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Help Me Diagnose My Catastrophic Tomato Sauce

One week ago, I made a delicious tomato sauce by hand-peeling and seeding fresh homegrown tomatoes and simmering with onion and garlic. Sweet, fresh, the very essence of summer tomatoes.

Last night, at the urgings of various forumites, I used my brand new OXO food mill. I found it an incredible exercise in frustration, taking vastly longer to de-skin and de-seed my tomatoes than doing so by hand (note: these were tomatoes from the same source as the previous ones). The mill has clearance of about 1/4 inch. If I cranked it hundreds of times, with frequent reversals, it eventually would kinda sorta tear up my small chunks of tomatoes and press them through the screen. Figure about 15 mins per tomato, with juice flying everywhere. Lovely. I used the medium insert, which passed lots of seeds, and ran it again through the fine one. It took me hours.

In a revereware stainless dutch oven, I slow sauteed finely chopped garlic and onion in olive oil till soft. Added the tomato mixture. Simmered an hour. Looked at my watch...it was midnight. I unscrewed the handles and threw the pot into the oven, which I set to cook 3 hours at 325.

Next morning....blech. The flavor was all dark and baritone, like cheap canned sauce. No sweetness at all.

I cranked it up again, added basil, salt, black pepper, more olive oil. Better, but not good.

The only thing I can think of is that in addition to about 18 nice big perfectly ripe tomatoes, I added four older ones. I cut a couple bad spots off, and tasted them before I added them. While they weren't sprightly or anything...kinda blah...they didn't taste bad, so I threw them in.

I'm wondering if the darn food mill sort of ground up some tomato seeds, creating a musky slightly bitter vibe. Or if the start again/stop again cooking cycle hurt me.


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  1. Did you attempt to mill the fresh, uncooked tomatoes?? I have never tried this. I use Marcella's method, which calls for cutting raw tomatoes in two and cooking them under a lid for just under 10 minutes until they are soft and begin to render juice. THEN you mill them. No splattering, and it takes no more than 5 minutes or so. I would think good, meaty tomatoes would not mill well at all without just a little bit of cooking beforehand. After that, you can continue to cook, and all is well.

    1 Reply
    1. re: k_d

      Yeah, that makes good sense. It doesn't explain the undeliciousness, but it does account for the excruciating labor.

    2. I'm sorry; nothing like a disappointing result from awesome ingredients... Maybe it has something to do with the mysterious alchemy of cooking where the tomatoes prefer to go into the sauce largely intact to emerge as a new creation... I suspect the "pre-saucing" was the culprit. Maybe heat was distributed too evenly among all the small bits? There has got to be some science behind this...

      4 Replies
      1. re: oryza

        Did you use a cast iron pot? That could cause a reaction.

        1. re: oryza

          That was nicely poetic, and I appreciate the sympathy, but I'm not sure I fully understand what you're actually saying! E.g. what does "pre-saucing" refer to?

          1. re: Jim Leff

            Probably means running the tomatoes through the food mill before cooking them.

        2. My first thought was a metallic reaction...

          1. FWIW, I don't use a food mill on my tomatoes either. It takes a little longer, but I skin them the old fashioned way by boiling water dip, hand peel, gently squeeze out juice and seeds, then chop.

            I don't think the problem was the quality of your tomatoes. This year our tomatoes weren't very good, due to the weather (Many only half-ripened).

            I think when skinned tomatoes are cut into chunks they cook better than milled. I cook my sauce on the stovetop, low heat, uncovered so the heat can escape for about 90 minutes.

            I wonder if your tomatoes were possibly overcooked in the oven? When I once tried to make fresh sauce in a crock pot, the results were terrible. Sauce had zero flavor.

            1 Reply
            1. re: TrishUntrapped

              The first attempt, without the food mill, what I did was peeled (was easy, as they were nicely ripe), cut out pips and pulp, and mostly left the errant seeds. Then I took a very small hand strainer (maybe 3" diameter), and pushed it around in the muck. I'd let the water flow out, push or pick the pulp out, and what remained were seeds. Was surprisingly easy to get all the seeds out, and the pushing through the strainer offered some food mill-ish action (though I didn't have to savage entire tomato sections).

              And it turned out great. I should have stuck with it. I may return my mill.

              And I'll stick with stovetop. The real shame is I should have been tasting every step of the way...so I could troubleshoot if something went wrong. Lesson learned.

