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Feb 19, 2012 07:14 AM

What makes a great red pasta sauce really great?

Okay, I'm about to brag -- I think I make the best red pasta sauce I've ever tasted. I've eaten in some pretty fine restaurants here and in Italy, but when it comes to a red sauce on my pasta, whether it's a meat sauce or a meatless one, my conclusion is always the same: I like my own homemade sauce better!

So here's a question -- is the "best sauce" simply the one you like best? Or can the "best sauce" be judged by some objective criteria? And if so, what would the judging criteria for the "best" meat sauce and the "best" meatless sauce be? I'm not asking for recipes; I'm asking about the qualities or characteristics that make for a great red sauce.

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  1. Patience and love of lieu of that, pork & beef and veal....sausage, spare ribs, meatballs and Braciole. I realize you are not asking for recipes, but I'm going to post anyway :0)

    The qualities that make for a great sauce are the ingredients used, the consistency and texture of the sauce and the concentration of flavors....One of the best red sauces I ever had was a simple red marinara made with just three ingredients......tons of slivered garlic, crushed tomatoes and olive oil. The garlic was allowed to steep in the oil for a long time,(without browning), then simmer on low flame for an equal amount of time ( 60+ minutes) with the tomatoes, then dressed over the pasta. I thought the sauce would be overwhelmed by the garlic, but it was not.

    .....My Sunday Sauce from another thread.

    Usually, when I make gravy, I make a large amount so I can have leftovers and have extra for my son to take he is a single guy working very hard and does not have time to cook for himself. For tomatoes, I like to use San Marzano when available and two of my favorite brands are La Fede or Pastene...but I also like Cento and Pope too. If I cannot find them, I will use Contadina Crushed, which is the standard brand available at Costco. I use the equivalent of two number ten cans in a large pot and add the meats after they have been browned or not...depending on how lazy I am. The meats used are:

    beef, pork and veal
    pork braciole
    hot and sweet Italian sausage
    baby back spare ribs(first choice
    )st louis style ribs (second choice)

    variations will include:
    pork shank or butt
    pork shoulder
    Chicken carcass and/or dark meat

    My winter time sauces will include oxtails or short ribs for sure........ My sister-in-law's paternal grandmother(RIP), who was regarded as the absolute best Italian home cook. made her gravy with a whole chicken in addition to the pork choices....and her gravy was fantastic. iI would suggest you give this a try as well.

    11 Replies
    1. re: fourunder

      I usually use Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes (in the green can). Interestingly enough, Cooks Illustrated recently placed them at the bottom of their ratings. Like you, I usually use a combination of meats -- a browned beef/veal/pork mixture (although sometimes I use all beef) and browned hot Italian sausage. I've never used chicken or ribs, although I've considered using boneless short ribs.

      Funny, although I've eaten red sauces in too many restaurants to count, I can't say I've ever sat down for dinner with a bona fide old-country Italian home cook who knows what real "gravy" is all about.

      1. re: CindyJ

        i grew up italian-american so i have an imprint of the kind of sauce i like best. whether you'd like it is another thing entirely. beef and pork neck bones are two of my secret weapons. :)

        there are frequent threads on here about recipes and techniques for red sauce. many of them are akin to heresy for me, lol.

        i also make a distinction between a long-cooked meat sauce vs. a quick summer sauce of in-season tomatoes and basil.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          I make the same distinction between long-cooking meat sauce and quick-cooking, meatless fresh tomato sauce. That fresh tomato sauce is truly one of the gifts of summer's bounty. Tomatoes + basil + garlic = perfection!

          1. re: CindyJ

            contrary to what most americans think, not all italian dishes have garlic. when i make this summer sauce i never use garlic.

            1. re: hotoynoodle

              For me, garlic is the "spice of life." (Now I'm wondering -- is garlic a spice? It's not an herb. Maybe it's actually a vegetable... no matter...) You should see how excited I get when fresh garlic becomes available at my local farm stand. Oh, I can think of a few Italian specialties where garlic just wouldn't work (gelato, biscotti, tiramisu...), but in savory dishes, for me, garlic adds a level of flavor that enhances everything around it. A summer sauce made with fresh tomatoes and basil would be delicious; but how could a little garlic NOT make it better?

              1. re: CindyJ

                lol, it's a member of the lily (allium) family, just like onions, leeks and scallions, so yes, a vegetable.

                1. re: CindyJ

                  Because it changes the dish. It's like adding pepper to a salad of tomatoes, salt and olive oil. Now I really like pepper, but the first time I left it out the flavor of the other ingredients came together in a way that the pepper had overpowered before. Or adding pepperoni to a cheese pizza, sure it's good but then the cheese is overwhelmed. I use garlic every day, but it's also nice to have something without it too.

