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Jan 29, 2009 09:11 AM

Best tomatos for making pasta sauce?

I know this is a matter of taste, but I can't seem to find any good tomatoes in stores during winter, let alone the kind one would use to make a sauce. For a simple but authentic Italian tomato sauce for pasta and pizza, what do experts use?

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  1. San Marzano, or Muir Glen (fire roasted, esp), depends on whether I want to pay $6 a can or $1 a can.

    5 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      Can? I was talking fresh tomatoes. Are fresh tomatoes not as noticeably better when making sauces?

      1. re: foodsmith

        It's winter where I am. Iin the summer, I'll do a quick "sauce" where I add chopped fresh tomatoes to olive oil, basil, garlic and barely cook; or something along the lines of a caprese. But, if it's a longer simmer, canned works better as others have pointed out. I have, in the summer, made roasted tomato sauce which I really like, esp. for pizza topping.

        1. re: foodsmith

          It's the wrong time of year in the US for fresh tomatoes, and even in the summer, most supermarket tomatoes are garbage. If you want sauce right now, use canned whole or crushed tomatoes (Glen Muir is really good, also Trader Joe's if there's a store in your area). I grow my own tomatoes in the summer, but use canned when home grown or farmer's market are not an option. Don't think I've bought a supermarket tomato in 5 years. With canned tomatoes the manufacturer doesn't need to worry about how the tomatoes look, so taste takes a higher priority compared to store bought.

          Bottom line: If it's not locally grown, "fresh" is not likely to mean "tastes better".

          When you can find fresh, local tomatoes, look for a Roma or other "paste" tomato. They tend to be more oblong rather than round and if you cut them in cross section have just 2 chambers rather than 6 or more for regular tomatoes. Talk to your green grocer for more info.

          1. re: foodsmith

            No, fresh tomatoes are NOT noticeably better when making sauces unless you grow them yourself OR you have a good buddy that doesn't mind giving away his/her gold.

            Muir Glen canned tomatoes all the way - they are fantastic. I use the crushed tomatoes. Crushed tomatoes with basil are a good choice.

          2. re: chowser

            Plum or Roma tomatoes are the best for making great sauce. Unfortunately, unless you know a grower or grow your own, it is hard to find great fresh tomatoes for making sauces. Certainly not in the supermarket. You are much better going with a high quality canned tomatoes. Some of the best canned tomatoes I've ever used are the Muir Glenn brand. However, they are not the most consistent and vary year to year and season to season. I would still recommend trying them. If you find a batch that are good, buy a whole bunch of cans. The best canned tomato based on quality and consistency are the San Marzano variety from Italy. They come in a variety of brands, Cento is the most popular and most available. Just make sure they are the real deal from Italy. Get either of these tomatoes whole in a can and then crush them by hand

          3. Experts don't use fresh tomatoes for sauce. They use canned ones. That's your biggest problem. You don't really need all the fancy D.O.P San Marzano regional tomatoes, just look for whole peeled canned tomatoes in your grocery store.

            People here will tout their favorite brands but the ones you use are the ones YOU like best. The biggest key is just using canned tomatoes rather than fresh.

            29 Replies
            1. re: HaagenDazs

              Bingo. Fresh tomatoes actually don't make good sauce. Buy some canned whole, or crushed (if you like a thicker sauce or are lazy) tomatoes and go from there.

              Tomato sauce is actually very easy to make. Here's a simple recipe:

              1 28 oz can of tomatoes, crushed or whole
              2-3 cloves garlic, minced
              1/4c olive oil
              1tbsp red wine vinegar
              Salt to taste

              Place the olive oil and garlic in a cold pan and heat over medium heat until you can smell the garlic. Add in the tomatoes, lightly crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher if you used whole tomatoes. Simmer for 15 minutes, then add salt to taste. Remove from heat, then add vinegar to bring some "pop" to the sauce.

