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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.

                      2. I have no idea what the problem is but I never have had this problem, unless there is just too much water in the tomatoes. Someone else suggested that the lid should be off the pot and I agree. No need to keep all that moisture in. I use very little tomato paste. Sometimes I prep my tomatoes by chopping coarsely, adding coarse salt and letting it sit overnight. In the morning, I drain off the resultant water (the salt goes with it) and this leaves a meatier tomato. Then I cook. This is how I always make preserved salsa.

                        1. Do you use tomato paste as well as canned crushed tomatoes to make your 'gravy' (Scusi, i nonni di mia moglie erano italiani)? I call it sauce, but that causes World War III in my house.

                          Is water one of the ingredients in the sauce that you make? If so, STOP USING WATER! Use a little red wine instead.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ChiliDude

                            I've used both water (to keep a reducing sauce from getting too dry) and red wine, together or individually - it hasn't seemed to me that red wine makes the sauce any less likely to separate than water does. It does add it's own flavor and deepen the overall flavor of the sauce which is usually quite nice, but it depends on what effect you're going for.

                            Using too much of either without cooking the sauce down a bit more can cause problems, for obvious reasons.

                          2. It's from leaving the lid on during the cooking process, as mentioned above. Regardless of the water content of the tomatoes, after 4-6 hours of slow cooking, all of that liquid would have evaporated...if the lid was not placed on the pot.

                            1. Start with sauteing some garlic and onion in olive oil. You can then add sausage, chicken
                              a nd a pork chop. Add tomatoes spices wine and cook for several hours for a typical
                              ragu. Some also add puree.

                              1. Potato, a couple of tips for sauce learned from my many mistakes over the years…

                                Sauté the mushrooms, peppers and onions first to cook out the liquids - otherwise they will just add liquid to your sauce.

                                A tomato/veg sauce does not need to cook for a long time – surely less than an hour will do. Meat sauce should simmer low for 3+ hours.

                                The watery problem with your chicken/ eggplant casserole is more likely the eggplant, not the sauce. Try cutting the eggplant into thin slices and weigh down w/a heavy pot and paper towels to get water out overnight - then proceed w/your recipe.

                                1. Xanthan gum in tomato sauce. Now I have heard everything.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: Jay F

                                    I'm seeing a whole lot of knee-jerk in this thread, but not a single person who can explain why something like 1/4 tsp of xanthan gum would actually be unpleasant in a sauce.

                                    Incidentally, I made another 3 suggestions to try first, all of them pretty much traditional. Did you make any?

                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      It doesn't matter what I did or didn't do, said or didn't say*. Xanthan gum in tomato sauce is remarkable, literally. So I remarked on it.

                                      * By the time I read the thread, my idea of leaving the lid off the pot had been offered, in any case.

                                      1. re: Jay F

                                        Remarkable, I guess it is. Sorry if I got your tone wrong. But I'm still not convinced I did.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          Oh, make no mistake. I think gums are a must to avoid. I stopped eating Breyer's when I noticed after just a spoonful or two that they'd started using something called tara gum as a stabilizer. I avoid carageenan and guar gum in other ice cream, too.

                                          So there's no reason on earth I think gum should go in tomato sauce. I guess there's no way to say that without "tone." I could not have been any more surprised, nor think of you as any more radical, if you'd said you put, well, dirt in your tomato sauce. I think you realize that, too.

                                          If that hurts your feelings, I apologize. I honestly don't know what to say beyond that.

                                          Is this "molecular gastronomy," btw?

                                          1. re: Jay F

                                            It doesn't hurt my feelings, though it's frustrating to feel like people are ganging up on you.

                                            But my post wasn't really any more defensive than your post was offensive, and my original question remains unanswered - does anyone have any actual arguments as to WHY xanthan gum is to be avoided? Or are tradition and squeamishness reasons enough?

                                            BTW, it isn't molecular gastronomy - though many would call it that incorrectly, and it is true the MG cooks are more comfortable than most cooks using these types of ingredients. MG is concerned with transforming foods and playing with appearances and expectations. This is using a well known ingredient that home cooks mysteriously avoid to a very traditional effect in a traditional food, albeit one that is a little more versatile and foolproof than the same food made exclusively with traditional methods.

                                            1. re: cowboyardee

                                              Don't worry: I keep a bit of xanthan gum next to my stove. I like it more than plain ol' corn starch in a lot of applications. You're not alone!

                                            2. re: Jay F

                                              They're not always undesirable; they're fiber and that's a good thing. But in excess or in the wrong food, they're an unpleasant texture/mouth feel. I don't have a knee jerk anti gum reaction, just a tomato sauce one. :-)

                                    2. How much oil are you using relative to the other ingredients? If not enough, you may not be getting enough of an emulsifying effect to keep your components together.

                                      9 Replies
                                      1. re: inaplasticcup

                                        That's a really good thought. Maybe that's why mine always works, olive oil is an actual ingredient.

                                        1. re: escondido123

                                          I made Marcella's Tomato Sauce #2 today. Butter instead of olive oil, and an onion. No stabilizers.

