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May 26, 2007 09:06 PM

Problems with San Marzano tomatoes in sauce

i grew up on my grandmother's pasta and she's always used regular old store bought canned tomato sauce for the base of her sunday sauce. i figured adding san marzanos instead would be a nice touch so i've been tinkering around with it for awhile and can't seem to get the right taste. it just tastes bland to me. i thought it was just the seasoning and maybe the canned sauce has more salt, but didn't help. i've tried herbs, garlic, tomato paste... nothing comes close to the old way. does anyone have any help on how to jazz up these tomatoes a little bit or should i just stick with the old way?

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  1. the san marzano tomatoes i buy have no added salt, the only ingredient is tomatoes; typically tomatoes (like eggs and potatoes) need a lot of salt. when you say she used "canned tomato sauce", was it a prepared product? or just canned tomatoes? and i have no idea what you mean by "the old way".

    3 Replies
    1. re: hotoynoodle

      I'm inclined to agree with that. In the bizarre-o world of American mass market food products, you have to pay extra (often a lot) to buy products where they put less unneccesary salt in in the first place. I've yet to come across a brand of Italian-import tomatoes with added salt. So if you're used to using American products, the Italian will taste "bland", if your tastes are for "salty" to mean "flavorful." On the other hand, if you're used to the imports and switch without tasting before you salt, your sauce may well become inedible unless you "dilute" it with another batch of unsalted sauce (that's happened to me a couple of times.)

      1. re: hotoynoodle

        if 1/2 cup of un-cooked canned tomato contains about 15 % daily amount of sodium in terms of 2000 daily calories in total, could the amount of sodium be too much to add more of it ? i tend to use 1 cup of crushed canned tomatoes with their own juices per 100 grams of dry pasta?
        at first i didnt notice but my brother think the finished pasta was a little salty so he left a bit some tomato sauce.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          This is a lite version of a gravy or pasta sauce.

          For 1 Can of 28oz of San Maranzano peeled tomatos cook tomatoes add salt 1to 3 small spoon or none if prefered,cooking in low Heat for 40 minutes.Do the following; in another smaller2 or 3 quarts deep pan.
          Make and infusiĆ³n add half cup of Olive oil any kind add 6 to 8 fresh leaves of basil, 5 cloves of garlic and about a small spoon of red pepper flakes. heat up bring to a boil and immediatly simmer for 10 minutes on low once the infusiĆ³n is done filter the oil and content trough a strainer add to tomatoes already cooking and important add 2 small spoons of sugarand keep cooking for 40 minutes.
          If you feel is to much olive oil you can later after cook spoon out the olive oil that seats on top of sauce if you want. Now to mix sauce with pasta take a pan any kind add pasta with about 2 spoon boiled pasta water add sauce cook and 1 spoon of unsalted butter let it heat,mix sauce and pasta butter and serve.
          Serve with your favourite meat or fish. Is good very good tr it and let me know

          For every can double the ingridients.

        2. My wife is the one in the family that is of Italian heritage. She uses a great amount of fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley in her tomato condiment. I call it 'condiment' because of the 47+ years of raging dispute over the terms 'gravy' and 'sauce.' I use the later term. Non sono italiano, ma io mangio italiano.

          Do you start your tomato sauce with a 'soffritto', sauteed diced onion, diced celery and diced green bell pepper? Sometimes one has to cut the acidity of the tomatoes with a sweetener. Diced carrots added to the soffritto will do the trick instead of adding sugar.

          You may need to add some meat to the condiment such as beef chuck, Italian sausage and/or spare ribs, all of which should be browned or rendered before the marriage with the tomatoes. My wife adds all those meats to the 'gravy.'

          20 Replies
          1. re: ChiliDude

            "Gravy" is what Sicilians call tomato sauce. "Sauce" is what the rest of Italy calls it. Adding carrots to tomato sauce is French. Adding red wine is Italian.

            1. re: cucinalinda

              "Gravy" is what Sicilians/Campagnans/Calabrian-Americans call a "sauce" made with meat as a base..such as a "Sunday" gravy made with different cuts of pork and/or beef. Otherwise plain tomato (ie Marinara) is a 'sauce'.

              1. re: ChowFun_derek

                Sorry to get into this so late, but I just joined.
                My maternal grandmother was Calabrian and my paternal grandparents were Sicilian and I never heard spaghetti sauce called "gravy." We called it "sugo" with my mother's dialect pronunciation. My parents called gravy that brown stuff thickened with flour -- which they didn't like. I had cooked for 35 years before I married a man from North Carolina and his mother taught me how to make gravy.
                We had spaghetti with broccoli and garlic and oil, or cauliflower and garlic and oil, or lentils with garlic and oil, or sometimes with just garlic and oil. My mother also made a sauce for spaghetti with a pork loin roast (in those days they had a bone) and canned tomatoes, or brucelloni (sp) and canned tomatoes.
                I grew up in St. Louis in the 40s and 50s.

