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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.

              2. Thanks all for the responses. Vvvindaloo, I usually just make tomato sauce to which meat can be added. Walker, that Marcella Hazan recipe sounds good (might need to cut the amount in half as that would be a LOT of sauce).

                I've learned from searching similar posts that canned tomatoes aren't really cooked as much as I thought, and do need more cooking to soften their consistency and concentrate the flavors. My dad used to use a bit of carrot in his sauce recipe, as Chicaraleigh mentions.

                Never heard of adding cheese directly to a cooking sauce as Lynn suggests but it might be worth a try as I imagine it would add a lot of richness.

                I think my problems have stemmed from allowing garlic to brown, and not giving sauces time to reduce and concentrate. Will have to take another crack this weekend:)

                3 Replies
                1. re: BobtheBigPig

                  I have Hazan's book and I treble (is that the right word?) the recipe, just makes one normal large pot. Later, freeze what I don't use right away. The Bolognese takes many hours because you add something, reduce, add the next, reduce. So, I've learned I must start it in the morning. For wine I use a Pinot Grigio from BevMo, about $8. Both the meatless recipe I wrote above and Hazan's, both cooked low for hours, smells so good while it's cooking. You just have to hang around the house with a good book and/or tv. Be sure to buy fresh garlic just before cooking this and I always remove the inner germ, it's pale green. If the garlic if very fresh, you don't have to remove.

                  1. re: BobtheBigPig

                    Hey Bob,
                    since you say you are trying to stay away from the "Ragu" flavor, I definitely recommend you eliminate dried herbs and puree, as they get a "stale" flavor pretty quickly, IMO. Give canned Italian whole tomatoes (San Marzano DOP) a try (Strianese brand are my favorite). If you want to use US brands, a lot of CHers really seem to like brands such as Nina and Pastene. Use good oil, sea salt, fresh basil and garlic. No onion, no oregano, no black pepper. Just let the delicious sweet tomato flavor shine through, and there's no need for carrot or sugar added.

                    1. re: BobtheBigPig

                      FYI: A ragu Bolognese is *not* a tomato sauce. If you want a tomato sauce, that's not your recipe. It's a meat sauce (with three rounds of slow reductions), to which a bit of tomato is added as a condiment.

                    2. One thing to check is if the canned tomatoes have calcium chloride added. It keeps them firm when cooked, most of the imported canned tomatoes don't have it, and without it they dissolve into the sauce much quicker.

                      1. Without having read the other replies, I'll share a few thoughts:

                        First, you're right about canned tomatoes. They are usually better than fresh, for exactly the reasons you said. Hard to find sauce-worthy fresh tomatoes. But the choice of which product to use shouldn't be confusing. If you like your sauce chunky, get whole peeled or chopped tomatoes. If you like it smooth, get puree. I never use tomato paste in a sauce, but I find it comes in handy with other recipes.

                        Also, I think it would be helpful for you to identify (maybe you have already) what you think is the ideal sauce. Is there a sauce you've had that you think is the best ever? Can you somehow get that recipe? Or is there someone you know who can taste it for you and tell you what's in it and (possibly more importantly) what's not? You could go crazy with trial and error, as there are millions of ways to make a tomato sauce. Until you know what you're looking for, it's going to be hard to find it.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Kagey

                          Kagey-thanks for shedding some light on what I should have stated from the get-go. You're right, Italian red sauces or "gravy" are infinitely varied depending on the intended purpose. The best I've had is a thick red marinara at the home of my Sicilian friend who harvests tomatoes from his garden:). Here in Los Angeles, a couple of restaurants get it right: Anna's on Pico (their Spaghetti Caruso with chicken livers, for example), and local chain Maria's Italian Kitchen isn't bad. I'm not sure either place would part with recipes, but perhaps someone here knows their procedures:)

                          1. re: BobtheBigPig

                            Hi. Sorry for the delay in responding; I've been away!