              You can tweak from there--adding herbs (go easy and add at the end if they are fresh), sauteing an onion first, or adding a pinch of chile flakes in with the garlic (a personal favorite).

              1. re: aravenel

                But in the film Goodfellas, it took all day to make the sauce, remember? He had to have his brother constantly stir the pot. Was that BS? I really don't know which is why I'm asking. Thx.

                1. re: foodsmith

                  my friend grows tomatoes aplenty in the summer and only uses fresh if she is making a quick tomato basil sauce. She peels the tomatos and chops them and cooks the sauce very quickly. The remaining tomatoes go through the machine and she freezes the puree before she uses it. Otherwise, the sauce is very watery

                  1. re: foodsmith

                    Personally I think the longer you simmer the sauce the better it comes out, but even quickie sauce comes out fine.

                    1. re: foodsmith

                      Simmering longer certainly won't hurt, but it's still excellent even after 15 minutes. Keep in mind that canned foods are already cooked beyond well done.

                    2. re: aravenel

                      I've been enjoying progresso this time of year.

                    3. re: HaagenDazs

                      This is very intriguing. I had not known that. Well is it always been this way? Back 100 years ago, what did the moms in Italy make their sauces from? Canned tomatoes that they canned the year before? Seriously would love to know the history on this.

                      1. re: foodsmith

                        Canning has been around since Napoleon (prize to inventor for inventing way to feed troops), preserving food, primarily with fermentation (wine, cheese, bread starter), drying & smoking, etc.

                        If you're making tomato sauce from scratch, first skin (drop in boiling water, pull out, poke hole and pull skin off), then remove the "caviar" (gel and seeds), and you are left with the pulp, used to make the sauce. Lemon/citric acid added if too sweet, sugar if too sour.

                        And the reason for constantly stirring the pot is to keep the sauce from burning, the flavour of which is likely to seep through the entire batch very quickly.

                        1. re: foodsmith

                          Well think of it this way and I mean this in the nicest way possible:

                          You and everyone else who purchase standard grocery store tomatoes in January are not doing yourselves, or anyone else for that matter, a favor. Tomatoes are grown in the summer. January does not equal tomato season. The only reason you can walk into a grocery store now and see tomatoes in the produce bin is because of out of country and out of state shipping. Fresh, uncooked, summer, in season tomatoes are not the best for tomato sauce. Fresh, seasonal tomatoes should be enjoyed with maybe a little salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. Tomatoes found in the grocery store in January (and most of the rest of the year more often than not) are good for... well mostly nothing.

                          The best cooking tomatoes are what are referred to as paste tomatoes. The most common is the Roma tomato. (See: San Marzano tomatoes).

                          And for future reference, I would look for recipes from people like Mario Batali rather than a Hollywood movie script.


                          1. re: HaagenDazs

                            I figure that recipe books are geared mostly to make people's lives easy and they don't tell you the real secrets. That's why the cultural reference in the film held some curiosity to me.

                            Thanks for all the other info!

                            1. re: foodsmith

                              I have to disagree with that. Cookbooks are not 2nd best replacements for anything. They are informative, thought out reference guides and they are quite useful!

                              Go buy Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook and tell me that it was written "to make people's lives easy."

                              1. re: HaagenDazs

                                HD, I think that the FL cookbook is a bit of an exception, but I do love reading the annual dinner another CHer does by the book.

                                For easy and friendly cooking--technique, history, and methodology, look to the tomes by Pepin.

                                1. re: Caralien

                                  Well sure I'm exaggerating, but to say that cook books are basically a tool to make people's lives easy is just as silly, if not more so.

                                  As for Pepin books that are very useful try "Complete Techniques." One of the best books covering French technique and recipes that was ever written in my opinion.

                                2. re: HaagenDazs

                                  This is true, there are some great books. Don't get me wrong, I just meant more with guys like Mario B., I don't really know of those TV chef cookbooks (no matter how legit they are in real life) usually give you the actual recipes they would use to cook in their top restaurants, usually they are tailored to be more doable at home.