            2. Three hours of cooking your sauce?!?! After an hour (which I think is too long) simmering, it'd done. Sound cooked to death

              4 Replies
              1. re: Greta

                They're really good fresh tomatoes. Plenty of water to cook down.

                1. re: Jim Leff

                  I feel like they may have gotten too hot. Tomatoes have a very narrow comfortable temperature range -- they go below 50F (refrigeration) and it destroys their flavor; likewise, anything over a bare simmer will give you that dark, baritone flavor -- I bet they're burned. With their high acid and sugar content, tomatoes cook at lower temperature than most people think. Like those red sauce places where the sauce is boiling hard all day and the lasagne tastes like Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Who knows what kind of good tomatoes they started out with; couple hours of hard boil and it all tastes the same after that.

                  325 is to brown pastry, not simmer sauce. Try three hours at 250 and see if that helps any.

                  1. re: themis

                    Yep. Makes sense. And, yeah, my sauce had that bad restaurant dullness.

                    Also, those few over-the-hill tomatoes HAD been refrigerated. I bet it was a combo of all these things...refrigeration, overly high heat, the non-optimal tomatoes, and the savage raw raking of the food mill.

                    I'll try again with brand new tomatoes. Will skin/pulp/seed by hand, and do a nice low simmer. I bet it'll work perfectly.

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      you got lots of good advice. I too think the long cooking was a big mistake - make a fresh sauce with your fresh tomatoes..

                      next time try dipping your tomatoes in boiling water til the skins break when you pierce with a fork - its quick and they slip right off.
                      I think skins do tend to bitterness in sauce, ditto seeds, you can gently squeeze those out. and sadly, even very good tomatoes dont always make sauce as good as you can buy.

                      Ive found that kind of veg mill frustrating too - the french style conical mill with the conical wooden pestle that rolls around insodeis more satisfying since the pestle is actually in contact with the sides of the cone.

              2. I used a mill for the first time this year too, with great results. I did spaghetti sauce. What I did was:
                Blanched, shocked and peeled the tomatoes.
                Diced up onions, bell peppers, fine minced garlic and sweated them in olive oil until transparent/soft.
                Hand squished tomatoes (cores removed) into pot.
                Added two cups cabernet.
                Allowed to simmer together for awhile and then added fresh basil, oregano, marjoram, italian parsley, bay leaf.
                Allowed to simmer a little longer.
                Placed food mill over large bowl and ran sauce through. Was left with tomato seeds and skins from peppers. Discarded that.
                Returned milled sauce to pot, tasted for salt and pepper, and allowed to cook down and thicken up a bit.
                Result was sauce was bright in color and bright in flavor, nicely thick and eminently suitable as is or for use in other combinations.
                Wondered what took me so long to decide to use a mill as opposed to spending so much time forcing it through a sieve in the past.
                Next project with mill: Ketchup!

                1. I wondered, as I read the thread, what variety of tomato you used, Jim. Some varieties are much better eaten out of hand rather than cooking. The one that readily comes to mind is the Plum tomato, but other varieties are good for cooking as well. Here's a link to all things tomatoes.


                  Nothing worse than having one's great expectations dashed....

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Gio

                    Gio, tomatoes homegrown and offered me by an aged Calabrian woman for the express purpose of making sauce.

                    In my dismay and confusion, I brought her a spoonful to try and diagnose. Tears filled her eyes. I think I ruined her day.

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      OIC.... so they were intended to make sauce with. Well then, perhaps the long and not so low heat did it, as others have mentioned. Whenever I make fresh sauce I simply blanch/peel/seed/chop...then saute garlic in olive oil - no onion - and add the tomatoes and salt & pepper. Let them cook down, which only takes about 45 min. - 1 hr. Then I add either fresh or dried basil and let the sauce simmer for a few more minutes. That's it.

                      Maybe her tears were tears of joy? OK, maybe not....

                      1. re: Gio

                        I've been wondering if those cooks of lore who "cooked their sauce all day" were actually cooking the meat and aromatics for several hours before adding tomatoes in some form at the last hour.

                        1. re: yayadave

                          When using meat in a sauce, the rule of thumb is to brown the meat, add a little more EVOO, then sauté garlic & onion for a few minutes....then add in the meat.... add the canned tomatoes & seasonings and simmer for an hour or so till the meat falls off the bone.

                          This business of cooking the bejangles out of it is some sort of misinterpreted instruction from who knows who.

                          1. re: Gio

                            I consulted with my aged sauce guru.

                            She says cooking time doesn't matter, it's all about the targetted reduction. With these (juicy, though not watery/salad) tomatoes, cook until reduced by half.