                            Could you watch your friend make his sauce sometime? Or offer to help so you could learn? Maybe you won't get the fabulous tomatoes from his garden, but you could find a decent substitute, I'm sure. Or if that doesn't work, go to Anna's and tell them how much you love the sauce and how much you'd love to be able to try it at home. Maybe they'd even invite you into the kitchen sometime and teach you! Worst thing that could happen is they say no.

                            Good luck. When you get that recipe right, you should share it with us (unless someone swears you to secrecy)!

                        2. Here's our recipe: In order of use.....

                          EVOO - heat in sauce pan then add....
                          2 - 3 garlic cloves, chopped. Fry till golden....
                          1 can of the Pastene (sometimes I rinse out the can with a splash of dry red or white wine)
                          Kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper
                          red pepper flakes to taste
                          5 or 6 fresh basil leaves, sliced OR several large pinches of dry
                          Leaves removed from 2 or 3 fresh oregano stems OR several pinches of dry.
                          Stir to combine all and.... Canterlever a cover on the pan, turn down heat and let simmer till macaroni is drained. Add macaroni to sauce, toss over the heat for a few seconds then serve.

                          There are all sorts of variations on this theme of course. Try Googling for Pasta Amatriciano, Pasta a la Norma, Pasta Carbonara.....
                          Buon appetito!!

                          1. There are many different kinds of tomato sauce; depends on the purpose.
                            Quick and Fresh a.k.a. Arrabbiata (with chilis, but you can leave out). This is best when I have tomatoes from my garden or use DOP san marzano whole tomatoes. I puree some (hate seeds in my sauce) and then cut some in tiny filets for texture. This sauce is cooked quickly and has a fresh taste. Great for simple and good quality imported pasta (or homemade). Terrible for lasagnas, baking, meatballs. My parents, as their parents did in Italy, sometimes start by adding a piece of hog jowl when frying the garlic. We also make this in the summer with zucchini or eggplant, some other quick sauces: puttanesca, vodka, and amatriciana to name a few.
                            Long simmering - Great as a base for adding meatballs, lasagna, baked pastas, and for more rich pasta dishes. Good when you need to add sauce to something (arancini). Usually good quality meat (shoulder, roast, etc) is browned and slowly cooked before adding tomatoes, italian imported (OR home processed) that have been put through a food mill or crushed if you like more texture.
                            "Meat" Sauce - Bolognese sauces or Ragu (with shredded meats). I like these in the fall especially with homemade egg noodle pappardelle or fettucini. This is one type too that requires slow simmering.
                            Non - red sauce - Oil or cream sauces - Carbonara, Funghi, Clam sauce, etc.
                            I have yet to see green peppers or sugar added to an authentic Italian sauce, in Italy or at an Italian's home. Fresh basil makes a huge difference and the slow wilting of vegetables or browning and then braising of meat before adding tomatoes is vital.
                            Quality of tomatoes will hace a huge impact. Best quality imported DOP whole (you can chop as needed and you have more control over what has been crushed and added) or home processed, fresh if in season from your garden or field tomatoes once blanched and peeled. Lastly, using EVOO does add to the flavour as well. I guess the Italian belief of simple using best ingredients makes a huge difference.

                            1. I agree with most posted here. You can't beat Marcella Hazan's bolognese for a flavorful ragu; just be willing to spend the time and I think you will be happy if you make extra to freeze. If you are looking for a pretty quick marinara, this is mine:
                              Marinara Sauce
                              2 tbsp. olive oil
                              ½ cup minced onion
                              ½ cup minced carrot
                              1 tsp. minced garlic
                              ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
                              ¼ tsp. oregano
                              ¼ tsp. basil
                              1 can (28 oz.) whole San Marzano tomatoes
                              ¼ tsp. salt
                              ¼ tsp. black pepper
                              Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot; cook for 4 minutes. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper, oregano and basil; cook for 15 seconds. Add the tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring to break up tomatoes with a spoon; cook for about1 ½ hours. Stir in salt and black pepper. Cool and lightly run through a food processor
                              Makes 6 servings but I always double this recipe – one recipe would never serve 6 of our friends!

