Traditional recipes

The World's Best Tomato Sauce: 7 Expert Tips

The World's Best Tomato Sauce: 7 Expert Tips

If you’ve ever taken time to cook with someone more experienced than yourself, you’ve probably already learned that the secret to any given family recipe is often as simple as a few cloves of roasted garlic or a splash of red wine. Anyone who has been cooking for years will tell you that small tweaks like these can build flavor and make a dish taste infinitely more delicious. Tomato sauce is no exception; regardless of the recipe your family may have passed down from generation to generation (especially if your family is Italian), the odds are good that the secret to its tastiness lies in a simple ingredient, prepared in a way that builds flavor.

Click here to see The World's Best Tomato Sauce: 7 Expert Tips (Slideshow)

When it comes to making anything from scratch, tomato sauce included, it’s important to start with quality ingredients. You don’t necessarily have to purchase the most expensive ingredients, but make sure that whatever you are using is of a good quality. If your recipe calls for wine, use a bottle that you’d actually drink. If it calls cheese, splurge on a high-quality, full-flavor block rather than using a cheaper (and less flavorful) version. If tomatoes are in season, buy them fresh from your local farmer’s market rather than using a canned or jarred variety. Starting with flavorful ingredients will help you create a delicious finished sauce.

Then, pay attention to the details. If a recipe tells you to cook the tomatoes until they’re charred, for example, be patient and do that; the char adds smoky flavor to a finished sauce. Similarly, if your recipe tells you to dice an onion to a certain size, take the extra time to make sure you do that so that the onion cooks evenly and to the correct level of doneness.

Simply using good ingredients and paying attention to details will go a long way in helping you produce a really good tomato sauce. If you want to take your tomato sauce to the next level, though, you’ll need a few extra tips. Read on for seven easy ways to make your homemade tomato sauce truly amazing.

Before you skip over this tip thinking you don’t like anchovies, consider this; adding anchovies to your tomato sauce will add a rich umami quality without any fishy flavor. If you don’t eat anchovies often, try investing in a small tube (or jar) of anchovy paste instead. Love anchovies? Here are more ways to use them.

Cook Slowly


The longer you cook the tomatoes, the more flavor they’ll develop (since they’re loaded with natural sugars). Keep the heat on your tomato sauce low so that you can cook it for a longer period of time. Click here for our best tomato sauce recipes.

Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.


The Best Tomatoes for Making Tomato Sauce

Erin Huffstetler is a writer with experience writing about easy ways to save money at home.

You can make tomato sauce out of numerous kinds of tomato, but if you want a really delicious sauce, go with a paste tomato. These varieties tend to have a firmer, meatier texture and they usually have fewer seeds and less water to deal with. That means less prep work and cook time for you, as well as more sauce for your money. Of all the tomatoes you can grow or buy, nine paste tomatoes are the best for tomato sauce.


Directions

If you are not in a hurry take your time, the slower you cook down the tomatoes the more flavor you will build into your sauce.

Heat a saucepan over medium heat.

Add tomatoes and sprinkle with sea salt.

Adjust heat to slowly cook down the tomatoes. The slower you cook down the tomatoes the more flavor will develop.

After about 5 minutes add the star anise, bay leaf and vanilla bean (split and scraped).

Once the tomatoes have begun to soften help break them down using a potato masher.

Add garlic that has been roughly smashed with your hand or with the flat of your knife. Add the sugar.

If you taste and think you have added a bit too much sugar you can add just a touch of balsamic vinegar to balance out the sweetness.

Once you have reached your desired consistency add the olive oil.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Add the basil, leave the leaves whole for a rustic look and feel, mix in and allow to wilt.


Saute the Onion and Garlic

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Add about a 1/4 cup of olive oil to a large pot. Then, saute the onions and garlic until they're soft (a few minutes should do it).

If you'd like to add carrots or peppers to your sauce, saute them along with the onions and garlic.


Raw Tomato Sauce Takes 2 Minutes to Make (and Is Way Better Than Cooked)

Yesterday, I reached into my CSA haul and pulled out a battered, purple tomato. It had split on one side and was bruised on another, and left a puddle of raw tomato sauce on my cutting board when I cut it, but I do not waste early-September tomatoes. So I took out a paring knife and cut around the blemishes, feeding myself irregularly shaped pieces and accumulating tomato juice on my shirt. It was ripe, maybe one-day-past-ripe (which is why it was prone to damage), and it was sweet and savory, meaty and juicy—the complexities you want in every tomato, but almost never find.

You want to drown yourself in tomatoes like these, but they only come around at this time of year, and even then you have to get lucky (the rest of the tomatoes in my haul could not compete). Still, if you do find yourself with a few pounds of peak summer romas, or beefsteaks, or any of the heirlooms, my friends Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House have a suggestion: tomato sauce.

