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Sep 19, 2008 06:16 PM

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 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 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.