                  1. re: escondido123

                    i like garlic too, but my accent weapons of choice remain salt and acid. 2 items that most home cooks really skimp on.

                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      You just reminded me of another reason I like garlic so much -- as far as I know, it hasn't (yet) been declared harmful to your health.

        2. re: fourunder

          fourunder -- a question about your meatballs (from the linked thread) -- I assume the milk-soaked bread used in place of breadcrumbs. Is that correct?

          1. re: CindyJ

            Yes.....unless, I'm out of day old bread, then I use fresh.

        3. No, the "best sauce" cannot be determined by some objective criteria.
          I made a simple sauce last night, crushed tomatoes (from the supermarket, not imported, probably Hunt's), olive oil, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, basil.
          Yes, as good as any in a restaurant.
          In fact, red sauce is one of those things, IMO, that is (almost) always better at home than in a restaurant. It's not hard to do. Just make sure it's cooked down, not watery.

          20 Replies
          1. re: wyogal

            I agree with wyogal in the subjectiveness of tomato sauce, largely because of peoples' differing preferences as regards sweet vs. acid, and levels of garlic and hot pepper. Red sauce is so easy to make that even folks who only cook occasionally can make one (from scratch or by doctoring up storebought sauce) that their families will enjoy.

            1. re: wyogal

              Hunt's is one brand of crushed tomatoes I generally don't use. Tuttorosso and Cento are my go-to brands. I often find San Marzano tomatoes too sweet for my liking. But I'm heavy-handed with the garlic, onions and oregano, and I think that's what packs a powerful flavor punch in my sauce.

              1. re: CindyJ


                I like the yellow cans myself.....Cento, Pope and Pastene. There's a local NJ importer/supplier that packs some nice tomatoes as well, La Fede Brand.

                I keep threatening to try POMI in the seems to be well received.

                1. re: fourunder

                  I wouldn't bother with POMI. I tried once (years ago mind you). It tasted like bad tomato soup. Stick with ones you like.

                2. re: CindyJ

                  I've stopped adding dried herbs, oregano, basil, fennel to my sauce. I get those flavors from the Italian sausage. Of course I haven't made a meatless sauce in years. If I were then I would. I've been adding a couple of anchovie filets with a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes. Very important to cook them a bit before adding the tomatoes. I usually do it after the onions and garlic have sweated by pushing them aside and cooking the filets with a bit tomato paste on the open bottom of the pan. If you don't give them a bit of a cooking it can tastge fishy. As it is anyone would be hard pressed to tell they are there. Still they add a nice layer to the overall flavor.

                  I'll go with no you can't really judge the best sauce. I like it to have a strong, sweet (but not sugary) tomato flavor, not too herby and some good meats, sausage and pancetta.


                  1. re: JuniorBalloon

                    I often add anchovies to my sauce, too. I add them after the ground meat has browned. I let them cook in the fat that has rendered from the meat until they disintegrate and become one with the contents of the pot. Then I add some tomato paste, let it cook a bit on the bottom of the pot, then incorporate it into the meat mixture.

                    As for dried herbs -- I do use dried oregano -- on the stem, when I can get it. Otherwise I use Penzey's Turkish oregano. Dried crushed peppers -- always. Dried basil -- never. I do use fresh basil, added at the very end of cooking, when it's in season.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      I usually add a bit of fish sauce, as I generally don't have just a few anchovies sitting around.

                      1. re: Bada Bing

                        I've also used anchovy paste in the tube. It's not a bad substitute and you can use as much or as little as you like.

                        1. re: Bada Bing

                          Having anchovies on hand is deffinitely an issue. I also have issues with tomato paste. I never use a whole can and invariably some of it goes bad. On another red sauce thread someone said they freeze the tomato paste rolled up in some plastic wrap. Actually works very well. So now I'm trying the same thing with anchovies.


                          1. re: JuniorBalloon

                            One can dry tomato paste, too. Like fruit leathers.

                            1. re: wyogal

                              Thats what stattu appears to resemble........... ultra dried tomato paste . Dark blackish / purple, condenced and zestful.

                            2. re: JuniorBalloon

                              Anchovies stay in a jar covered with oil in the fridge for months

                              1. re: scunge

                                I was buying the jarred anchovies, but one time I used them after they'd turned, a turned anchovie smells pretty much like an unturned anchovie, and that was no fun.

                                Wyogal, how do you dry the paste?