                1. re: MessyVirgo

                  thank you Messy Virgo. you are soooo right. "sugo". i know there are some italians that do call it gravy, though. i do not know which. i live in chicago, and we have an area we call "taylor street", an italian neighborhood, well, still for the most part still italian. it was here, that they called in gravy. it always seemed to be the area that called it gravy. not so much the heritage. i had many friends that moved from taylor street to where i live and they all seemed to call it gravy. where i grew up, on the north side(italian then) we called it sugo. we had a mixutre of sicilians, calabrians, etc. no one every called it gravy. point being, after all this time, is it more the area where they lived. i do not really know, asking. all the things you wrote about the brown gravy, and all the garlic and oil pasta and all, it brought make so many wonderful memories. great, how 2 of us who do not know each other at all, but have this in common.

                  1. re: karenb0823

                    Taylor St in the Medical Center was where my residence was during Nurses training in Chicago.
                    Isn't that also the area that Nick Romano called home in "Knock On Any Door"?

              2. re: cucinalinda

                I have to throw my two cents in also... My napolitan grandmother always called tomato sauce gravy. Always! And the gravy was pretty basic marinara - sauteed garlic and onion - no peppers, no carrots, no onions, no celery ever. The she'd add a couple of small cans of tomato paste - plain, not seasoned. She'd stir the paste, onions and garlic and use the cans to measure and add water to the mixture to make it smooth. Once it smoothed out, she'd let it simmer on it's own for a couple of minutes, then she'd add some canned, peeled tomatoes, which she would puree herself. Again she'd use the cans to add water to the new mixture and bring it to a boil. Once at a boil, she'd reduce the heat to let simmer, then added some salt, sugar, and basil. For meat sauce, she'd throw in pork bones, cooked sweet and hot sausage and fried (not baked) meatballs.

                1. re: SierraSun

                  My parents came from Naples in 1920. They called it Ragu or Sugo.

                2. re: cucinalinda

                  that is so not true......Sicilians do not call it "gravy"

                3. re: ChiliDude

                  Ha, ha...or green peppers to your mirepoix! Funny how mirepoix is rarely mentioned nowadays, but 'soffritto' is huge! If using canned san marz tomatoes, which I prefer, less acidic when cooked down enough to fully taste, salt after reducing. If you do it at the begining, you're going to double the concentrtation of salt, if you reduce the way I do: 4 cans san marz toms and 1.5 cups spicy V-8 (added periodically towards the end) to help intensify flavor, will be about 2 cans worth of finished sauce (the way I like it!)

                  1. re: Sbyre888

                    Why use a French term in Italian cooking...e' un grande peccato!

                    1. re: ChiliDude

                      well, quite simply, I live in the United States and make fusion food. Even more importantly there are quite a few food words and descriptions that are used in coutries other than thier origin. All I was really saying is, for 2 things that are so similar and having heard one all the time for decades, its kind of funny that 'soffritto' or sofrito in Spain is now used EVERYWHERE....but NEVER before 2 years ago....all I'm saying there Mr....humorless.....,.

                      1. re: Sbyre888

                        It ISN'T mire poix anyway... onion, celery and green peppers are correctly called the 'Trinity'! See my post above.
                        While soffrito has few other fixed ingredients, it always has tomato; the remaining ingredients can vary

                        1. re: TBryson

                          According to several English to Italian web translation sites, gravy translates to sugo. I guess the folks using gravy must have wanted to be more "Americano." My mother's dialect rendered "sugo" as "zugu."

                          1. re: TBryson

                            Italians don't make "gravy" as conceived of by Americans, i.e. the flour/water concoction.

                            The pan drippings served over some meat dishes would be called a "sughetto" (a "little sauce"). "Sugo" = sauce.

                            Why Italian-Americans latched onto "gravy", heaven knows. Maybe because it's the only "sauce" that Americans used back then? I know, growing up, my American parents thought the idea of sauce on anything was negative, foreign and exotic, perhaps insidiously French; gravy, OTOH, was normal (see what I mean?).

                            1. re: lidia

                              Ms. Lidia.....your comment is the best one as to the facts to this "gravy" / "sauce" thing.. Thank nailed it.!!!!

                            2. re: TBryson

                              Gravy is an Italian American term for tomato sauce common in the Northeast but your nonna was wrong, it's called sauce.

