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Please educate me re: Italian red sauce

Seems I've tried a variety of recipes and am never happy with my Italian red sauces, which begin with high hopes and always come out really no better than cracking a jar of Ragu. There are many things I don't understand. Why do recipes calling for canned tomatoes often require a) pureeing them (is this really better than buying tomato puree?) and/or b) cooking them for two hours, when I'd think they've been cooked to death in the can.

Surprisingly, I find canned-tomato results usually better than fresh, I think because it's hard to get a really ripe, sauce-worthy tomato unless you grow it yourself. But the array of canned product confuses me: tomato sauce, puree, paste, whole, minced...Is there a combination which yields magical deliciousness?

I usually start by sauteing garlic and onions, sometimes some chopped carrot or peppers. Adding wine, booze or heavy cream improves my results...but my best efforts would rank about Tucson-mall "Sbarro" level at best. Can anyone help?

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  1. Bob, I'd say, start out sauteing your garlic and onion in some oil. Add can san marzano tomatoes (diced, hand-mashed whole, whatever). I sometimes add a can of tomato sauce in addition to the tomatoes. Then add a teaspoon of sugar, s & p, and a good grate of romano or parm cheese - fresh. Simmer for half hour or longer - your choice, covered w/ the lid tilted to allow steam to escape. Stir in fresh basil in the end. Very easy and way better than, *gasp* Ragu.

    I agree w/ you about canned being better than most fresh tomatoes you can buy - for sauce.

    1. My family's sauce is made with ground crushed tomatoes and a bit of tom. paste but the key to a rich sauce is cooking it for a long time at low heat. My sauce gets most flavor from meat-high quality sausage that it browned in evoo first, along with pork neck bones or any pork pieces and then adding the tomatoes and puree with some water. I cook it all day and add meatballs at some point as well.

      1. our family recipe is similar to 4chowpups but...we make the meatballs first (ground sirloin), then saute garlic and tomato paste scraping up the brown bits from the meatballs. You can pour of some of the grease from the meatballs if there is too much for your tastes. After you saute the garlic and paste for 4-5 mins, deglaze with a good quality Italian red wine then throw in 2 cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes.

        A little bit of crushed red pepper, a tsp or 2 of sugar, 1 whole carrot - i know, sounds weird but Great Grandma swears that the carrot absorbs some of the acidity of the tomatoes and NO ONE argues with GG. Simmer low and slow for a couple of hours or all day. About an hour before you're ready to eat, throw the meatballs back in. The sauce will render additional flavor from the meat. About 20-30 minutes, add some fresh basil.

        OH - BTW be sure to toss the carrot when the sauce is done!

        Also, make sure you using a heavy, heavy pot. I use an enameled cast iron dutch oven.

        3 Replies
        1. re: chicaraleigh

          interesting tidbit about GG's carrot use...i'll have to try that someday.

          1. re: sixelagogo

            Our family always added carrots too, although shredded and cut up to be unnoticable, it was instead of adding sugar for sweetness I was told.

            1. re: coll

              I was taught that the carrot does add sweetness and that it also removes some of the acidity from the gravy...

        2. You can google Marcella Hazan's Bolognese recipe. This takes a very long time, don't start it in the evening.
          I often make meatless sauce and will do meatballs on the side.
          Sauce: In olive oil saute a diced yellow onion, near end add Fresh chopped garlic (I put a lot, maybe 4 big cloves of garlic.) Keep heat low, don't let garlic brown. Add 4 big cans of San Marzano tomatoes (I remove the hard core part and discard and mash tomatoes with my hands before adding to pot.) Add one small can tomato paste and fill up empty can w/water and add. (Maybe a bit more water later.) S & P, at least 1 T sugar, 1 T dried oregano, 1 T dried basil and chopped fresh basil (I like a lot, about 8 leaves or more). Very low heat, no lid, for at least 4 hrs, stirring now and then. I might all more olive oil part way through, good quality. You can freeze extra.

          3 Replies
          1. re: walker

            I have used a recipe similar to this with good luck..but to add; NEVER use pureed tomatoed, always used whole peeled San Marzano's, and if you like, take the core out and pulse then in your blender...gives a smoother consistency, but a fresher taste. Pureed tomated have usually been cooked, and that is not good...you might as well use stewed tomatoes!!

            1. re: nyfoodjoe

              I enjoy smushing the San Marzanos in my hands, after, of course, making a slit in each tomato to prevent a shower of seed and juice. Somehow this hands-on approach makes the sauce taste just a little better!

              1. re: mnosyne

                I do that too - with canned ones - or just put them in the pan and smash them with a potato masher.

          2. Bob, are you looking to make a meat-based tomato sauce or a "simple" tomato sauce? The latter takes no more than 25-35 minutes. Either way, I suggest you use either whole or crushed tomatoes, preferably from Italy. Let us know what kind of sauce you are making so we can help you better. Not all sauces take 2+ hours.

            6 Replies
            1. re: vvvindaloo

              I'm not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, but I find that the canned whole tomatoes are better than the crushed or chopped ones, even within a brand. I did use a bottle of passata (sp?) the other day that was nice though.

              1. re: MMRuth

                I agree. I don't even bother buying non-whole tomatoes anymore because I don't tend to like them as much.
                My mom uses a passata for her sauces when she wants them seedless, which is often. I personally only use passata in small amounts when I want to thicken or "doctor" a sauce, which is pretty rare.

                1. re: vvvindaloo

                  I have to blend the whole tomatoes and then press through a sieve to remove all seeds, our sauce has to be perfectly smooth. My husband doesn't consider chunky sauce to be "sauce".

                  1. re: coll

                    Wow. Why not use an Italian DOP puree? There are many good quality ones with great flavor (my personal objection to puree is based more on texture than flavor), and if you like the sauce to be smooth, then that's the way to go. Or try finding "filetti di pomodoro"- tomato meat without the skin or seeds.

                    My mom removes the seeds for a whole different reason- dad has diverticulitis and stays away from seeds of all kinds.

                    1. re: vvvindaloo

                      No it has to be plums, although packed in puree is my choice of types. This is just a family tradition (my husband's family actually but I've taken over for his late mother) although she always used Progresso tomatoes because DOP didn't used to be available. I've changed to LaValle San Marzano for the last 10 years or so, which was well received, thank God. This is one of those non-negotiable things. Anyway, the blending and straining of the tomatoes always makes me think of the first time I cooked sauce for the family and my MIL hovered over me anxiously the entire time, giving me advice. I;m pretty sure the totally smooth sauce is an Abruzzi thing, as the one time we went to a restaurant owned by people from Abruzzi (here on Long Island) we freaked out how much the sauce tasted just like Mom's. (That's where she's from).

                      I've bought puree for pizza sauce but that's all I've ever used it for. Decent brands, but I never went crazy over them in general.

                      Filetto di pomodoro I can get anywhere but that's too new-fangled for us! Maybe for brushetta? What brands do you think are good, I wonder if they're the ones I tried?

                2. re: MMRuth

                  I think they put something in diced or sliced tomatoes in order to help them keep their shape while cooked, so the consistency is very different from canned whole tomatoes.