                                          1. re: Jay F

                                            I love the sound of that sauce, but my husband is not a big butter fan. Next time he is away at dinner time, that's what I'm making.

                                            1. re: escondido123

                                              I made slight mention of it in the bacon grease thread, but I always use a combo of olive oil and a dab of bacon grease to base the sauce. Rich flavor, always thick. (And like others have said, only separation problems I had were when I had the lid on.)

                                              1. re: emilyjh75

                                                +1 on the bacon grease. Love the addition of pork fat to the sauce.

                                        2. re: inaplasticcup

                                          That's a good suggestion - fat definitely does help, and many people don't add enough of it. Butter is a little easier to emulsify into the sauce (at least if it's added right at the end) because it's already an emulsion of sorts. Stirring the sauce to help the fat emulsify into it is always important, but If the OP chooses to rely on olive oil alone, stirring thoroughly is even more important.

                                          In truth I most often use a combination of olive oil and butter for flavor and texture.

                                          1. re: cowboyardee

                                            After 4 or 5 hours that sauce should be like cement! Why would you cook it for so long?

                                            1. re: petek

                                              Usually because you're stewing meat in it - a ragu. For a pomodoro sauce, you don't need to cook it so long, though IME really quick-cooked marinara sauces made from fresh tomatoes still have a tendency to separate if you don't take steps to prevent that.

                                              The OP had most likely been cooking with the lid on the whole time, so the sauce still had a lot of water in it - not cement-like.

                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                I can see a ragu or a bolognese cooking for that long,but not a tomato sauce,and no lids on a tomato sauce either.

                                        3. To the OP - by any chance, are you using a Crock Pot to make your sauce?

                                          1. PotatoHouse, the answer is simple food science. When you cut into (or otherwise rupture the cells in the flesh) of a raw tomato you release enzymes that immediately begin to catalyze the sugars in the fruit. if not nipped in the bud, these enzymes induce chemical reactions at a cellular and molecular level that cause juice separation even after a long cook.

                                            What you must do is cut your tomatoes in small batches and toss them immediately into a hot pot. This deactivates the enzymes. The key is to work quickly and in small batches - cutting and immediately exposing the cut flesh to high heat, and then cutting a bit more and heating that too. Don't chop all your tomatoes at once and try to heat them all at once. There is simply too much cold produce to be able to heat it quickly enough (I'm talking a minute or less). Give the enzymes even 5 minutes between when they are activated (by the cells being sliced open) and deactivated (by high heat) and they will metabolize the natural sugars and cause a chemical reaction that produces juice separation. Your goal should be to bring everything up to 200F quickly.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: orangebloss

                                              Interesting, and I'm sure that works, but for many home cooks they've been able to handle big batches of chopped tomatoes and not had a problem. My husband made tomato sauce last week with tomatoes he had chopped up an hour ahead of time and it made the most silky sauce with no separation.

                                              1. re: orangebloss

                                                I make huge batches of sauce at once, no problems. I think this is really unnecessary fuss.

                                              2. I always use canned whole San Marzano tomatoes & either hand crush them, chop them or run them through the food processor first. Many people separate out the seeds with one of those italian crushers, but I generally don't bother. As others have said, I cook my sauce for 45 minutes or so (that's cooking time for a simple base sauce).

                                                1. I actually CRAVE my own tomato sauce. It's ready in the time it takes to boil the pasta - I prefer a fresher tomato taste to the long simmered one, and I use good quality diced tomatoes (i like the Aurora brand, my 80 yr old italian cooking school teacher recommened it when i took my first cooking class). I use Martha's recipe from her Comfort Food cookbook... to which I've added an coarsely chopped onion at the very beginning...

                                                  I found the recipe online, you can skip most of the instructions if you're using canned tomatoes:


                                                  1. Ihave the same problem and cook with the lid off. I also only use fresh garden grown tomatoes. I really done want to add any canned paste. I have simmered my sauce for more then 6 hours, so inferrig that the original poster is a bad cook assome have done here is not fair or helpful.

                                                    1. I also struggled with watery sauce - such an unpleasant aesthetic when plated. The solution I came up with for my Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Marinara is to roast the tomatoes. I can now use the sauce for pizza, pasta, and eggplant parm without any separation issues. If you need to thin it a little for pasta, use some starchy water (that will help it cling even more than it already does). When I'm eating out and love a pasta dish I make it a point to ask the server about the Chef's method. The answer I often hear is that they roast the tomatoes low and slow "forever". Also, the tomato flavor will be rich and intense so there's no need for tomato paste. Hope that helps.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: ChicEats

                                                        I also roast tomatoes when I have a large quantity of fresh from the garden tomatoes. After roasting (sometimes with some garlic), I puree them through a food mill. The resulting sauce is just like the sauce in ChicEats' photo - thick and vibrantly colored, and not separated. It's also very sweet. When I use this sauce - whether for pasta or something else - I rarely have to add more than salt and pepper. It's so good!

                                                      2. Idea: drain canned tomatoes through a colander into a vessel. Use the reserved drained fluid only later, as needed; and in some cases, it is not needed.