                            And she rolled her eyes at me for having milled the tomatoes while raw. Said to cut out the pips, finely chop the tomatoes, cook, then mill. Said not to worry, the seeds won't inject bitterness (at least not with these tomatoes).

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              Gosh, sorry this happened...

                              Here are my thoughts...
                              Refrigerated tomatoes lost all their bright fruity flavors.
                              Tomatoes cooked for way, way too long. They became scorched, which destroyed what remaining flavor they may have had.
                              Your garlic was overcooked, leading to additional bitterness.
                              Adding wine would have helped release some the tomatoes' alcohol-soluble flavors.
                              Using the mill removed too much juice (more bright, acidic top notes lost) and made your reduction darker and concentrated.
                              The only long-simmered Italian sauce I know of is the Bolognese sugo, a very long milk-braised meat sauce. Over several hours of cooking, the milk becomes caramelized and makes this beautiful lipsmacking gravy.
                              In contrast, fresh tomato sauce cooks for a very short amount of time on the stovetop. It's really pretty fast.
                              I simply rough chop the tomatoes, add them to lightly simmered garlic in olive oil, add a touch of oregano and a few glugs of white wine, freshly cracked pepper and that's it. For 6 fresh medium-sized tomatoes, maybe 20 minutes. Perfection. Fresh.

                          2. re: yayadave

                            Well I'm one who cooks my sauce for about 5 hours- this is the sauce I make with canned tomatoes- and I can modestly say that friends and family always compliment it and it's better than most sauces I get at restaurants.

                            The sauces I make with garden tomatoes only cook for 20-45 minutes,

                            1. re: Chris VR

                              Yeah, canned is a different story and can take longer cooktimes.
                              I bet your sauce is better than that at most restaurants -- I've found the same thing -- so much so I don't order a dish with tomato sauce at a resto -- fresh or canned.

                    2. my first thought was that they cooked (way) too long. you lost the fresh tomato flavor which is the whole point of using fresh. i just cook fresh summer tomatoes (you may blanch, peel & seed -- but i don't necessarily seed) on the stovetop, with some garlic slices in evoo. maybe add in some fresh ground fennel seeds, salt, pepper. cook probably 20 minutes (?) or so. it is summer-y, tomato-y delicious-ness. toss into that some good al dente pasta, maybe a scatter of fresh parsley, and you might imagine yourself to be in italy...... best of luck next time. (sometimes the food mills are just too much of a pain in the butt.)

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: alkapal

                        I'm inclined to agree with the many "don't overcook" voices in this thread. Yet the wizened Calabrian gardener lady cooks her sauce for hours. But likely at lower temp than I did. And didn't make all the mistakes I did. And she's Calabrian....

                        1. re: Jim Leff

                          You wise friend sounds correct, reducing half way is what my 95 year old MIL used to do. And that's what I do. But, I have found differences in my sauce made from fresh tomatoes over the years as well. Now, I tend to do a very fresh sauce by just peeling and chopping fresh tomatoes. Then I let them drain for 30 minutes. I fry up a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, toss in the tomatoes, salt & pepper and fresh basil at the end of 30 minutes. This is a very light, fresh and chunky sauce. Toss with pasta and add parmasan cheese.

                          I do cook canned or fresh tomatoes in a meat sauce, but that is the one I let simmer a very long time.

                          BTW Jim, I have passed down my sauce to my two sons, who cook all the time. And each of their sauce tastes different from mine. So, it could be the pan? I use my Staub, they don't own any.

                      2. Thanks to RDD(Retention Deficit Disorder) ;-) I can't recall where or any specifics, but I recently read that if you seed tomatoes you lose certain of the health benefits they provide. Wish I could remember the details, since they bolster my convenience-based policy of not de-pulping tomatoes, regardless of use, unless they are excessively watery. I don't peel them or strain, either. The more fiber the better, said Mom.

                        1. Jim, I am with the you cooked it at too high a heat for too long time crowd. A long slow roasting in the oven of the sauce. could have turned that tomato ripe goodness into mellow sweetness, along with the garlic and herbs. I think the milling frustrated you for sure, and I only mill after a quick blanch. Personally, I don;t even like mills. I just press my tomatoes (again they are cooked somewhat soft already) through a sieve.

                          I really don't think you ground too many pips in, nor would they affect too much. Nor the few less than perfect tomatoes.

