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authentic Italian red/marinara sauce?

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Just wondering what people do to make their own pasta sauce. Our family is having a Tastebud Dispute and its now escalated (downgraded?) into What Is Authentic in Italy.

So I ask...

sugar or no sugar? if yes how much?
cheese in sauce or no? If yes what kind?
which herb(s)?
other major or secret ingredient?

Thanks for your input!

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  1. in order:
    if you like a rich sweet sauce, which i sometimes do for a hearty marinara, add a tablespoon or more granulated sugar. to taste of course.
    no cheese in tomato sauce. ever. period.
    when no fresh basil is on hand i add dried basil and oregano as well as fresh chopped italian parsley early in the process while i am sweating the onions.
    chili flakes at this time add a little nice heat if you like some.
    red wine added to the sauteed onions and herbs and then reduced before adding the tomatoes could be a "major ingredient" to some.
    bay leaves if you are long simmering the sauce.
    at the end of the cooking process swirling in a tablespoon or two of unsalted butter will add a richness to the sauce.

    1. In my family where my grandmother who came from Sicily would never use sugar,but would add celery to lessen the acidity and sweeten the sauce .Cheese also wasn't added but grated at the table. Marinara ( the sauce of the seafarer just might have fennel but never cheese) I also remember those arguments on The Family Traditions such as raisins in meatballs ,porkskin ,neckbones ,pig feet or a peeled hard cooked egg.http://www.lovesicily.com/blog/recipe... this may help ................or not

      1. You get a few responses on this for sure.

        Me, just a bit of sugar, no cheese, fresh herbs if I can, dried will work. I used carrots, red wine, some times a dash of red pepper, depends. There are hundreds of recipes.

        1. What people make and what would be MOST authentic are very different as you can see people adding this, that to a ridiculous point. Eventually they will have M&Ms and popcorn in there.
          Even within Italy there are so many variations, of course but they do not go to the nasty lengths of people in the US.
          I say most authentic would be most basic, goes back the longest.
          NO sugar
          NO cheese
          Basil most prevalent herb

          Secret ingredient, get really good tomatoes instead of the garbage that is so prevalent.
          Ripe is key, most tomatoes are not ripe enough or then just go rotten.
          Jarred tomatoes are better than canned, very hard to find especially if you are not in a big city or get them locally and they are quite pricey.

          You can really go just tomato, garlic, basil if you like. Adjust with salt, I guess.
          Yes, that basic and that is how some highly regarded sauce is made.
          I like heat in many uses of my sauce so will add some.
          Sometimes some onion but not so much. Usually if the tomatoes aren't ripe enough.

          Oregano, thyme, alternatives to basil. Dried basil not so useful, dried oregano is.

          Problem is, Americans have screwed up palates, so much sugar and the likes in everything(and most don't even realize it)they would not think something, even if ethereal, was good or great.

          Some additions are just preposterous, some are within reason.

          1 Reply
          1. re: dietndesire

            I agree. Authentic is relative to the person.

            No sugar and cheese in my sauce. Simply crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic, italian seasoning, and GOOD olive oil. I also add beef stock.

          2. The first important fact you must face is that there is no one single authentic Italian pasta sauce, there are bazillions, of which many don't involve tomatoes at all, but we'll leave those aside. "Marinara" is a slightly ambiguous term in Italy. In Rome, it describes a cheeseless pizza with tomato sauce sprinkled with garlic and oregano. Elsewhere it might also have anchovies. "Alla marinara" for pasta may mean with seafood, but my Italian-language food encyclopedia says it's a tomato sauce with herbs, such as basil or oregano, sometimes with capers or olives. But this is a book definition and not one you see on the ground much.

            Sugar is sometimes used to compensate for bad tomatoes, not because you actually want a sweet taste. If you use onions, they should provide quite a bit of sugar, even more if you start with a soffritto of carrots, onion, and celery, and their sweetness is considered desirable. This sauce may be served with parmesan (not in the cooking, at the table or at least just to finish).

            Another version starts with sautéed garlic, hot pepper, and possibly also anchovies. The tomatoes are added to the pan and cooked briefly (about the time it takes the pasta to cook. This is served with no cheese at all, but you can get away with pecorino romano (never parmesan with garlic).

            The herb of choice in Rome is basil, south of here oregano. Italian parsley can go anywhere and I've never heard anyone object to a bay leaf.

            1. Your question is based on the totally incorrect premise that there is a single type of tomato-based sauce from Italy. mbfant has given you the most reasonable reply so far, but I'd recommend that you try your question again, reformulated to make sense:

              What are the major traditional tomato-based sauces in Italy?
              What role does sugar play in red sauces?
              What role does cheese play?
              What herbs are used, where, when and why?

