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Tomato sauce HELP!!

It is embarrassing to have to post this question but I am at the end of my rope. I CAN NOT make a tomato sauce without it separating and ending up all watery. What can I do to avoid this??

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  1. What ingredients are you using and how are you making it?

    1. What type of tomato sauce are you cooking and what is its end use going to be?

      Are we talking marinara sauce, smooth Sunday Gravy type pasta sauce, tomato sauce for stuffed peppers, Greek tomato sauce, etc. or what? There are many tomato based sauces out there, thus more info would likely yield more focused replies.

      1. I will suggest either a longer cooking time or a small amount of tomato paste or sun dried tomatoes to bring it together.

        1. Well, no matter what I use it happens. I made sort of a Chicken\Eggplant Parmesan casserole with organic crushed and diced tomatoes and it seemed to be the worst. My Spaghetti sauce (tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes) does it also to a lesser extent. Both sauces include diced onion and bell pepper and sliced mushrooms. They are both cooked low and slow for a minimum of 4-6 hours.

          4 Replies
          1. re: PotatoHouse

            If this is always the case, then I would have to question the tomatoes you are using. I rarely cook my tomato sauce for that long and it is rarely low or slow but pretty hot and less than an hour cooking, stirring frequently. If you are using watery tomatoes you have to get that liquid out before they will thicken up. (And in the casserole, I would only use sauce, not diced tomatoes which have a lot of liquid to throw off.)

            1. re: PotatoHouse

              Do you cover the pot as it's simmer for those 4 - 6 hrs.? If so then it's probably condensation that's dripping back into the sauce causing it to be watered down. The sauce "spits & sputters" during simmering so I keep the lid partially askew so it can reduce as it cooks.

              1. re: PotatoHouse

                You're cooking it too long IMO. I usually go about 45 minutes on a decent simmer for my sauce.

                1. re: PotatoHouse

                  do you sweat the onion, pepper, and mushrooms before adding the tomatoes?

                2. Your most likely problems:

                  - You're not cooking it long enough. I don't have my copy of McGee, but IIRC, tomatoes contain some chemicals that can thicken a sauce and act sort of like hydrocolloids (keeping a sauce from separating) when cooked long enough. Keep it at a simmer and cook it slowly in a covered pot, taking the lid off for the maybe the last 30 minutes or so. Alternately, you can keep the lid off the whole time and let it reduce, adding back water as needed to keep it a sauce consistency - I like to do this when using fresh tomatoes because I separate and strain the tomato pulp and seeds before cooking the sauce, over-reduce the sauce, and then re-hydrate it with the strained tomato juice just before serving - the sauce winds up nice and thick but has a great fresh tomato flavor from the uncooked juice.

                  - You're not adding pasta correctly. Ideally, you boil pasta until it's just shy of fully cooked and finish it in the sauce. Also, it's good to add just a splash of the starchy, salty water from boiling the pasta to the sauce. The starch in the pasta and in the pasta water helps keep the sauce from separating - it's like you added a tiny bit of flour to the sauce.

                  - If all else fails, you still have a couple options. You can mount a tomato sauce with a good amount of butter just before serving - this tends to thicken a sauce and help to keep it from separating, though it's no cure-all. It has the added benefit of tasting good.

                  Likewise and even more effective, you can blend in (like with a blender) just a tiny bit (1/4 -1/2 tsp depending on the amount of sauce) of xanthan gum. It's one of those hydrocolloids I mentioned above and it's a powerful thickener. It changes the texture just a tiny bit, but it'll pretty much guaranty that your sauce will not separate. I know it sounds scary to some, but it's completely non-toxic and flavorless, and has been widely used by the food industry for decades. It's especially useful if you want to make a tomato sauce in minimal amount of time and with minimal cooking.

                  11 Replies
                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    cowbayardee, I generally appreciate and respect your advice, but with all due respect and good humor I have to step in here as the wife of an Italian. First, this person is already cooking this sauce for 6 hours or so...I can't see how more time will do the trick. Second, if her sauce is watery and separating, adding the pasta earlier were help, but it will not solve the problem. Third, the suggestion of xanthan gum is making me, and I hope many other tomato sauce makers, saying WTF. I truly appreciate your expertise and I am not saying this to upset you or be critical, but even the worst Italian cooks have gotten along for forever with xanthan gum. If things have gotten that bad, I would recommend jarred sauce as the solution. Truly not saying this all to be mean but don't know how else to say it. Best to you.

