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Marinara/Red sauce/Tomato Sauce/Gravy Help?

So making the perfect marinara sauce has been a recent quest of mine, so I was hoping some chowhounders could help me out. I should preface the rest of my post with saying that I know the "perfect" marinara is different for everyone, and while I am open to different opinions, the kind of marinara I'm trying to achieve is a full-bodied marinara with slight sweetness but also a bit spicy, just a little heat. I don't care if it's "authentic" or not, just tasty. So, a few questions ...

1. Wine. What does this contribute exactly to the sauce, aside from imparting the wine taste? I had tried using a red wine before, but I didn't like the bitterness that it left behind. It wasn't a garbage wine or anything, it's something I like to drink, but the degree of bitterness I enjoy in my wine, I don't like in my sauce. I tried another time with white wine, a pinot grigio, and I liked this much better, I thought it cut out some of the tinny and acidic taste of the tomatoes. But I traditionally see recipes call for red wine, so I was wondering what others opinion on this was. Also if you use wine, do you like to add it before the tomatoes and cook it down, or let it cook down along with the sauce?

2. Cooking duration. I always hear Italians talking about how their grandmothers cooked their sauces all day, yet I've seen other sources say that marinara sauce is to be cooked under thirty minutes. One of my Italian friends has also said that he cooks it all day in a crock pot and that it gets rid of the acidity, yet also have seen a poster on here in the past say that doing so brings it out. I want to make marinara with meatballs in the future, so the idea of tossing them in the slow cooker to absorb flavor appealed to me, but if it doesn't make much of a difference I'd rather forgo it.

3. Carrots & celery. I've read in some discussions that the addition of carrots also helps cut the acidity with their sweetness, but when I used carrots and celery in the past it actually seemed to dull the overall flavor. I didn't like the texture it added either, even though they were all finely cut and cooked down before the addition of the sauce. I've found that I don't mind them in a bolognase, but in my marinara, I can't seem to make it work for me.

4. Tomato Paste. Why are some so adamantly against tomato paste? I'd actually prefer if it was omissible, I always use just a tiny bit and have the rest go bad in my fridge!

Sorry for such a long post, and thanks in advance to any feedback!

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  1. First allow me to address the wine you're using; a critical element (IMO) for Marinara sauce. I find that astringency in bitterness is sometimes confused with bitterness. If your wine is "bitter" there is something seriously wrong. If it's simply the astringency you want to avoid, try a medium or light red wine; perhaps a Beaujolais or Pino Noir. Bitterness in your Marinara could be coming from your garlic. It should be the highest quality possible, chopped fine and be added at the end of the saute phase so that it doesn't brown or burn.
    Are you cooking with fresh tomatoes or canned?
    I use a little olive oil in a pan to saute onions, peeled/chopped carrot and chopped celery (I string the celery before chopping it) and when the onions are translucent and other veggies are softened I add some chopped garlic and just warm it through before adding the crushed tomatoes, wine, a few herbs and spices and the wine. Then it cooks (uncovered) on low simmer for about an hour to hour and a half until it reduces and becomes thick. It rests in the refrigerator at least 24 hours before using.
    If you're using fresh tomatoes, peel them and remove the seeds. The seeds are highly acidic.

    1 Reply
    1. re: todao

      "If you're using fresh tomatoes, peel them and remove the seeds. The seeds are highly acidic."
      The seeds (or more precisely the watery pulp that contains the seeds) generally have the most intense flavor in the tomato. I'd only really worry about the acidity in them if you're using especially acidic tomatoes in the first place.

      Most often when I'm making sauce from fresh tomatoes, I strain the seeds and reserve the liquid. I then over-reduce the tomato sauce until it looks somewhere between tomato sauce and tomato paste (I've found that it tends to taste better and more intense when it's been overreduced a bit and then rehydrated), and at the end of cooking turn off the heat and add the liquid back in right at the end to rehydrate the sauce. This liquid gives the sauce a real brightness missing from normal cooked sauces - a big hit of fresh, uncooked tomato flavor.

      Of course, using fresh tomatoes is only really worthwhile if you've got good tomatoes, so go with canned if you can't find flavorful fresh ones.

    2. I forget where I read it(maybe Harold McGee) that the alcohol in wine is a solvent for some of the flavors in a tomato. I use 2 cups of an inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon.