The Crispiest, Ooziest Eggs Come From the Oven

To some people, this will be heresy. Take the best tomatoes of the year and dampen their flavor with garlic and basil? Take tomatoes when they're finally at the perfect texture—like ripe peaches, if we're lucky—and reduce them into a thick, oily marinara with hours of simmering?

But that's not the idea at all. When Hamilton and Hirsheimer were working on this recipe for their new book, Cook Something, they tasted their peak-season tomatoes and, as Hamilton recalls, thought "this is so fresh and delicious, let’s keep it like that." And so the recipe they developed is for a tomato sauce that stays raw.

"We were inspired by the way the Spanish grate their tomatoes," Hirsheimer says, referring to pan con tomate, the famously simple tomato-on-garlic-toast snack. The tomatoes for that dish are grated on a box grater (or, if the tomatoes are perfectly ripe, on the toast itself). "The flesh ends up in the bowl and the skin ends up in your hand," Hamilton says.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Erika Joyce

To that flesh, Hamilton and Hirsheimer add nothing but a clove or two of raw garlic, some passata di pomodoro (a thick bottled tomato puree—"it gives the sauce a little body," says Hamilton), and a good dose of olive oil. Some salt, some red pepper flakes, and the sauce is ready to be tossed with warm spaghetti or put on a pizza (either before, or after, the pizza comes out of the oven).

The latter option is what I chose earlier this summer when I was grilling pizzas for my family. But it wasn't yet tomato season, so, reasoning that canned tomatoes are picked at peak ripeness, I opened up a few cans. The sauce, which took all of three minutes to make, was perfect (using good olive oil really helped) In fact, it was so perfect that we made another batch for pasta a few nights later. And I may or may not have proclaimed that Iɽ never make a cooked tomato sauce again.

Of course, using canned tomatoes to make raw sauce also felt a bit like cheating. So when I mentioned this to Hamilton and Hirsheimer, I expected to get scolded. But they had no trouble believing canned tomatoes would work. They don't always use the best tomatoes for pan con tomate, Hamilton said, and theyɽ tried the sauce with less-than-perfect tomatoes, too. It was something of a revelation. "God," Hirsheimer recalls thinking, "you can use tomatoes that aren’t at their peak." But right now, with summer tomatoes at their dented, fragrant, juiciest best, why would you?


Giada De Laurentiis shows off a delicious no-cook recipe for tomato sauce

As part of a 10-week series, De Laurentiis is sharing 10 dishes every home cook should master to be considered an Italian food expert with readers of her Giadzy blog. She described it as her Italian food 101 course with instructions on how to make the essential Italian dishes she believes every cook should know.

"For each iconic dish, I'm breaking down exactly what it is, why it's important and how to make it perfectly every time," she wrote on her blog.

Not surprisingly, many classic Italian recipes require her signature tomato sauce, which she uses to make Parmesan pomodoro pasta, this week's recipe.

It's the "building-block sauce of Italian cuisine," she wrote.

A perfect sauce starts with the right tomatoes, according to De Laurentiis. Fresh is best, and she said her favorites are the San Marzano variety, which come from outside Naples (we're betting they also go in Naples' World Heritage-status pizzas).

"I always hand-crush them, because it puts the love into the sauce," De Laurentiis told TODAY Food by email.

Giada's Short Rib Lasagna

Next comes a surprising ingredient. Instead of putting grated Parmesan cheese into her sauce, she uses Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rinds to add flavor.

"American Parmesan doesn't have the same nutty umami," she said. "I add it to all my soups and sauces for an extra punch of flavor."

Finally, when it comes to the tomato sauce, she said it should be bright and light.

"No need to simmer on the stove for hours," she told TODAY Food. "Thirty minutes is all it takes."

Cooks will know it's done when the carrots are cooked through.

De Laurentiis has already released her recipe for chicken cacciatore in her 10-week series. Also on the agenda are pizza dough, chicken piccata, tiramisu and a Bolognese sauce. A new recipe will be released every Thursday.

Can't wait 30 minutes to have De Laurentiis' red sauce? Try her amazing eight-minute no-cook tomato sauce instead.


Ingredients

  • 4 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, preferably imported D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes (see note)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing.
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into large chunks
  • 1 medium onion, split in half
  • 1 large stem fresh basil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional), such as Red Boat
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley or basil leaves (or a mix of the two)

Why These Dinner Recipes Fit Into A Heart Healthy Diet Plan?

I’ve intentionally selected heart loving foods and cooking techniques to help you enjoy your heart healthy diet. There’s a mix of vegan, and also something for those looking to reduce their intake of meat. Plus, a cultural recipe to satisfy those ethnic taste buds. You could easily make all these dishes gluten-free by choosing alternatives. Here’s how these recipes fit into a heart healthy diet plan.

