing around with adding different ingredients. I read and tried everyone’s recipe from Mario Batali to Massimo Bottura. As I was reading and experimenting, I began to notice that the key to truly developing the flavor of the sauce was in cooking the ingredients low and slow, before adding the liquid.

That allows the ingredients to caramelize all the sugars. This step, which is referred to in many cuisines as the Soffritto, or Sofrito, is the step/technique in which you slowly cook cut vegetables and spices in olive oil to extract the flavors and caramelize the sugars. After cooking, you add tomato paste and continue to cook on a low heat, building “fond”, or tiny bits of food that stick to the bottom of the pot and begin to caramelize, before deglazing with wine and scraping off the bottom of the pot with a Wooden Spoon. The “fond” is important because it develops the foundation for the sauce and helps give it that deep “richness” that seems to be present in all hearty stews and braises.

  1. Better the next day: They always say that Italian food is better the next day and the same thing goes with this sauce. Allowing all the flavors to “settle” in the fridge for a day before serving will allow all the subtle flavors that are present to come into their own. I recommend making the sauce at least a day before you plan on serving it. Don’t worry though, it will still be great even if you serve it right after you are finished.
  2. You don’t need any sugar: When you really take the time to cook the onions and caramelize them before adding the other ingredients, you pull out and intensify the natural sweetness in the onions. The same can be said for the tomato paste. When this is done properly, the natural sugars in both the onions and the tomato paste will provide more than enough sweetness for the sauce. If you still prefer a sweeter sauce then you can always add a tablespoon or two of sugar but I honestly don’t think it is necessary.
  3. Finish with fresh herbs: After cooking the sauce, and right before pureeing, I always add fresh herbs to the sauce to finish. The reason I add them at the end is because I want to keep their flavor fresh and when they are cooked for extended periods of time, they tend to lose their freshness. Adding them to the hot sauce gives them just enough heat to “steep” gently into your sauce without losing their fresh flavor.


Next time you're making a pasta dish definitely try to make your own pasta sauce! Use this recipe as a base and adjust to your liking. The great thing abou tomato sauces is that they should reflect one's personal preferences.

Cheers and eat well!

Classic Tomato Sauce

This Italian-American Classic is a staple in all households and can serve as the base to hundreds of entrees, pastas, soups, and sides. This sauce can be used in everything from Spaghetti to Cioppino, to its very own creamy tomato bisque.

Author:

Jamie Imlah

Prep:

15

min

cook:

180

min

total:

195

min

serves:

8

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 each yellow onion (peeled & small diced)
  • 8 cloves garlic (peeled & chopped)
  • 4 teaspoons fresh thyme (chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil (chiffonade)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh italian parsley (chopped)
  • 4 pounds of fresh tomatoes (diced)
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 1 pinch of nutmeg (freshly grated)
  • 1 each red pepper (seeded & diced)
  • 1/2 cup of red wine
  • Salt to taste (about 1 ½ tablespoons)
  • Black pepper to taste (about ¼ teaspoon)

Instructions

  1. Start by cutting the onions, the red peppers, the garlic, and the tomatoes. Set them aside separately.
  2. Heat a heavy bottom pot on high heat and add the olive oil. Add the onions and about ½ teaspoon of salt and cook on medium-low heat until the onions start to become translucent and begin to caramelize (about 5-6 minutes).
  3. Once the onions turn a nice golden-brown color, add the diced red peppers and another ½ teaspoon of salt and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
  4. Add the chopped garlic and continue to cook for another 2 minutes or until the garlic is toasted nicely.
  5. Add the nutmeg and toast briefly (About 1 minute).
  6. Add the tomato paste and mix everything together until the paste is uniformly distributed. Continue to cook on medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring often.
  7. Add the red wine to deglaze, stirring to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
  8. Add the fresh tomatoes and season lightly with another tablespoon of salt and a few cracks of fresh cracked black pepper. Bring the sauce to a simmer and then reduce the heat to a very low simmer and continue to cook for about 3 hours, stirring and checking periodically.
  9. After 3 hours, remove the pot from the stove and allow the sauce to cool slightly before pureeing. (About 15-20 minutes)
  10. After the sauce has cooled slightly, add the basil, the thyme, and the parsley and puree using a stick blender or stand blender until relatively smooth (like store bought tomato sauce). Season the sauce with additional salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste and serve with your desired foods.

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