      If the texture of carrot and celery bothers you you can puree them in a food processor prior to sautéing them or you can do what I do and use a stick blender to smooth out the sauce after it has been simmering for 2-3 hours. I also add 1 head of finely chopped fennel bulb to the sauce when I can get it for a decent price. Tomato sauce is also a good way to use the woody stems of crimini mushrooms.

      I use an entire small can of tomato paste and add it just before I puree it with a stick blender.

      1. Concerning lengthy cooking times to get rid of acidity, the tomato's acids aren't volatile and, therefore, don't cook away.

        Here are a few ideas or concepts you may want to consider for your tomato sauce:

        Much of the tomato's flavor is found in its skin and jelly (the thick liquid in the center of the tomato that contains the seeds) (the jelly is the most flavorful part of the tomato), so cook your sauce with the tomato's skin and jelly then, once it's finished, pass it through a food mill to strain out the skins and seeds.

        To freshen the flavor of a cooked tomato sauce, add a few leaves from the tomato plant (if you grow your own tomatoes) at the end of the cooking process.

        The tomato's natural flavor can be intensified by adding sugar and/or acidity.

        To shorten the cooking time, quarter the tomatoes and pre-dry them in a low oven. If you still need to cook it down, do so quickly close to the boil. If you cook the tomatoes at too high of a heat for too long, they will release even more moisture that will, in turn, lengthen your cooking time even more.

        6 Replies
        1. re: 1POINT21GW

          I should probably have noted that I use canned tomatoes. I didn't take into consideration quality tomatoes in the past, but I already have some San Marzano tomatoes in my cabinet for next time. I understand that fresh tomatoes are probably best, but I honestly don't really want to do the extra prep every time I want to make a marinara. Maybe I'll try it for special occasions.

          1. re: Nanners84

            Much of those ideas can still be applied to canned whole tomatoes - they still have the jelly and seeds.

            With a food mill, using fresh tomatoes is not all that much more work than using canned tomatoes.

            Also, all San Marzano tomatoes are not created equal. Their flavor will vary from brand to brand and, sometimes, from one canned batch to another within a particular brand. Cook's Illustrated just recently (March 2012) rated whole tomatoes and the only two that earned their "Recommended" designation were Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes (I know, hard to believe, the organic stuff usually ranks at or near the bottom, but not this time) and Red Gold Whole Peeled Tomatoes. These two ranked higher than any of the San Marzano tomatoes they tested.

            1. re: 1POINT21GW

              Huh, well I haven't tried using the canned whole tomatoes yet, so I'm a little disappointed that they require extra work, I thought I would just be able to hand crush them or put them in a food processor. And I don't own a food mill, so there's that. And I know on these boards people always insist that an extra step isn't that much more work, but personally, to me, it is. I feel that I already put more work into prepping certain foods than I can really afford, out of my love for food, so all the small shortcuts really add up and save me some time and trouble. Especially since some extra steps require using other appliances, and therefore more washing, and I don't own a dishwasher and have a very small sink. So if I ever get a food mill, and I want to spend the extra time to make an especially spectacular marinara, I'll keep your advice in mind. But I'd like to be able to make a good marinara with low-maintenance tomatoes.

              Interesting about the San Marzano tomatoes. I actually haven't seen this Muir Glen brand that I keep hearing about in any of my local stores, nor have I heard of Red Gold (though I've never sought that one out). I'd like to know what are the most cost-efficient tomatoes! San Marzano tomatoes at over $3 makes making my own less cost-efficient than jar sauces, which is half the reason why I do it.

              1. re: Nanners84

                I agree with you 100% on everything you said.

                I am not interested in extra steps unless I can tell a marked difference and that difference outweighs the time, energy, and money I put into that extra step.

                With that said, to be honest, I wouldn't worry about having seeds in my tomato sauce one bit. Yeah, I know, I know, they're bitter. Right. But, have you ever had a tomato seed in your mouth with nothing else and tried to bite it intentionally? It's extraordinarily hard to do. So, the way I look at it is if I can't even bite into a tomato seed on purpose, I'm not going to worry about them being in my tomato sauce when they comprise such a tiny percentage of the total makeup. Texture maybe, but there again, is it worth the extra time, energy, and money (of buying a food mill specifically for this purpose? The only reason I would pass it through a food mill if I were you is if I already had one, and even then, I might not unless the skins were in there too.