  • Tomatoes are not only rich in the powerful antioxidant lycopene, but they’re also low in calories, fat and sodium. Plus, tomatoes are a great source of potassium, vitamins A, C, and E. Some research has linked lycopene with a reduction in LDL levels (bad cholesterol) and helping to prevent blood clotting. This could lower the risk of stroke. We also know that potassium plays an important role in regulating blood pressure. So many wins!
  • Chickpeas are plant-powered gems, bursting with good for you nutrients. Rich in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals, chickpeas are a great choice if you’re striving for meatless meals more often. Plant-based diets, rich in fruits and vegetables, have consistently shown to control cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight—all important factors for heart health. And let’s not forget, chickpeas are also easy to use, delicious and lighter on the wallet.
  • Lean Poultry. For those who like meat, smaller amounts of lean chicken can be enjoyed, but let’s not forget, meat and poultry should be based around plants. I like to think of poultry as complimenting this meal and not being “the meal.” Remember to remove the fat and skin before cooking. If you’re after a heart healthy chicken recipe, this is a good option.
  • Salmon. Most of the reported health benefits of eating salmon are accredited to the presence of healthy unsaturated fats, namely omega-3 essential fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Salmon (and other types of fish like mackerel, sardines, herring) is chockfull of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3s are immensely important, offering a myriad of impressive health benefits. EPA and DHA make the blood less likely to clot, control high blood triglycerides, stabilize serious heart rhythms, and manage high blood pressure. Evidence tells us that those who eat fish 2-3 times per week are less prone to heart attacks.
  • LeafyGreens are regarded to be one of the healthiest vegetables. Rich in potassium, they also provide iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and antioxidants. Collectively, these help to quell inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease and keep your ticker healthy.
  • Extra Virgin Olive oil is predominantly monounsaturated fat (oleic acid). Studies indicate this may help reduce inflammation. Plus, extra virgin olive oil has a powerful antioxidant profile, which may support healthy blood cholesterol levels, and prevent clotting. These are all important factors in the reduction of heart disease risk.


Perfect Tomato Sauce

Recipe for tomato or marinara sauce. On this site I use both names interchangeably.

1 can crushed tomatoes (one with no added garlic or herbs) *

2 tablespoons olive oil (or enough to just cover the bottom of the pan

1 medium shallot (or 1/4 sweet onion) – finely chopped

1 clove fresh garlic–finely chopped

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

1 sprig of fresh basil (one with multiple attached leaves) or parsley

In a medium saucepan over medium heat add oil and heat until hot but not smoking. Add onions and cook for about 2 minutes or just until softened.

Add garlic and pepper flakes and cook for about 30 seconds or until golden. Follow quickly with the tomatoes which will prevent the garlic from burning. Add the basil (stems and all), lower the heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes until the sauce is cooked (no raw tomato taste) and sweet.

Remove the mushy, browned basil (which is why we add it stems and all) and set aside until ready to use. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit a water and check your seasonings.

*Note: Experiment with different brands of crushed tomatoes. Try ones that have no added puree, garlic or herbs. These will change the taste of purely delicious tomatoes. Or use whole peeled tomatoes for a sauce that not as smooth as crushed but has little filets of tomatoes and tends to be lighter. But be sure to crush the tomatoes with your hands and not in a food processor since this will change the color (turning it from red to orange) and I believe the taste.

Use this sauce in every dish that calls for a tomato sauce. Use it over pasta of course or make it in a large sauté pan and use it as the foundation for poaching a filet of fish, shrimp, chicken, or other meat or even eggs and you have a low fat, delicious dish that is so satisfying and always open to variations.


Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Sure, everyone loves the sizzle that happens when you throw chopped onions or minced garlic into a pan of hot oil. But Marcella taught me that starting those aromatics in a cold pan means they cook up more gently and gradually, creating luscious, tender onions and light-gold garlic that never tastes overwhelming or acrid.

Light-gold garlic equals subtle flavor.

Photo by Chelsea Kyle, food styling by Rhoda Boone

It sounds fussy, I know. But Marcella was never a fussy cook. So since she insisted that peeling red peppers made a difference, I gave it a try. The result? Sauteed peppers with a silkiness that rivaled that of roasted peppers—and no annoying bits of pepper skin caught between your teeth, either.

It doesn't make sense when you read the recipe. How can a can of tomatoes, a halved onion, and a few tablespoons of butter, simmered together in a pot, become one of the best tomato sauces ever conceived? We definitely saw plenty of that skepticism when we shared a video of the recipe. But rest assured, Marcella's recipe works wonders, especially on the laziest weeknights.