              1. This is how my friend Ana Maria who always says I'm 100% Italian makes it so simple and so delish. fresh chopped garlic fresh vine ripe skin removed tomatoes( you can use canned if you must) fresh basil salt white wine evoo. and salt.

                So sweat your garlic in evoo then add some white wine then add tomatoes then salt to taste then finish with fresh basil. I like to add a little fresh ground pepper and serve. I do like to shave pecorino on top . I have used this sauce for years and it is so fresh and taste wonderful on pasta or over fried polenta cakes or even as a dipping sauce for bread sticks.

                1. As I mentioned, a million recipes. I have 4 friends that live in Italy. Two couples which two of them knew one another in the university over there, They all begin friends and now are married. Well all from different regions, north south mid etc. Well all have four very different versions. They vacationed over here last year and we made pasta one night. We also had several other friends over so about 30 in all. They made 4 different sauces and we had our own cook off. It was fun. We added meat to one, seafood to another, chicken to the next and all vegetables to another. But all pasta based. And I can tell you all were different ... and they were all made just a bit different. They all claimed their's was traditional and that they learned from Grama. Well they were all the best sauces I ever had and all were different.

                  Anchovies, onions, carrots, garlic, herbs, parsley, yes or not. red wine yes or no. Cheese was always a garnish. But soo different. And yes always fresh tomatoes but one did use a good Italian diced tomato and was just as good.

                  So what is traditional and what isn't. My Italian friends are great and I do cook sometimes like them, but usually I use short cuts due to time, but their dishes were amazing. Also having a good fresh pasta that is true Italian is well worth the price. Not necessarily for every day spaghetti, but for a nice dinner it is. I have a nice Italian market in town with great authentic pasta I love to get.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: kchurchill5

                    Your anecdote is perfect to illustrate the variety of authentic Italian cooking. And I'm sure there were some points on which all four cooks agreed.

                    I take exception to your "shortcuts due to time," however. As I'm sure you know, an enormous number of pasta sauces, including tomato sauces, can be made in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. Literally, you put the pot on and then you start the sauce. My latest fave is this (you have to start it early, but you hardly DO anything): put a pound of washed small whole tomatoes on an oven sheet (I use the toaster oven). Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. You can also add some crushed peeled garlic and some hot red pepper. Put the tomatoes in a low/medium oven (350°F or less if you have time) and just leave them there till the skins split and the tomatoes turn to mush. You just don't want the skins to turn black. Prep time 5 minutes, cooking time about an hour. If you are feeling frisky, you can put them through the food mill, but if you are pressed for time or energy, put them into a large deep frying pan and mush them up with a fork, skins and all, while the pasta cooks. Add the drained pasta to the tomatoes and toss for a minute over low heat. Pecorino romano goes nicely with this, but you can serve it as is. Or, if you have a can of decent tomatoes, you can make penne all'arrabbiata in no time. Just sauté some garlic and hot pepper while the water boils, add the tomatoes while the penne cook, then add the pasta to the sauce and serve from the pan. Of course you CAN spend all day on a sauce, but it's not at all necessary.

                    1. re: mbfant

                      How true, thanks for the realization all is different in the world of tomato sauces.

                      Yes, I usually keep fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes and make my sauce. But I do keep tomato sauce on hand. All three. Just in case. I rely on all three. I go to fresh first which takes longer, then the canned, then the premade...but I always doctor them up to my likes.

                      I love pecorino as well. My friend grows the yellow pears and a varity of tomatoes. I just made one with all heirlooms, great sauce, roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper and then added to a pan, mashed lightly, added some shallots thin sliced and garlic. Let it all cook 30 min. Added some cream just a bit 1/4 cup and white wine and let simmer another 15. Added some shrimp the last 5 minutes and then served over pasta then was cooked with fresh spinach. Really good.

                      Thanks again ... enjoy as well

                  2. Most Italians and Most Chefs who cook Italian food would scoff at the following:

                    Beef Stock
                    White Wine
                    Red Wine

                    Now, in reality, Marinara sauce in the US has morphed into regionalisms and family traditions.

                    When in doubt, refer to Marcella Hazan's cookbook, which is generally regarded as the Bible of all things authentic Italian cooking.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Filet o Fish

                      You are absolutely right except for one thing. Italians don't regard Marcella Hazan as a bible of anything. They have never heard of her. My Bolognese food-historian friend has only heard of her because I showed her Marcella's books, and she absolutely curled her lip at the recipes. However, after nearly 30 years living in Italy, I still go to Marcella's first two books to get the straight story, though for regional recipes, I go to Italian texts. Let it not be forgotten that Marcella writes for American cooks and American kitchens. This is not to take anything away from her—she changed my life!—but to put her in context.