                Concerning the top two whole canned tomatoes, I made a mistake that I will go back and correct. (Nevermind, I just realized I can't. I am not a fan of this forum's platform at all. Chowhound should look into the far superior vBulletin.) I am so glad you pointed this out to me. The number two brand of whole canned tomatoes is not Red Gold (they're number three and have the designation "Recommended with Reservations"), it's Hunt’s Whole Plum Tomatoes. These are going to be your best bang for your buck. I'm sorry about that mistake. I copied and pasted the wrong line. Thank you for helping see that mistake.

                1. re: Nanners84

                  I would never put marinara sauce through a food mill - I prefer mine to have a bit of texture, and if you food mill it you not only remove the seeds, you end up with a very smooth sauce that sort of resembles the texture of plain canned tomato sauce. Typical of Italian-American "gravy" and other long-cooked sugos mentioned below, but not what I want in a marinara. Whole canned tomatoes break down much more readily than canned diced tomatoes anyway (manufacturers use a chemical to firm up the diced ones so they keep their shape in the can), and the seeds are a non-issue, IMO.

                  BTW, as far as cost effective tomatoes are concerned, Costco carries the Nina brand of San Marzano tomatoes - they're about $5 for a 6-pound can I believe, maybe a little cheaper. They are delicious and one of those things that really makes Costco worth the price of admission for me, since good tomatoes are so expensive at regular grocery stores.

                  1. re: Nanners84

                    i'm a culinary school grad, a frequent entertainer of large groups of friends in my own home and a restaurant lifer. i don't own a food mill. i don't want my tomato sauce to be silky smooth and yeah, it's a pretty large gadget that i would almost never use.

                    i never use carrots or celery in any versions of my sauce. my family didn't, so that's the imprint preference for me. same with sugar. i don't like sweet sauce. i expect acidity -- it's made from tomatoes. not candy.

                    marinara is a simple, quick-cooked sauce. start with good quality tomatoes. a bit of garlic/onion. easy hand on the seasonings. easy-peazy.

            2. It's traditional in some parts / some recipes to use white wine in tomato based sauces so go with what you like. I always use white wine, just how I was brought up.
              And I always start with the triumvirate of carrot celery onion.
              I also like tomato paste and dried chilli flakes for kick.

              Yep, remove seeds if you can be bothered. And skins for the final texture but yes, that takes away flavour. lots of garlic, big flavoured olive oil.

              I'll simmer for a minimum of an hour, by then the flavours have melded and sugars released for that natural sweetness you want. Simmering all day doesn't taste much different to me.


              1. I have been making Tomato Sauce/Gravy for over 45 years now. It was taught to me by my MIL, who was born in Calabria, Italy in 1913. She just celebrated her 99th B'day last March. Her gravy/sauce was excellent and I am so happy she let me watch and learn her recipe.

                I have changed it a bit, but not too much. Before I knew the "why's", I just followed her instructions. But, I believe that the best gravy/sauceflavor comes from "meat bones". So I add more meat than she did, even though if she could have afforded more meat back then with 6 children, she would have added it. So beef neck bones, pork bones, pigs feet and the only non-bone meat to my list is Italian hot sausage. I put a couple of each kind in my sauce and saute them to brown everything. The hot sausage gives it the "kick", I like.

                I also believe that good canned tomatoes cannot be compared to what was available when I was growing up or even twenty years ago. I have not found bitterness in any canned product I use, but I do use "good canned" tomatoes.

                About the paste in sauce/gravy, I use a small can. And I fry it after I have sauteed my meat, I add a can. It gets dark and less raw (a quote from my MIL).

                Wine, red or white, to me it doesn't matter. But, I don't add that much and my MIL never added any.

                For cooking times, my rule of thumb is this. After 3 or 4 hours, you will see the oil floating on the top (seperated), and then it's done.

                Meatballs? I only add them about 1/2 hr. before I plan on serving them. I don't cook my sauce/gravy with them in it. And most of the time, I seperate and freeze my gravy for future use. And will only make meatballs as I reheat my sauce, then add them.

                I never add carrot, celery nor onion. I only add minced garlic, bay leaf, salt/red and black pepper.
                I have tried Giada's recipe and even though you blend it, I couldn't find any added depth of flavor.