                          2. re: ChiliDude

                            Italian 'soffrito' is not that combination of the three veggies mentioned above. The combination of onion, celery and green pepper is known as 'The Trinity'. Italian soffrito may be a little closer to the French combination of onion, celery and CARROT which is known as mire poix, but soffrito varies in an important way from the other two bases; soffrito means softly fried and can be composed of many different vegetables, and is often made from varied ingredients. Mire Poix and The Trinity are fixed ingredient items used to create a delicious base for many dishes.

                            Celery, Onion and Green peppers are exclusive to 'The Trinity' for those of us who have long enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the (Catholic) city of New Orleans.

                            Learned the 'Trinity' over 50 years ago in the French Quarter, from no less a legend than Dorothy Rieger, New.Orleans. It's interesting that as 'French' as N.O. can be, chefs always used the green pepper in lieu of the carrot, due not wanting the entrees to be too sweet.

                            ~with best regards, (years later!)

                            1. re: VenusCafe

                              Soffrito in Italy depends on where in Italy you are.

                              Some are:


                              You can't expect that something that's common in Tuscany will be the same in Calabria. Recipes change even every 10-15 km, never mind vs. north and south.

                          3. San Marzano make the very best, and tastiest, spaghetti sauce. Don't know about the canned Marzanos, since I grew my own in our garden from heirloom seeds. My recipe is somewhat the same as described by "ChiliDude". I am of German heritage - married Italian. My dad was a chef and this is how he also made his tomato sauce.

                            This year I was not able to plant my beloved heirloom San Marzanos, so intend trying the canned ones available in the grocery stores. I also read somewhere that there is no equal to the tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Italy. However, the ones from my garden were pretty darned GOOD !!

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Lisbet

                              Heirlooms of any variety are the best. The canned San Marzano tomatoes are no better than many of the better than California tomatoes. Almost no one realizes this: San Marzano tomatoes would have to be planted in the whole of Italy, and even then there would not be enough to supply America. Italy and Greece buy olives from Spain to blend with their olives to make olive oil.

                              1. re: Lisbet

                                San Marzano seeds came from Peru originally as a gift, they in turn really got thier name by the region they are grown...San Marzano region of Italy, they are simply a type of plum that is best when grown in the volcanic soil ....unless you live in that region they aren't really SM toms. That being said, they are still better than some plum grown in the US, however, try some organic heirloom (redundant, I know) Heinz plums, they are what the Heinz company was built on and grow well in the right conditions.

                              2. I am of Italian extraction and an old world Italian foodie which is rare for my younger generation of friends who take out and don't cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes.
                                A couple of questions for you:
                                1. Was the sauce a quick one that tasted of summer freshness or the long, slow cooked variety with a more full bodied taste?
                                2. What do you do to the San Marzano tomatoes?
                                The answer to solve your problem depends on the type of sauce you are making; in Italy the quick one is made often for regular evening meals and the latter is made for making lasagne or when paired with homemade egg noodles.

                                1. I don't have the benefit of *my own* garden of fresh San Marzano tomatoes, but you can create a wonderful sauce from the canned variety, or those "Pomi" chopped tomatoes that come in a little cardboard box. It took me a few years to figure this recipe out, but I was trying to approximate my favorite sauces from restaurants in the North End of Boston. Here is what I came up with:
                                  1. Chop 1 sweet/Vidalia onion and a WHOLE HEAD of garlic cloves. Saute in a few tablespoons good olive oil (be generous) until the onions are translucent (few minutes), but don't brown the garlic.
                                  2. Dump in 1 box Pomi chopped tomatoes, or 1-2 cans of chopped San Marzano tomatoes. Boil momentarily, then simmer 45 minutes.
                                  3. Remove from heat, add a handful of FRESH BASIL LEAVES, and stir into the sauce. Let this sit, covered for a minute or two, so the basil flavors have a chance to come out, then mix again. Taste sauce. Add sugar 1/2 tsp at a time, and salt 1/4 tsp at a time to adjust seasoning.
                                  You should have a fantastic, and highly reproducible sauce. Of note- do not cook the basil leaves. You will ruin their delicate flavor. Only add then once the heat has been turned off.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: powermd

                                    That is how I make my sauce. You are right about the sugar amd basil. Add until it tastes right.

                                    1. re: powermd

                                      Well, two-and-a-half years have gone by and FINALLY I reply! Just discovered, think I might move in. But re: the basil: it sounds like you add whole leaves, rather than taking the time to chop. If so, are you removing them before serving, once their flavor has cooked out?