                              1. With my son and his wife, DH and I actually did a smack-down, blind taste-testing on marinara sauces. Daughter-in-law won, I am embarrassed to admit. She used David Rosengarten's trick of sautéing eggplant in oil and then using that oil in the marinara sauce. I have to say - and this really is NOT sour grapes - that I wasn't crazy about it, though obviously, others were. I did, however, take second place. What I am about to explain is NOT the fastest of meatless sauces, but I like it the very best of all.

                                Go to food network and look up Alton Brown's roasted tomato sauce. Make it.
                                Make a basic marinara sauce, something like Donali's posted here or similar. Combine the two sauces. The result will be rich and full-bodied. You can use a stick blender on it if you like a smooth texture. You'll want to keep it in your freezer for emergencies - if you can manage not to eat it all immediately.

                                1. One thing not menioned so far is to make sure your tomatos are packed in juice and not puree. One other thing, if you taste your sauce and it's flat add a half teaspoon of red wine vinegar.

                                  1. After a long day of whacking people its nice to relax with of bowl of pasta lightly sauced and sprinkled with a bit of Parmigano Reggiano, maybe a meatball or a sausage or two. You are in luck my friend. The godfather has taken a liking to you, perhaps its you name. Any way here is how to make my Tomato Gravy - Enjoy
                                    "GODFATHERS ITALIAN TOMATO GRAVY"
                                    2 cloves garlic
                                    1 small-diced onion
                                    1 little can tomato paste
                                    2 lg. cans crushed tomatoes
                                    1 lg. can tomato sauce
                                    1 lg. can whole plum tomatoes
                                    Fresh basil
                                    Parsley, salt, pepper
                                    Sweat onion in the olive oil in bottom of large saucepan. When onion is opaque throw in the garlic. When it turns golden add can of tomato paste and one can of water. Do this as soon as the garlic gets golden, have the can open and ready. Do not burn the garlic, capice? Add remaining cans of tomatoes and spices (to your taste) Squeeze the whole tomatos in you hands like you are choking somebody and throw them in the pot. Then let simmer for 3 1/2 - 4 hours. In the meantime, fry meatballs and sausage. When browned add to the gravy. Let meat cook in sauce for at least hour. This will add so much flavor. Don't mess this up pally or we may have to do what we have to do, get the drift?

                                    1. Here are a few tips:
                                      - Use only DOP certified San Marzano Tomatoes
                                      - Cut off the stem part,and hand mash in the pot
                                      - Never use a can of 'Tomato Sauce'...ever
                                      - Use Sea Salt instead of table salt as it has lower sodium and a better taste.
                                      - Don't assume because your grandmother made a tomato sauce recipe that she knew what she was doing or had good taste. You were conditioned from a very young age to eat her sauce...it doesn't mean it was really any good (sorry...not meaning to insult someone's grandmother...but seriously)
                                      - Celery and Carrots have no business in a marinara sauce...it's not a STEW!
                                      - Use only fresh ingredients and the best Olive Oil you can find.
                                      - Chopped Onions, Chopped Prosciutto di Parma sauted in 1/4 cup of olive oil, deglazed with a good red wine, add 3 cans of hand crushed San Marzano Tomatoes(set aside the liquid from the can and use only if needed to thin), Sea Salt and Fresh Cracked Black Pepper, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes, during last few minutes on the stove add Fresh Chopped Italian Parsley, Fresh Chopped Basil and serve with Fresh Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese and a great bottle of red (Amarone if it's a special occasion ;-)
                                      - A variation I use is to add fine chopped Crimini, Shitake and Oyster mushrooms. These give it a thickness closer to a Bolognese
                                      - Use a nice big hearty pasta like a Rigatoni and a Big Crusty Bread.

                                      Cheers!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: AdRock22

                                        I've never found it necessary to cut off the stems of my San Marzanos, the cheaper type tomatoes stems are green and hard but not the ones I get (LaValle). If they're quality canned tomatoes, that's the first sign that they are good.