                I don't use a slow cooker to cook my sauce/gravy. I make it on a morning that I will be around the house to make it. But one of my son's makes it sometimes in his slow cooker and says it's a great and convenient way of cooking it without being home to babysit it.

                I also feel like people should like their own sauce and gravy. Every person is different and every gravy/sauce is a little bit different. If you put love into yours, it will be wonderful. :)


                9 Replies
                1. re: mcel215

                  MCE ...pretty much agree with all you do, but at times I will add a little sugar for some balance if needed, some hot pepper flakes if I do not have the hot sausage.

                  1. re: PHREDDY

                    I am always tempted to add sugar, but one of my good friends gets so highly offended by this, and claims a good sauce should never need it, that I'd like to find a way around it. I agree with using hot pepper flakes though, that's a must for me. I have to be really careful not to use too much, because while the heat is fine for me, others can't stand it.

                    1. re: Nanners84

                      Since canned tomatoes differ in sweetness, acidity, and overall flavor balance from brand to brand and, sometimes, from can to can within brands, no hard and fast "rule" can be applied to how much sugar a particular batch of tomato sauce will take to achieve the amount of sweetness you're looking for. Sugar content, just like salt content, can vary from batch to batch (just like with other foods) which is one of the reasons why recipes almost always direct to season to taste. One reason is because everyone's taste is different, but the other reason is because the ingredients in the dish can vary in salt level from batch to batch.

                      With that said, it is not sacrilege to add sugar when making tomato sauce. Italians who live in Italy who make "authentic" tomato sauces of varying types use sugar when needed (not that it takes that to validate this concept). Ultimately, if you taste the sauce and you want it sweeter, add sugar. It's no different than if you tasted the sauce and wanted it to be saltier (you'd add salt without feeling guilty) or you wanted it to have some basil (you'd add basil without feeling guilty) or any other flavor you wanted to have. It's just tomato sauce. We're not making a bomb. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong way to make it. And, on top of that, it's your tomato sauce - you should make it how you want it.

                      With me, at the end of the day, how something tastes wins out over whether or not I made it like others wanted me to make it. If it tastes good and the texture's right, then I've won. If not, then I've got more work to do. My goal is to enjoy my food, not to be bound to inconsequential "authentic" rules.

                      1. re: 1POINT21GW

                        I definitely agree with you with ignoring the "rules" of supposed "authentic" methods, and just to make something tasty to your own liking. =) The whole thing about the sugar for me is just due to an implicit rivalry I have with my friend, it's the only thing I want to avoid. I know, I know, it's petty. I definitely don't look down on using sugar, it's just a strange goal I have, to achieve the sauce without using it.

                        1. re: Nanners84

                          Ah, I see. Well, there are plenty of ways to add sugar without adding granulated sugar. You could reduce the tomatoes in a very low oven, you could caramelize onions and/or garlic as others have suggested , you could add a small amount of balsamic vinegar (as mentioned before, adding sugar and acid brings out the natural flavors of the tomato even more) (yes, it will add a little acid to your final product, but you might find it welcomed and it's not going to be that much anyway), and there's also making sure the tomatoes you're putting into your sauce (be it canned or fresh) have a natural sweetness that's helps you achieve what you're looking for..

                      2. re: Nanners84

                        I will probably be pilloried for this but if my sauce needs a little sweetness I put a tablespoon or two of ketchup in it. > :hangs head in shame:<

                        1. re: kengk

                          "I will probably be pilloried for this but if my sauce needs a little sweetness I put a tablespoon or two of ketchup in it."

                          Mamma mia!!!!!

                    2. re: mcel215

                      Thanks for all the information! While I do love my meat, I would like to be able to achieve a flavorful marinara without using meat, as I don't always have it on hand. When would you add the tomato paste if you weren't using meat? I usually saute onion and garlic, add wine and reduce, then add tomato paste, but I don't think it would "fry" with the other liquids in there.

                      Do you keep the lid off the entire cooking time? What I wonder about slow-cookers, is that you would have to keep the lid on, and I imagine a lot of condensation would occur and it wouldn't reduce, though it does sound convenient!