My Mother's Butter, Tomato, and Onion Sauce

In countless braises, Marcella uses a base of onions, celery, and carrot, along with a bay leaf or two, as the main seasoning for the dish. Without the distraction of other herbs or strong spices, bay leaf gets a chance to shine, providing a delicate base-note of flavor that's surprisingly addictive. Now I throw in a bay leaf whenever I'm making a long-simmered sauce or stew—and I leave the other seasonings out.

Everyone knows that most Italian pastas can benefit from a topping of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But Marcella recommended tossing hot, freshly drained pasta with a few spoonfuls of Parm before tossing it with the sauce. The result? The cheese melts instantly on the hot noodles, infusing them with a whole new layer of flavor.

Everyone knows that celery has an eternal place in the "trinity" of aromatics, along with onion and carrot. But Marcella took that love further, sharing several recipes that showcase the salty, vegetal flavor of celery itself. Now, whenever I have a half-used bunch of celery in the fridge, I chop up a couple stalks (along with every last celery leaf in the bunch), saute it with some chopped onion, add a can of tomatoes, and cook up a tomato sauce with a mysteriously addictive something "extra."

Forget about pasta. For years, "al dente" was also the most fashionable and "correct" way to cook vegetables, too. But Marcella knew better. She lamented the grassy, crunchy blandness of undercooked vegetables, and reminded me that they only really taste like themselves when they're cooked enough. Now, I aim for the happy medium between crunch and mush.

Searing fish fillets in a pan always intimidated me. But it wasn't until I started trying Marcella's seafood recipes that I realized how many of them rely on baking rather than pan-searing. Now, instead of stressing about whether my fish fillets will stick, I rest easy, knowing they're baking to perfect tenderness in the oven, usually alongside something equally delicious.

Baked Fish and Potatoes with Rosemary and Garlic

Before Marcella, I thought that canned tuna was in my rearview mirror. I was haunted by way too many tuna-sandwich school lunches. But Hazan taught me to seek out oil-packed solid tuna, which is as different from the soggy chunk light stuff as whipped cream is from fat-free non-dairy creamer. Whether folded into pastas, tossed into bean salads, or tucked into sandwiches, "good" canned tuna is so superior to fresh that it almost seems like an absurd cosmic joke.

TV chefs like Emeril used to throw extra garlic into their dishes, to the delight of their live audiences. But Marcella cooked to please herself and her family, and she understood what you can't taste through the screen: that garlic should be a base note, not the dominant flavor, in a dish. She also knew that minced garlic tastes stronger than sliced garlic, and whole cooked garlic cloves are mildest of all. Follow that rule, and you can nail ideal garlic intensity with ease.

Chunky sauces want short, stubby pasta shapes (ideally with crevices where those chunky ingredients can nestle), while smooth and creamy sauces are built for long strands. Marcella's simple insight, crystallized from centuries of Italian cooking practice, means even if I don't have the pasta that a recipe calls for on hand, I can easily substitute another.

Yes, it's true—Marcella's disdain for Italian sausage was palpable. Whenever she called for sausage meat for a sauce or stuffing, sheɽ specify plain, unflavored sausage meat rather than the kind riddled with chile flakes and fennel seeds. If the recipe needed those additional flavorings, sheɽ damn well add them herself. Italian sausage tends to clobber the other ingredients with their flavor Marcella was all about balance.

Raw onions are delicious—in sandwiches, stirred into bean salads, tossed on top of grilled meats. But their aggressive punch can be a little too much sometimes. Just one little trick I learned from Marcella makes all the difference. Soak those onion slices in cold water for 5-10 minutes, and then gently squeeze the onions to release their milky liquid. Boom: Now you have mellowed raw onions that will play nicely with others.

These days, it's common to recommend that you sling a ladle of pasta water into your pasta to help thicken it up and add restaurant-style body to your sauce. But Marcella, ever the champion of home cooking over chef-style tricks, resisted the trend. A well-made sauce shouldn't need any thickener, she pointed out, and adding starchy water can literally water down the fresh, vibrant flavor of your sauce.

Instead of adding pasta water, Marcella was always an advocate for cooking your sauce until its concentrated savoriness was revealed. But how do you know if your sauce is done? Don't watch the clock. Instead, do what Marcella suggested, and look for the moment when the oil or fat begins to float free of the sauce, concentrating in streaks or pools on its surface.

Unlike many restaurant chefs, Marcella had no need to embellish her dishes. In fact, some of her most famous recipes, like her tomato sauce, chicken with two lemons, and this milk-braised pork were radical in their simplicity. She continues to remind me that the best cooking is home cooking, and the best home cooking is simple.