                                1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                  I haven't actually done it, but an currently drying some other things, and the description is in a great cookbook... The Back Country Kitchen. One just spreads it on the plastic sheets like fruit leather and dry it in a dehydrator or a low oven (on plastic on a baking sheet). Many of the recipes in the book call for a half can of tomato paste, one would just split the can into measured amounts on the sheets. Then when like leather, peel off and store.

                                  1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                    Low heat in the oven for the paste turn, it stir it and have patience .My anchovies covered in oil never get stinky .......I would refrain from any product in a tube especially anchovies

                                  2. re: scunge

                                    anchovies keep forever. yeah, they smell pretty pungent to begin with, but it's preserved fish! the oil or the salt will keep them for your grandchildren.

                                  3. re: JuniorBalloon

                                    I put teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper and freeze them, then bag the frozen dollops. Sometimes all you want is a small amount, so this works for me.

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                I always liked the Progresso peeled plumb tomatoes with garlic and basil in the 32 oz can. I have not been able to find them anywhere withi 100 miles lately??? Often times I would take a can for lunch and eat the whole thing. I pulled up Progresso's website and found no metion of them???.

                              2. re: wyogal

                                I made a simple sauce like this last night, to be used in eggplant parmigiana. I had a quart bag of tomatoes I froze last summer (from a friend's garden). Used those, with just a little olive oil, garlic and fresh basil. Then, I tossed in 2-3 small pieces of rind from some good parmigiana. Oh my! The sauce was truly outstanding. By far the best eggplant parm I've ever made.

                              3. Marcella Hazan's basic tomato sauce has an insane amount of olive oil added to it , oh boy is it great

                                1. It's all in the tomatoes,which (as many have noted) are personal preference. I used to buy san marzano only, but the BPA scare has me buying eden organic. Not as good,but not cancer causing!

                                  I also think the garlic prep is important.. I like thinly sliced garlic that is slowly sauteed.

                                  I don't add meat to mine (I'm veg), so I do try to thicken it up a bit.

                                  One thing that makes a huge difference in how sauce works with pasta (regardless of the sauce components) is conserving a cup or so of pasta water and adding it to the sauce when the pasta is added.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: IndyGirl

                                    Are you saying that you slice the garlic, saute it, add it to your sauce and then simmer the sauce?

                                    I totally agree with you regarding adding a ladle of pasta water to the sauce. I'm curious -- do you finish cooking the pasta in the sauce (I've seen that done on a number of cooking shows), or do you add your sauce to the al dente pasta?

                                    1. re: CindyJ

                                      I saute the garlic and then add my canned tomatoes.

                                      I finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.

                                    2. re: IndyGirl

                                      I too like my garlic sliced thin and sauteed until golden--I have a garlic mandoline just for that purpose. There is also the question of whether you like your sauce chunky--hand squished tomatoes--or smooth--milled tomatoes. At the end, I usually add my pasta to the sauce fairly wet and that provides the liquid--of course quantity of pasta water added depends on how much pasta you're making. I also like to add some cheese and olive oil before serving to give that extra bit of flavor.

                                      1. re: IndyGirl

                                        1 vote here for the muir Glenn brand, or Cento only for canned tomatoes. Most others, for me, have a wierd acidic taste, or are mushy, or have only a musty sweetness but no real tomato taste.

                                        also, +1 on comments about the difference between a quick-cook sauce versus a 'Sunday gravy", or a long-cookig bolognese; these three are all different animals, with different applications and results wanted.

                                        All that said, there is alot of difference of opinion as to what is best and correct, just as any Italian Nona could argue that with her neighbors all day long.

                                        I find, these dishes, for anyone with a food-memory of eating these sauces, has a preference for when it hit them 'this is delicious!", or even, if it was not the best version, the place and time they had it in a setting that set that as 'the version' that resonates for them. This is some of the beauty of home-cooked meals. Place, season, and company that sticks like glue to our foodway memories and makes them precious.

                                        I am still seeking the taste of the Ribolitta soup I ate in a tiny village in Tuscany in '94......

                                        1. re: gingershelley

                                          I love Muir Glenn fire roasted as well!! But they are not in BPA free cans yet, so I have also stopped buying them for the time being.

                                          1. re: gingershelley

                                            Sounds like the perfect excuse to return to that tiny village. :-)

                                            1. re: gingershelley

                                              A little pinch of baking soda helps cut the acidity and does not change the flavor.

                                          2. Not to cause an argument again, but IMPO red sauce is better without a large amount of tomato paste, for me that taste's too "concentrated."