Making perfect tomato sauce
By: Chef Cristian Feher
Wow, what an ambitious title! I’m sure I’ll be getting mail on this one. I might even get elderly Italians leaving severed fingers in my mailbox - the Sicilian version of a ‘cease and desist’ letter. I can imagine the turf wars such an article could create in Italy. But none the less, I would like to impart what I know about making really good tomato sauce - from the safety of an undisclosed location in America.
I’d also like to mention that I learned how to make tomato sauce from my mentor, Master Chef Pasquale Carpino - who nearly got into a full brawl in a restaurant kitchen with an old Italian guy over which bread was better - Calabrese bread or Sicilian bread!
Every art has its technical aspects. A painter has to know his brushes, a pianist has to be able to read music and push the keys. The rest is the simple joy of creation. I’m going to give you the technicalities of making really good tomato sauce in hopes that you spend the rest of your day creating a thick, red, tomato masterpiece.
First I would like to define what the perfect tomato sauce should taste like - I’m still seeing severed fingers and black Cadillacs driving slowly passed my house. Let’s say this: A good tomato sauce must be thick, aromatic (herbs) and flavorful - it must have a good balance of acidity, saltiness, and sweetness. And to accomplish this we have to understand the ingredients, equipment and techniques that will go into making such a sauce.
Tomatoes. The first and most important ingredient is the tomato. Is it a fruit? Is it a vegetable? Who cares, right? The most important part of the sauce will be the type and quality of tomato that you will use. This will make or break the sauce. Use an under-ripe, insipid tomato and you get a flavorless sauce. So you want to get really nice, ripe, flavorful tomatoes.
Fresh Tomatoes. In a perfect world, you would use fresh tomatoes to make a really good batch of sauce. And your regular supermarket tomatoes, just won’t cut it. Those nice, firm, red tomatoes you see in the supermarket have (most likely) been picked green off the plant and put into a chamber of ethylene gas, which turns them red. But for all intents and purposes, they are still flavorless, green tomatoes. They have very little natural sugar and they will make your sauce blah.
If you’re lucky enough to have a big tomato garden in your backyard, great! Just wait until they are super-ripe (squishy, juicy and sweet) and you can make a really delicious sauce. I drive out to Plant City, Florida during tomato season, talk to the farmers, and get them to sell me bins of tomatoes that were picked late and are about to go bad - the really squishy, overly-ripe ones they’re just about to throw out. Sometimes they give them to me for free! These are great for tomato sauce. But if you’re really lucky, you live in Italy, where San Marzano plum tomatoes are grown in rich volcanic soil - these are the best.
I once got a big basket of vine ripened tomatoes from a couple who were heavy cigarette smokers. The tomatoes were grown indoors and were so loaded with cigarette smoke that the sauce turned out smoky in flavor - and if you could ignore where the smokiness came from, it was actually quite delicious!
Canned Tomatoes. Let’s say that you don’t have a garden, don’t live in Italy and don’t have access to tomato farms. That’s alright. Like most people, you’ll be using canned tomatoes - which are still better than the fresh supermarket tomatoes because they are somewhat concentrated and have more sugar, salt and flavor to them. But there are still rules to picking out canned tomatoes, since they are not all created equal.
Try to find canned San Marzano tomatoes. These are awesome - meaty, dry, and packed with flavor. If you really can’t find these, try to get imported italian plum tomatoes, either diced or whole. Crushed tomatoes just never taste right to me. And canned “tomato sauce”? No. Put it back on the shelf, or I will send you a severed thumb in the mail!
Tomato paste has a use - it’s a thickener. If you don’t have time to commit to cooking a tomato sauce for hours, then you use tomato paste at the end of cooking to thicken the sauce, but this is cheating. And we won’t be using any of that to make our perfect sauce.
Other ingredients. If you had the right tomatoes, really all you would need to add would be a bunch of sea salt. You would get a simple, delicious sauce. But you can get a seriously tasty sauce with the addition of fresh black pepper, fresh garlic, fresh onions, carrots (to add a little sweetness to the sauce) and fresh basil added at the end to add a rich aroma. Notice these are all “fresh”. It makes a big difference.
Salt. It deserves a paragraph all by itself. The second most important ingredient in your tomato sauce is salt. It brings out the flavor of the tomato. Use a lot of it. If you’re afraid of salt, you’re not going to make good tomato sauce. Period. It doesn’t even really matter what type of salt you use - it’s all water soluble (it melts in water) and it all came from an ocean at some point (so it’s all sea salt).
Oils. I will be dodging bullets for saying this, but I’ll still say it. You don’t have to use oil to make tomato sauce. It can be a fat-free food and still taste great! However (a big, bullet-dodging however), a very flavorful olive oil will add to the aroma of the sauce. Phew! That was close. Was that a black Cadillac that just drove by?
Equipment. You don’t need to buy a whole new kitchen. Two things will make your life easy though; a very large pot with a thick metal and ceramic plate stamped on the bottom, and an immersion blender or hand blender. Once you get your tomato sauce recipe just right, you’ll want to make big batches to make the long cooking time worth your while. The thick bottom on the pot will lessen the chances that your sauce will burn - a definite sauce killer. Thin-bottomed pots will almost always burn your food - throw them in the garbage, or use them only for boiling water.
Technique. Onions have a lot of sulfur. When sulfur gets in your eyes, it mixes with salty tears. Salt and sulfur make sulfuric acid. That’s why onions make your eyes hurt. But when you’re cooking with sulfur onions, don’t add salt to them until they are fully cooked and broken down, as you may be making a batch of sulfuric acid and it may make your dish a little bitter.
Having said that, the first step is to cook a bunch of diced onions in your pot with some olive oil - don’t be shy. If you want to keep this fat-free, use water instead of oil and get the steam to break the onions down. In both cases you will cook the onion down until they’re well-cooked, only then will you add the chopped garlic, black pepper, and minced carrot. Stir for a minute or so and add the tomatoes with some salt (fresh tomatoes cut in chunks, or canned tomatoes any way they came).
From this point, you bring your tomatoes to a simmer, and then turn the heat down to a low simmer. You will spend the next few hours slowly evaporating the water, leaving behind a thick tomato sauce full of flavor. When the sauce is as thick as you want it, get a hand blender and puree the tomato sauce - if you like it chunky, you don’t have to use the hand blender.
Finish the tomato sauce with plenty of salt (more than most of you would think) by adding a little at a time, stirring and tasting until a really nice savory flavor is achieved. Fresh basil is added to the sauce once you have turned off the heat. You do not need to cook basil, it will lose flavor the more you cook it, so it’s added at the end.
Package the sauce into glass mason jars, or plastic containers and freeze or give away to your friends.
I want you to experiment with your own quantities of salt, onion, garlic, etc, until you have achieved your perfect sauce. Make sure you write down each ingredient carefully, including where you got them, etc.This will ensure that you can follow the recipe almost exactly every time. And yes, you can do small test batches and multiply the recipe when you think you’ve struck gold!