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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 course......in 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. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6063...

    Usually, when I make gravy, I make a large amount so I can have leftovers and have extra for my son to take home...as 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 box....it 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."

                                            1. 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?

                                              The former.

                                              The latter is simply Internet fodder for Chowhounds.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                of course, but reading a thread like this I usually get one or two tips that make a difference for me! That was the pasta water tip for me (from some old long-forgotten thread!).

                                              2. butter and .........................................

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: iL Divo

                                                  Definitely butter to finish and some grated carrot for a little sweetness.

                                                  1. re: EM23

                                                    this is exactly the kind of stuff that is heretical to me, lol.

                                                    butter? carrots? :O

                                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                      At the risk of sending you over the edge Noodle I must tell you that I add garlic to my tomato sauce too! lol

                                                      Truth be told, I didn’t come up with those ingredients - Batali does the grated carrot thing in his sauce and Hazan, the butter, in hers. Heretical but very tasty :-J

                                                      1. re: EM23

                                                        i've had the hazan butter-onion-tomato-sauce thingie. indeed, delish! but so far removed from what i consider red sauce it's like mars and venus! again though, this is because of my family being from many, many miles south of hazan's. the traditions are totally different. sauteing with butter, instead of olive oil, was something i learned as an adult.

                                                        i don't doubt you love your sauce. it's just not what i prefer. the crux of this thread, yeah? :)

                                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                          Oh yeah! I hope you didn't take my reply as nasty because that was not my intent. Maybe I’m using the wrong emoticons to imply tongue in cheek – I’m not a texter. lol
                                                          Sauce is a good thing - yours, mine and everyone else posting here.

                                                          1. re: EM23

                                                            nope! all good. i was chuckling. :)

                                                        2. re: EM23

                                                          Many southern Italians use a mix of finely diced/grated onion, celery and carrots to start their red sauce.

                                                          1. re: EM23

                                                            All my Italian and Croatian relatives including those born in the old country,put some carrot in their tomato gravy. It mellows the acedic taste of the tomato and, to me, its a lot better than adding granulated sugar to the gravy as some do.

                                                            1. re: mudcat

                                                              My Sicilian born grandmother would use celery for that purpose to reduce acidity .I sometimes use fresh fennel in fish .shell fish ,calamari etc.

                                                    2. "is the "best sauce" simply the one you like best?"

                                                      Yes. In my opinion, it has to do with memories of what you grew up with (if you did grow up with a red sauce in the household) and personal taste. It has nothing to do with whose recipe is better. I made an amazing long cooked gravy (what we called a meat sauce growing up) this past weekend for a dinner party. When transferring it from the pot I cooked it in to a container for storage in the fridge, I found myself eating the last few spoonfuls (and I'm talking about a large cooking spoon) of the sauce straight from the pot. It was just that damn good! I don't think anyone on this board could ever do better. ;)

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: ttoommyy

                                                        Born in the late 1800's my Sicilian born grandmother cherished both basil and strattu as ingredient's for a more than good sauce. Pork neck bones or pork skin for the Sunday meal with sausage and pulpetti as second added ingredients and never, never sugar .Strattu also made the marinara somewhat tangy or better yet zesty with of course oregano,and onions .Fridays in Brooklyn fried (or broiled) fish with pasta and you were in heaven .Whiting fired and cold ya couldn't beat it

                                                      2. EVOO and butter really smooths out a red sauce. The butter especially was a surprise to me.

                                                        1. iMHO the best tomato sauce involves (at least) three distinct categories : the kind that takes a long time, the fresh sort, and the kind that goes on pizza. The first is best to me if made with a soffrito, spices (I like nutmeg and fennel seed and back pepper), and no garlic. For fresh I like garlic (sliced and cooked over very low heat in plenty of olive oil) and basil. For pizza, it needs oregano. As for tomatoes in cans, I like Cento. I also agree with the post on salt and acid. I usually ook with a dry white wine because I like the acidity.

                                                          1. Well, the best sauce is what you like best. But what will most people like best?

                                                            For a meatless sauce that cooks pretty quickly, I like to add heat by simmering a sliced fresh chile or two (like a serrano or hotter) with the initial oil, and I pull the chiles when the sauce itself seems hot enough. I think that the freshness of the chile heat is a bit more vibrant than what one gets from dried pepper flakes or cayenne powder. Also, I add some fish sauce or anchovies at very modest levels.

                                                            1. Like otthers here, I think of sauce in two categories--the long-simmered kind w/meats and the quickly
                                                              cooked meatless kind. I just made a pot of the latter for veal parmigiano.

                                                              The secret to a good simple meatless sauce--to me--is a fresh, bright taste (and color). I don't want it too darkly red, pasty, or sweet. For me, good canned tomatoes matter most (and there are several options available; they don't have to be San Marzano, but I do want to start with whole "italian" tomatoes). I start with some chopped onion sauteed in olive oil, then add garlic, some dried red pepper flakes, the tomatoes, and a rind of parmigiano. I might add a splash of white wine and sometimes a pinch of dried oregano. Fresh basil if I have it. Don't now but I did throw in couple of sprigs of fresh thyme. It's ready in about 30 minutes.