                                  That said I rely heavily on several books these days from Michel Roux (Sauces, Eggs and one on desserts). I also have a book from le cordon bleu, so yeah I'm with you.

                                  But I'm not so knowledgeable about the best Italian books and even Michel Roux's book on sauces tends to gear towards making things in less time than a professional chef.

                                  1. re: foodsmith

                                    I love Batali's book Molto Mario. Everything I've ever made in it has been a success, and there's a good range of easy-->hard recipes in there from which to choose from.

                                    (That said, just because it's easy doesn't mean it won't be delicious.)

                                    Oh, and as for tomatoes: I look for a nice can of San Marzanos. Here in Brooklyn, they're everywhere and pretty cheap.

                                    1. re: ScienceMike

                                      Just moved from Bay Ridge to Princeton, and I miss the variety and quality of canned tomatoes (and food). Found a new favourite in NJ Fresh, which is a lot sweeter than what we were used to in Brooklyn.

                                      (fyi--I don't work for the farm boards, just food hungry person)

                                3. re: foodsmith

                                  I think it was Mary Ann Esposito's show, "Ciao Italia", that explained that the American idea of cooking spaghetti sauce all day came from poor Italian immigrants. Since they had to scrimp, they used cheap, tough cuts of meat in their sauce, and had to cook it for many hours until it fell apart.

                                  When I first began cooking, I just assumed that the longer the sauce cooked, the better. In recent years, I've shortened the time considerably. My non-authentic sauce contains ground beef, Italian sausage, bell pepper, basil, canned crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, mushrooms, garlic and LOTS of onion. I judge when it's done based on how sweet and tender the onion has become. In summer, after a trip to the farmers' market, I sometimes make a quick sauce with diced pancetta, fresh tomato, bell pepper, onion/scallion, and garlic. One of the best, and definitely the prettiest, was yellow cherry tomatoes, red bell pepper strips, shallots, and garlic scapes. It cooked in about 15 minutes.

                                  All these styles have different flavor profiles, but they are all good.

                                4. re: HaagenDazs

                                  HD, here in central Florida we get 2 tomato crops annually - the winter harvest is actually righ now; I'm paying 99 cents a pound. I don't know what portion leaves the state for grocery markets. A lot of it is contract growing for processed food makers. The bad news is that when either harvest is ripe and abundant, the good prices only last a couple weeks.

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    Yeah, you're right. I know Florida has tomatoes this time of year but lots of people... I'd be willing to bet most people don't have access to the kinds of produce you can get there. Florida is a different animal. I can walk into an IHOP and get fresh squeezed OJ that is local and super fresh. Unheard of here in Atlanta. Unfortunately that kind of freshness is just not the case in the majority of stores in the US. People buy their produce at the regular grocery store and no matter what time of year the tomatoes can be pretty dismal even in Georgia which isn't far off. People just get so used to the crap that is put on the shelves in the produce section and they don't know any better. The result is dry, pinkish-white, mealy tomatoes.

                                    True farmer's markets and home grown vines- that's a different story!

                                    1. re: HaagenDazs

                                      HD, we in Florida are fortunate to have a lot of fresh local produce a lot of the time. But there are still weird anomalies. Last week I needed a perfect, ready to eat tomato, but my 99 cent Florida ones needed a few more days on the sill. So I bought one perfect one for $2.89/ lb...from Canada!
                                      Also, Florida is said to be the second largest mango growing state, but nearly all the mangoes I buy here are from South America. Go figure.