                    1. re: escondido123

                      And the real question is HOW DOES IT TASTE? A little watery, wtf in consistancy..or?

                      1. re: escondido123

                        I don't mind you disagreeing with me, but I stand by my advice. I hadn't noticed that the OP says they cook their sauce for so long, so I thank you for pointing that out - it's obviously not the OP's particular problem, though it is generally true that longer-cooked tomato sauces are less likely to separate than shorter-cooked ones. 4-6 hours is certainly enough time.

                        As for when/whether to add the pasta/starchy water, that's an old and very traditional trick used for the exact reasons I gave - it helps bind the sauce. Homecooks are at a minor disadvantage compared to restaurants who cook many batches of pasta in the same water and as such have a lot more starch in the water, but it still helps a bit. Obviously, you don't want to add a whole lot of water, and you don't want your sauce to be overly watery before you add it.

                        And as for xanthan gum - I recognize that it is very untraditional and bordering on heresy. But give it a try before you knock it. I suggested it because it works, plain and simple. You can even blend it in a small portion of the sauce and then mix that into the whole if you want to maintain a chunky rustic consistency. You don't want to use enough to really thicken the sauce, but just to provide a bit of insurance against separation. And unlike jarred sauce (some of which, incidentally, also contain xanthan gum - I know some of Bertolli's sauces do, for example), you still have a great deal of control of the flavor of your sauce - your sauce will still taste like your sauce. I don't personally use it in most tomato sauces, but it's a fantastic guaranty for quick cooked sauces that will be held under suboptimal conditions before serving. Most people, even experienced eaters of Italian cuisine, don't realize it's in there.

                        I do agree with you that some degree of reduction (cooking out some of the water) is important for a sauce that doesn't separate.

                        Best to you as well.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          I truly have never had the problem of a tomato sauce separating...guess I'm doing something right. Now I have a friend--really, really bad cook--who browned up a pound of ground turkey in olive oil, poured off the oil, added a chopped onion, dried Italian seasonings and a can of chopped tomatoes. Let that cook for an hour and then served over bare spaghetti. Onions and meat sat on top, pool of red liquid on the plate. Hard to eat, though the green can of cheese did help a little.

                        2. re: escondido123

                          I'm glad you said it! Before I added xanthan gum (which I use for thickening on occasion), I'd buy sauce in a jar from someone who knows how to make sauce without it!

                          1. re: mcf

                            Why though?

                            I'll guaranfreakintee that i can make a better sauce than anything you'll find in a jar, whether or not I choose to use non-traditional methods.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              Because while I like it for thickening fruit in a low carb cobbler, I don't want any sort of gummy thickener in my tomato sauce, or any thickener, frankly. I want tomatoes in my tomato sauce period, garlic and some fresh basil, maybe some onion and EVOO of course. Texture matters, and mouth feel, and I don't think it's an appropriate item to add xanthan gum to.

                              In my kitchen, anyway.

                              1. re: mcf

                                Ahh. I don't advocate using enough to really noticeably thicken a tomato sauce. Xanthan gum is like that - use a lot (relatively) and a sauce gets very thick and quite gummy; use a small amount and the sauce get's slightly thicker and has a noticeable but mild 'slick' mouthfeel. But if you only use a tiny bit (as a percent of the total volume) the effect is really only to keep the sauce from separating, with minimal effect on thickness or mouthfeel. It's used for the same reason in dressings and some commercial sauces. Like I said, if you use it right most people don't know it's in there.

                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                  I hate it in salad dressings, too. I'd rather shake or whisk and take my chances. I have to disagree with your assessment of it's function. Once you use enough to thicken, you've used enough to feel the diff in your mouth.

                                  Also, once you have watery, separated tomato sauce, you need to use enough to notice it, is my bet.

                                  1. re: mcf

                                    It's your prerogative not to like it. But you're still overstating the textural effect. There are various commercial tomato sauces that use it for the same reasons I mention, and while those sauces may not be mindblowing, the problem with them isn't the texture or moutfeel. They have the texture and feel of tomato sauces. The textural effect is totally different from an otherwise thin liquid thickened with the stuff.

                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      I've never bought a sauce with gums or added starch, so can't say.