                      And amen to individual preferences, to each their own ... gravy. =)

                      1. re: Nanners84

                        I would add the tomato paste "to fry" it, after you saute the onion and garlic. I usually just fry it for a minute or two. You do need to stir it a bit so it doesn't burn while you cook it. My mother in law insisted this gets the raw flavor out of the paste. Then I add my wine and canned tomatoes.

                        After a few attempts with different ingredients and flavors, you will devlop a sauce/gravy to call your own. Both of my sons make my recipe, but have added different seasonings to their tastes. To me, as long as sauce/gravy doesn't come from a jar, it tastes good. :)


                    3. "Tomato Paste. Why are some so adamantly against tomato paste? I'd actually prefer if it was omissible, I always use just a tiny bit and have the rest go bad in my fridge! "

                      Buy one of those tubes of tomato paste for when you just want a tiny bit. Near as I can tell it never goes bad.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: kengk

                        Our recipe calls for a whole can.

                        1. re: melpy

                          if you're on;y using bits of paste at a time, portion out the rest, wrap each in plastic and freeze. i do this with harissa also.

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            I just scoop the can into a freezer baggie, smash it flat and freeze it. You can then break off chunks as necessary - way less work than portioning it out. I do it with chipotles in adobo as well.

                      2. The most traditional marinara sauce is made using olive oil, chopped garlic, basil or oregano - either dried of fresh - and tomatoes - either fresh or tinned. No meat, no vegetables, no wine, short cooking time.

                        Having said that there are as many variations on this theme as there are people making the sauce. If the sauce you are currently making is too acidic for you it could be that you have to change the brand of tomatoes you are buying, and experiment till you find one that's less acidic.

                        My Italian family have used Pastene Kitchen Ready tomatoes from the time the company was founded. And for years and years I used nothing but. Recently I changed to the tetra-boxed Pomi brand and like them even more. So you do have to seek out what you like the taste of best.

                        Here's a very serviceable recipe that's a good reference. Although the chef adds water to the tomatoes I don't do that. However, once in a while I'll add a splash of either red or white wine but usually I don't do that either.


                        1. My marinara sauce is the utmost in simplicity. Finely chop some garlic, and briefly cook in some olive oil. Don't allow it to brown. Meanwhile, have a can of Italian peeled tomatoes pureed. As soon as the garlic has cooked for about a minute or so, pour in the tomatoes and add some salt. For a basic marinara, let it cook for 30-45 minutes. This simple preparation really lets the taste of the tomatoes shine through.

                          You can use this sauce as a base for many other tomato sauces. For example, if you make meatballs, you would add them to this sauce, and cook it for a good 90 minutes or so. I usually add sauteed sausage and a piece of sauteed pork to my sauce as well. This is the long-simmering sauce to which you refer. But this marinara base can also be used for putanesca. Just add chopped calamata olives, anchovies, capers, red pepper flakes and parsley. Or make telephone wire pasta by adding the cooked pasta to the simmered sauce, and tossing in some small pieces of mozzarella. My mother would also make a thin variation of this by using tomato juice instead of the pureed tomatoes, and she'd add pasta and peas or pasta and beans to this thinner sauce. Really, the variations are endless, and this basic sauce lends itself to many, many additions.

                          Every Italian has his own way of making sauce, but in our house, it was this very simple sauce that was the base of many, many meals.

                          1. 1) Some of the flavors of a tomato are alcohol soluble, so theoretically wine adds depth and dimension to a sauce. You generally want to avoid adding it right at the end of the cooking, especially if you use a lot of it, because you won't cook off any of the alcohol. All that said, if you don't enjoy red wine, there's no reason at all that you can't use white instead or else omit completely. You can make an excellent marinara sauce without any wine at all.

                            2) Generally, there's no need to cook a tomato sauce all day or for several hours unless you're making a ragu or something where you're cooking down tough meat for a long time. Excepting those kinds of sauces, you can still choose to cook a tomato sauce for a relatively short time (20 minutes) or a longer time (an hour or so) depending on what effect you want. A shorter-cooked sauce tends to taste a little fresher and tends to be a little looser in texture. A longer cooked sauce is less prone to separating (short cooked sauces made from fresh tomatoes are especially prone to separation) and it often has a little more intensity of flavor. As I mentioned above, I find that I prefer the flavor of a sauce that has been cooked until it has reduced to a thicker consistency than normal and then rehydrated at the end of cooking, because I think you get a more intense, deeper flavor that way.