                                      2. Bob: I do "Sunday sauce", low and slow with meat only for special occasions. For a quick, fresh everyday "al fresco" sauce try this:
                                        Saute 1/4 cup red onion chopped very finely in 2 tbls olive oil ( not EVOO) over med low heat until just clear. Add 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped into halves. Saute only 1 min.
                                        Add 1 28oz can whole San Marzano tomatos, crushed by hand. Add 2 tbls kosher salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer about 20 mins. Add 10-12 leaves fresh basil chopped or torn just before dressing your pasta with the sauce.
                                        Variations: if you prefer a smooth sauce, pulse tomatoes right in the pot using an immersion blender ( or a food processor if you don't have the immersion blender). For an even brighter taste, after simmering suace 20 mins, add 1/2 cup dry white wine, i.e. a good Soave, simmer 5 mins, then add basil as above. Buon Appetito!

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Lefty21

                                          Adding a half cup of white wine at the end to brighten? There's something I've never heard but sounds like a great idea! I'm definitely going to do this next time I make sauce. Thanks!

                                        2. Why do some people put sugar into tomato sauce?

                                          On one occasion my wife asked me to cook dinner for her parents at their place, and she wanted pasta with meat sauce, so that's what I made. I could not eat the meal as it was very sweet. I wondered where I went wrong, until I found out that when I had my back turned my MIL dumped sugar into the sauce! Stay out of the kitchen when I am cooking !

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: souschef

                                            I think the rationale is that it cuts the acidity of tomatoes.

                                            1. re: MMRuth

                                              I think I heard that somewhere else before, but the sugar makes the sauce inedible. Trying to counter the sugar by adding any sort of chili or hot pepper is not an option for me as I hate spicy hot food.

                                              1. re: souschef

                                                Adding carrot for sweetness is so much more subtle.

                                                1. re: coll

                                                  I am in the minority that prefers a sweetened tomato sauce. (I put a spoonful of duck sauce into the bowl when I order hot and sour soup at Chinese restaurants. I read somewhere that Germans prefer sweet & sour to sweet & salty, and that is my gene pool!). I use Splenda in my red sauce because in this application, its boozy aftertaste disappears. Last pot of sauce, I added a whole carrot during cooking and removed it at the end. I felt that it gave the sauce an oddly acidic taste. But it could have been that particular carrot, or the brand of canned tomato. I did not taste the carrot beforehand but will do next time. I once grated a carrot into the sauce at the start and didn't taste much difference from my usual result.

                                            2. re: souschef

                                              Maybe they are accustomed to using less than ripe tomatoes and compensate with the sugar. If you did that with a brand like Strianese it would definitely be insane, those things are sweet as candy to begin with.

                                              This thread is a couple of years old, so I'll assume that the OP got their answer but throw my 2 cents in just for the hell of it. A great way to get that jarred/institutional quality to your sauce is to overdo it on the herbs, particularly the dried ones- if you don't want that then just use great ingredients and for crying out loud keep it simple (especially if you are making a marinara, which should be cooked in the same amount of time it takes to boil the pasta). I can get anough variation to keep things interesting while still resisting the temptation to overdo things. Onion or garlic- choose one, not both. Fresh herbs are nice, but again, choose one- I am on a marjoram kick right now, but I'll be back to basil sooner or later. Olive oil isn't just there to saute your onion/garlic- it is an ingredient. Add enough to know that it's there- you can even use butter if you like. Cook with the lid off to allow the water from the tomatoes to evaporate and the flavor to concentrate. Finish the pasta in the sauce, the starch should tighten things up enough and help it all come together. As to consistency, the Italian DOPs are soft enough to crush by hand. If you want a smoother sauce use a food mill- an immersion blender tends to whip air into the sauce and make it more salmon-colored. Those are pretty much the basics, and should give you great results every time.

                                            3. I think using Canned Whole Tomatoes (I like Muir Glen) is much better than using Canned Tomato Puree. Pureed tomatoes are cooked and have a much duller taste. Canned Whole Tomatoes are minimally processed and have a fresher taste. I learned this from America's Test Kitchen.