                                  2. re: HaagenDazs

                                    Have you tried Marcella Hazan's recipe using only fresh tomatoes, onion, butter & salt? There's nothing like it and I wouldn't dream of making it with canned tomatoes (actually I did this once and was disappointed). It's only for late summer vine-ripened tomatoes. I was skeptical when I read the recipe but am now a convert. My first meal on my first visit to Italy was a giant bowl of fresh fettucine with a simple tomato sauce and a ton of grated parm (enough to raise an eyebrow at). I thought I was in heaven but was never able to duplicate that meal either in a restaurant or in my own kitchen. Until I made Hazan's recipe. You really should try it. It's a whole other breed of tomato sauce and it's simply genius. Not at all like the deep, rich, garlicky tomato sauce you would put on spaghetti w/ meatballs, which has its merits too, but as I said, this is a whole other breed.

                                    1. re: soniabegonia

                                      Yes, but it is important to use meaty plum tomatoes, not watery round tomatoes, in that recipe. Canned plums are better than fresh round in it. And you must use the food mill for it. I still have 2 containers of it from September....

                                      1. re: Karl S

                                        I've used both and found them equally good. Actually, I think I actually prefer the round ones by a slight margin. They are naturally sweeter and more tender. And I don't use (or own) a food mill. Also, I don't even peel the tomatoes like it says in the recipe. I just cut the tomatoes in half along the equator & squeeze out the seeds. After a few minutes of cooking, the skins just slip right off. It just saves me that extra step of parboiling & chopping or milling the tomatoes. Once soft enough, I just mash the tomatoes with a potato masher and it comes out just fine. Yes, I've taken liberties with the recipe, but all l I know is, it tastes exactly like the stuff I had in Italy and I am transported to that moment.

                                      2. re: soniabegonia

                                        I love love love that recipe! I used it with a can of Cento san marzano tomatoes. After all, what's easier than dumping half a stick of butter and a whole onion in a pot with a can of tomatoes. Never made it with fresh ones, but it was great and SO easy with canned. I do think the canned tomatoes have to be really good to begin with, though.

                                        1. re: knitterbetty

                                          I "third" Marcella's tomato sauce recipe, but, just FYI, the recipe actually calls for fresh OR canned tomatoes. I always use San Marzano's since there are so few ingredients in it anyway.

                                          For the OP - I highly recommend Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking as a great intro to Italian cooking.

                                          1. re: LizATL

                                            Hazan's books are more than an intro. jfood still learns from them decades later.

                                    2. re: foodsmith

                                      Yes, traditionally, as the tomatoes are harvested in late summer and early fall, there are entirely too many to eat fresh. Most are canned and preserved for use throughout the year.

                                      Also keep in mind that the stereotype of Italians living on red sauces is generally not true. There are parts of Italy that eat lots of tomatoes, but there are more parts that don't. The red sauce thing is primarily Italian-American.

                                    3. re: HaagenDazs

                                      An interesting side note - there was a taste test of whole canned tomatoes on America's Test Kitchen. They found that the US produced tomatoes tasted better than the Italian imports, because the US tomatoes were packed in juice, and the imports were packed in "sauce".

                                      Apparently this difference is due to import classifications. It's cheaper, duty-wise, for the Italian companies to get tomato "sauce" into the US than it is to get tomatoes in juice. The taste testers liked the juice-packed tomatoes best, saying that the cooked sauce the imports were packed in negatively affected the flavor. Unfortunately I can't remember which brand they ultimately deemed the best.

                                      1. re: egusto

                                        This is not comparing apples to apples. If you tasted US tomatoes in juice, and Italian tomatoes in juice, I greatly prefer the Italian brands.

                                      1. I think Progresso work really well.

                                        1. If you can get it, I would highly recommend NJ Fresh crushed tomatoes--$2-4/28oz can.

                                          We picked them up on a lark and they're the sweetest, most like ripe summer tomato off the vine tasting canned tomato I've ever had. Before these, Sclafani was our favourite (cheaper in Bay Ridge than Princeton, however)

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Caralien

                                            Caralien, I live in the Princeton area and I have never seen the NJ Fresh canned tomatoes. Where are they available?