                                                              My aunt's (now deceased) mother was a southern Italian woman who lived most of her life in Binghamton, NY. She was an AMAZING cook. When I asked her once, after an incredible feast, how she made her sauce (the meatless version she used for so many of her creations) so I could write it down, she said "you don't need a recipe. Brown some good Italian sausage in some oive oil. Remove the sausage and use it for one of the other dishes [there always were many other dishES]. Add some good Italian tomatoes. Break them up. Add some salt and dried peppers. That's it." I've tried that, but I've never replicated that sauce.

                                                              1. I don't eat meat, so I'm of the "meatless" red sauce group. I can't believe no one has mentioned a good glug of red wine in their red sauce!! Also, since I don't use meat I will add some hearty mushrooms to my sauce. In the summer I'll use fresh tomatoes and in the winter I'll use canned San Marzanos. Good evoo, slivered garlic, and always fresh basil. Salt & pepper and basically that is it!

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: Barbara76137

                                                                  Yes!!!!! red wine ,or white or whatever sure wine .I also like olives,capers ,fennel .

                                                                2. Along with the standard spices, basil, garlic, etc.: Red wine, finely grated Romano cheese, and finely chopped anchovies.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: malibumike

                                                                    Scunge, in my opinion, when you start adding olives & capers then it starts turning into a Puttanesca vs. a basic red sauce. Malibumike, I think I'll have to melt an anchovy into my sauce. Never tried it but I would imagine it would give a warm, toasty taste. I make a pasta with broccoli, garlic & oil and although it has a good deal of anchovy in it, most people can't figure it out. I've even had people ask if there was bacon in it!

                                                                  2. First of all, according to my wife it is 'gravy' not 'sauce.' But according to me it is sauce, and I give her agita by still calling it that after 52 years of marriage. When she makes it, it's an all day affair. It needs to have Italian sausage, baby back ribs and beef stew meat in it. The canned tomatoes need to be of a given brand as does the tomato paste. The dried seasonings must be what is called Italian Seasonings, you know, a mixture of 6 kinds of dried herbs, plus fresh Italian parsley senza (without) stems. I personally prefer not to eat at Italian restaurants because their stuff is not as good as my wife's stuff, plus my not being of Italian heritage I've seen enough pasta for 3 lifetimes.

                                                                    OH! DON'T FORGET THE PARMIGIANO REGGIANO! And it needs to be grated in ribbons for my wife. Oy! I forgot to mention garlic, and she does not like the 'sauce' to be 'arrabbiata salsa rossa.' The Italians use the word for angry (arrabbiata) to describe food as spicy.

                                                                    Vivi, ama, ridi e mangia bene! (Live, love, laugh and eat well!) In bocca al lupo! (Good luck!)

                                                                    1. To me, it's all about the tomatoes.

                                                                      I remember last year, I was growing an Italian slicing variety not really known for sauce making.

                                                                      So, as usual, I keep it simple. Sauteed a couple cloves of garlic in olive oil, then discarded. Tossed in a fresh sliced peperoncino, a handful of basil, and a bunch of tomatoes, roughly chopped, seeds, skins, and all. Sprinkled some salt over it and cooked it down for about 40 mins. I then ran it through a food mill. The pectin was incredible and really helped tighted it up.

                                                                      Now mind you, this was made of the most basic/simplest of ingredients.
                                                                      Wouldn't you know, it tasted JUST LIKE CHEF-BOY-ARDEE!!!!!! WTF?!?! It was uncanny...pun intended! It was strange.

                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                      1. re: Novelli

                                                                        It is about the tomatoes. The same variety of tomato grown in different soils will taste different. I have noticed the same thing in my garden sometimes. Using the same brand of canned tomatoes you may have experienced a taste change in your sauce even though you prepared the sauce exactly the same way. When I first noticed this I thought it may have the spices. I came to realize however it was the tomatoes after tasting from several cans of the same brand over a period of several weeks. It wasn't too subtle a difference either. Now I taste every can I open before I add to the pot.

                                                                      2. A bright red colour appeals to me, with some simple herbs, especially basil.

                                                                        1. In an attempt to stay on topic, I'd say that the best is the one that you like the best.

                                                                          Since you said you are not asking for recipes, I won't mention that whatever you determine the best to be, adding marijuana to it will make it better.

                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                          1. re: Bryan Pepperseed

                                                                            Byran, I guess it will definately make you want to eat more haha.

                                                                            1. re: malibumike

                                                                              Only had it once decades ago, but there wasn't a drop of sauce left on anyones plate or in the pan. - Plates were licked when the bread ran out.

                                                                              Wasn't really paying attention to how much the chef put in, but since we were all kind of broke back then I don't think it was more than a tablespoon at most.

                                                                              It's still the best sauce I've ever had.

                                                                          2. For the long cooked meat version, bones of some sort are essential (as pointed out by others). Also, fry your tomato paste in the leftover drippings of your browned meat (pour off most of the oil) and deglaze with red wine.

                                                                            1. While everyone/anyone can offer advice & their opinions re: this, "What makes a great red pasta sauce really great" will ALWAYS be in the eye of the beholder. (Or is that in the stomach of the beholder? Lol!)