                          Simmer is lets say something around 210 or a trife less and you had that blazing at 325. I am thinking that dark, baritone(love the descrip, perfect) means you burn some of those lovely tomatoe sugars.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Quine

                            Makes sense, Quine.

                            Anyway.....I have another sauce on right now, and it smells totally awesome.

                            1. re: Jim Leff


                              Of course the bestest Tomato sauce I ever made, was one I would not make again, sorta embarressed to do it.

                              I was making sauce with some of my way too bountiful garden yield. Plus I was home alone and well, ya see there were these bags of carrots in the frig. I HATE carrots; these were left-behinds from a potluck a weekend or so before. So not being able to able to waste the carrots by throwing them out. I coarse grated them and added them to my sauce, hey it was a huge pot. Well, they cooked down and the carrot sweetness really added to the sauce. people loved it! And it made the most incredibly staining food substance known to man. I had to ditch that table cloth.

                          2. The OXO food mill is wonderful. You just used it incorrectly.

                            You need to halve the tomatoes, put them in a big pot (I use a large nonstick wok, and a cover that fit) and no more than a 1/4 cup of water, and let them steam 10+ minutes until softened.

                            Then, using the largest holed option fitted in the proper direction, you ladle in the tomatoes and use a lot of pressure as you get to the toughest solids. I've generally done 5 lbs of tomatoes in my OXO mill in under 5 minutes.

                            Also, if these are local round tomatoes grown in the Northeast, this summer was wet and those tomatoes are watery and not very tasty (so it may well be your tomatoes - every season is different). Paste tomatoes, which are designed for cooking, fared somewhat better.

                            A tube or can of tomato paste (preferably from enamelled cans) is also very helpful.

                            Finally, never let tomato sauce get higher than a simmer. Higher temperatures produce a dull, acrid flavor.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Karl S

                              karl it sounds like Jim used the mill exactly correctly. You have merely suggested that, like many other posters here, milling fresh, raw tomatoes is difficult ( I'm on the it's impossible side myself). That to soften, loosen the tomates with a poach/steam/a cooking process makes it far easier to mill. And while I have been cooking for about 50 years and about 20 of those in some professional capacity, I can count on one hand how many times I used a mill, and can count on my palm how many times I thought it went well. ;)

                              Jim is a great CH with tons of experience. ;)

                              1. re: Quine

                                I wrote what I wrote because I have been shocked at how many people use food mills in suboptimal ways and then wonder why the bother. I use ricers for roots, and mills for fruits, and find mills invaluable, far superior to processors/blenders et cet. But it helps to find the right mill - with poorly constructed mills (I've had one of those), it's hopeless. OXO's mill is good, not the best, but good.

                                1. re: Quine

                                  Jim has lots of experience eating. That doesn't necessarily translate into cooking :-)

                                  1. re: Chris VR

                                    Correct. And I acknowledge that I should have milled after cooking, not before.

                              2. Go to: http://fantes.com/food-mills.html

                                .......and scroll down until you come to "Roma Food Strainer & Sauce Maker"

                                I own the Victorio, but think that this is no longer made nor available. The skins and seeds are spewed out into one container and the puree into another. The only trouble with this type of strainer is that every-so-often you need to stop and unclog.

                                I live in an Italian community where a lot or tomato sauce is made and consumed. Just about every Italian kitchen has one of these strainers.

                                I use mine for tomatoes and also for making apple sauce.

                                When I don't have a whole lot of tomatoes to process, I don't bother with the strainer. I dip my 'maters into the boiling water for a couple of seconds. Remove skins and cut in half. With my fingers (clean hands, of coarse) flick the seeds out of the seed chambers. Very easy to do! Then I proceed with my sauce. Using stainless steel or enameled, I cook and proceed according to my recipe. Adding a tad of sugar to my recipe neurtalizes the acidity during cooking process, but keep a low flame to simmer and stir at regular intervals so as to not scorch. Adding a grated carrot also adds a certain amount of sweetness to tame any bitterness.

                                I also use RevereWare, with copper-clad bottoms. Think that if you aren't careful of the level of flame under the pot....RevereWare is especially prone to scorching! I also have something called a "flame-tamer" that goes over the heat sorce and under the bottom of the pot.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Lisbet

                                  One of the reasons I vastly prefer the mill to the parboil-and-peel technique is that entirely omitting the skins results in a blander, thinner, sauce. Milling (sometimes twice) with the skins means that bits of the skin get in the sauce in a way that produces a lovely kind of emulsion. I make sure to scrape the underside of the disc into the sauce.