As an Italian-Canadian, I’ve often been asked growing up what “the secret” was. You know, “the secret” to great tomato sauce, as if everyone with extra vowels in their name had been privy to a confidential workshop on sauce making (growing up with cook-happy mothers and grandmothers was, in a sense, a type of workshop, but you get what I’m saying). Part of that expectation had to do with scenes like this one from Goodfellas:
Thing is, there isn’t one special item that can transform a sauce from Meh to Holy Crap this is Awesome. A good sauce is the combination of numerous elements coming together in the right way. So, instead of looking for that mythical ingredient that will change everything, just try to keep these basics in mind. Just for fun, let’s call them the secrets of a good sauce.
Great Tomato Sauce Tips:
- First things first, the word of the day should be FRESH, as in everything you use should be as fresh as possible. Keep that in mind before you get started and when you’re laying out your ingredients. It’s never too late for a quick stop at a local grocer or market.
- Secondly, invest in a good quality extra virgin olive oil. Some say that heating olive oil can take away its characteristics, but the flavor of a certified extra virgin olive oil still comes through in cooking, so the quality most definitely matters. Don’t be stingy in this department.
- Always start by sauteing garlic or onions (or both). Do this until the onions are translucent, but make sure you don’t burn the garlic. (Note, you can hold off on using the garlic until after you’ve thrown in your tomatoes. Also, people have been known to use mushrooms too at this point. It’s really up to you.)
- Add meat to your onions. Meat is a guaranteed flavor supplier. That said, fear not vegans. You don’t necessarily need meat to make a great sauce, but trust me when I say that adding meat can kick up the taste level by quite a wide margin. Some people use ground beef, but I would recommend something like pancetta or sausages. Essentially you want something that has some of its own seasonings and a high fat content, as this adds the most flavor to your sauce.
- Add booze (seriously). This may just have been the way for our grandmothers to sneak a few glasses of wine while they were cooking back in the day, but the old-schoolers knew what they were doing. Essentially, this step is deglazing, which is a fancy way of saying that you’re going to pour booze into a hot pan to make sure that the flavor stays at the bottom. Adding some wine or brandy (my personal choice), then, will make sure that all the goodness you’ve already cooked up stays right where it is.
- Add tomatoes (finally!). Alright, just like the olive oil, here you really shouldn’t skimp. The tomatoes are the stars of the show, after all, so don’t be a tight ass. That said, fresh tomatoes are not the only option. High quality canned tomatoes (whole or pureed), like San Marzano DOP, can also be the foundation of a great sauce. Pick wisely.
- Add fresh herbs. Again, freshness is key. Seasoning is something of a personal taste (oregano, for example, can be a love/hate thing for many people), but you can’t really go wrong with a handful of chopped fresh basil.
- Salt. Potentially great sauces have been undone by a lack of salt. You don’t have to kill people with sodium, but don’t be afraid of using it either.
- Sugar. Tomato sauces often have a lot of acidity, so, a common trick is to add a small amount of sugar to counteract this bitterness. Personally, I’m a fan of the old grated carrot trick: If you find your sauce is a bit too bitter, throw in a whole grated carrot. I have no idea why or how, but this will sweeten up your sauce.
- Time. Great sauces need time to simmer. So, once you’ve brought everything to boil, bring down the heat and let it simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
As you can see, there is no smoking gun, just a lot of options. But, if you stick to the basics and experiment with different ingredients (beef vs sausage, sugar vs carrots, etc) you’re sure to find something that works for you.
The real “secret” to a great tomato sauce then is in the continual process of trial and error.
Eat and have fun.