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Jul 6, 2010 11:04 PM

Tomato sauce: to cook or not to cook?

I've seen some tomato sauce recipes that call for a long cooking time to fully develop flavors, while others simply call for quick cooking (often in a wide pan) to preserve the fresh tomato flavor. Having dabbled in jam making, I understand where those quick-cooking recipes are coming from. But having made some tomato sauces that were a bit underdeveloped in flavor, I also sort of see where the long cooking folks are coming from. So my question is which technique is appropriate for which situation? When do you want a long-cooked sauce, and when do you want a quick-cooked sauce? For bolognese sauce, it's pretty obvious that it should be long-cooked, but I can't think of other examples.

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  1. My rule is that when I use good, fresh tomatoes, I do a quick cook. When I do canned tomatoes, I cook for half an hour and check the consistency from there.

    2 Replies
    1. re: jaykayen

      Good rule, JKN... I do almost the same. My simple basic sauce is started before the macaroni hits the boiling water and is finished when the pasta is al dente. These days I rarely make a meat sauce. Then there are the fresh tomato sauces which are not cooked at all. Halved fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, for instance, or plum tomatoes that are halved, squeezed to release the innards then chopped and tossed with hot pasta, ricotta, S & P and chopped fresh basil. Sometimes I don't squeeze the plums, though.

      1. re: jaykayen

        +1 Agreed. Good flavorful fresh tomatoes are the only way to go when quick-cooking a tomato sauce.

        Less flavorful tomatoes or canned varieties are better served by really cooking them down - some of my long-cooked tomato sauces are not very sauce-y by the time they develop enough concentrated flavor.

        Note that fresh, flavorful tomatoes can also make for an excellent cooked-down sauce, even though it can feel like sort of a shame to use them that way.

      2. The idea of a large pot of sauce simmering for the better part of a day is more Italian-American than Italian. It dates back to poor immigrants who had to make do with poor quality tomatoes and tough cuts of meat. These required long simmering to concentrate flavors and melt collagen. The longer the sauce cooks, the mellower the tomato (canned or fresh) becomes. So it's a matter of personal preference. You can have a bit of both if you brown tomato paste in oil, then add fresh tomatoes at the end of cooking. In this case, make sure you've given your onions and garlic, and any vegetables included, enough time to soften. If I'm making sauce with canned tomatoes, the meat and onions determine the total cooking time.

        5 Replies
        1. re: greygarious

          Where does the classic French tomato sauce fit into this? Looking at Julia Child's recipe, it involves sweating mirepoix, then making a roux, adding meat stock, and then simmering the tomatoes for 2 hours. Why do the French choose the long-cooked method? Is it because they would usually use the sauce in a meat dish?

          EDIT: Ahh..Julia also has a fresh tomato sauce (Provencal, she says) that's only cooked for 50 minutes.

          1. re: greygarious

            What about a ragu that is cooked for hours? I know people from Italy say they grew up making it at home as children.

            1. re: chowser

              I was relaying the explanation given on Ciao Italia by Mary Anne Esposito. Sure, the ragu, or "Sunday Gravy" as many Italian-American homes call it, is long-simmered, like any braise, to cook solid chunks of meat. That idea bled into people's concept of how to make sauce with ground beef, sausage, or meatballs, which are dishes that do not in fact require long cooking.

              I don't have Julia Child's books so I don't know the intended use(s) for her tomato sauce recipe. However, the inclusion of beef stock makes me think the sauce is intended more as a condiment/gravy (gravy in the American sense) than as the central flavor of the dish. I do remember her making an Italian tomato sauce (with meatballs?) on one of her fairly early programs, and mentioning that she was not used to Italian cooking so she was following the recipe as written. She seemed like a pesce out of acqua.

              1. re: greygarious

                Not that it's important, but I'm not a big fan of Mary Ann Esposito. I do question her take on this, that Italians don't simmer sauces for a long time since I know many Italians, not Italian Americans like her, who say they grew up doing it.

                1. re: chowser

                  It's a matter of local tradition. In central Italy, at least in the Rome area, most sauces are made in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta, or less. The one exception is when meat (oxtail, involtini, or meatballs) is cooked in a tomato sauce. In that case, the meat is served as a main course and the sauce separately over pasta. Rag├╣ in Bologna is cooked a long time, but it's not a tomato sauce. In general, slow-cooked tomato sauces are associated with the south and are the ancestors of the Italian-American sauces.

          2. I like to cook a 5 Qt. pot of tomato sauce for spaghetti sauce using can tomatoes, onion, garlic, celery and bell pepper. I usually start with one big can of whole tomatoes, a can of tomato sauce, a can of tomato paste and a can of V 8 juice. I cook it a long time say 2/3 hours or longer to get the vegetables cooked down and the whole tomatoes cooked down. I never add any kind of cooked ground meat to the sauce. All I make is the red sauce. I make meat balls from 6 pounds of ground lamb or veal and one package of mild sausage to make the meat balls tight.

            Good meatball tip. I used to brown em in the oven or fry em in a skillet but a Chef taught me to make the red sauce with everything you usually use but don't add any cooked ground hamburger meat or any meat. Once the red sauce is cooked about 2/3 hours so the onions, celery and pepper is cooked down, pat out your round meat balls and drop em in the hot red sauce. I make em about the size of a golf ball so I don't have so many. Don't stir as you will break the meat balls. Make sure when you mix em up you don't have too many eggs and they are good and tight packed. If too loose put more bread crumbs in the mixture. This makes a good gravy from the grease escaping the meat balls. Cook long enough that when you kind of move em around they feel hard then take them out and drain in plate. Put more in pot then if you have more meat. I always end up cooking about 12 in one pot then putting the rest of the meat in the refrigerator until the next day and cook the next 12 or so.

            I usually warm it up a few days later for the second time and I believe it tastes better then after a lot more cooking.

            1. I have a few sauces in my rotation, from the quickest marinara to my four-hour bolognese. It's a seasonal issue, for me, but also how I intend to use the sauce comes into play, and what type of pasta I am using.

              I only ever make marinara in the summer, not only because of the availability of the ingrediants, but also because it is too hot to spend much time in the kitchen, and I am more likely to use my sauce to dress the pasta in a much lighter fashion. I always puree this sauce though, so I don't have the odd bits of celery or onion standing 'alone'. A little marinara goes a long way, especially if you have *really* good pasta.

              My other summer sauce is the simplest rosa. Fresh tomatoes sauteed in butter, a small amount of flour, whisk in some cream, toss in some basil, and done. I doubt it even takes a half-hour's time. I don't make this dish in the winter simply because the only tomatoes I can get are mealy and pale inside, and lacking in flavor.

              In the winter, I am not only more inclined to want to spend the five or six total hours needed for the bolognese, but make a fair amount of baked pasta. A ragu or bolognese, with the fat from its meat base, stands up better in the oven (whereas marinara is likely to dry out). This is where I can get away with the dried out $1/box pasta that's easy to have on hand.