                            3) Not a huge fan of either celery or carrots in a marinara sauce myself. Carrots for the same reason you mentioned - I feel like they dull the flavor of the sauce. Celery adds its own thing, and I'm just not usually looking for that particular flavor. I do use onions though. Don't feel bad about not using em. To each his own.

                            4) I don't normally use tomato paste. Tomato paste has two advantages - it adds a bit of sugar, and it ups the intensity of flavor. I find that the over-reduced/rehydrated kind of sauce develops that kind of intensity without tomato paste. And I often (though not always) sprinkle a tiny bit of sugar into the sauce near the end of cooking. So I have nothing against tomato paste, but I don't find I need it.

                            5) You mentioned being concerned about acidity. IMO, there are two things you can do to moderate an overly acidic sauce. You can add a little bit of sugar, which doesn't quite dampen the acidity so much as it brightens it. I suspect the effect of sugar is why you preferred white wine to red and maybe why you like tomato paste in your sauce. The other thing that helps is to use a little more butter and/or olive oil. Cutting a few tablespoons of butter into your sauce right before serving (off the heat) and stirring vigorously while the butter melts and emulsifies into the sauce tends to round out any unpleasantly sharp flavors. Olive oil does this too, though not quite as much as butter.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              Thanks for the helpful reply! It's funny, I don't mind drinking red wine, in fact I drink it more than white, but I don't like it in my sauce. And I've used relatively smooth and light-bodied red wines in my past attempts.

                              Good to know that the long cooking times usually apply to ragus, makes much more sense now. How long do you usually end up cooking your sauce to get to your desired consistency?

                              Glad I'm also not alone with thinking carrots dull the sauce, I thought I was just doing something wrong!

                              I'll definitely try using butter in the future, but for petty reasons, I refuse to use sugar. My good friend who is sort of my cooking rival gets highly offended by the use of sugar in marinara and is adamant about being able to make a good sauce without it. While using white wine may be my roundabout way of adding sugar, I just want to be able to say that I made a good sauce without using granulated sugar from the box, lol.

                              1. re: Nanners84

                                Your friend needs to calm down on this particular point. Of course good sauce can be made without sugar, but it can also be made with sugar - it's just a question of whether or not you like a bit of sweetness. I make tomato sauce with or without sugar, depending on my mood, the other elements in the meal, whether or not there is going to be meat or some other ingredient in the sauce, whether I'm planning to put cheese on it or not (and what kind), or the position of the moon in Virgo. I would also bet that your friend would never know that you used sugar if if you had him/her taste a well balanced sauce that you made.

                                Anyway, if you feel like your sauce should be sweeter but you still don't want to use sugar, there are a number of things you can do. Use a Vidalia or other sweet onion. Use a ton of pureed roasted garlic. Add a dollop of molasses (which adds another umami dimension that you may or may not like). Use a little Marsala instead of or in addition to wine. Use some tomato paste and let it caramelize before adding other liquids. Etc.

                              2. re: cowboyardee

                                this response covers my bases as well. :)

                                there are lighter, fresher tomato sauces, without meat, that are fairly quick to cook and there are heavier affairs with all sorts of oogly bits that need to be cooked down for many hours. they each have a place in the kitchen. i make big batches of both and freeze.

                                my marinara is onions, dried thyme, red pepper flakes, garlic, bay leaf and canned or fresh tomatoes. saute the onions, thyme, chili flakes and the bay leaf. when the onions are translucent, add the garlic, stir for a second and then add the tomatoes. i cook for about 30 minutes or so with canned, a bit less with fresh. if i have it, i will add some fresh chopped basil at the end. add salt and pepper to taste.

                                i think your basic issue is using good quality tomatoes to begin the sauce. no amount of carrots or sugar will fix craptastic-tasting tomatoes.

                              3. I am one of those who does not use tomato paste in any quantity because I feel it adds a strong flavor that can overwhelm the rest. If I find I have a particularly watery canned tomato that does not soften and reduce well, I will add a squirt of tomato paste from the tube I keep in the fridge, but that is a rare event. If the tomato flavor is really weak, I may also finely dice some sundried tomato packed in olive oil and add that. My basic marinara is sliced garlic sauteed until golden in olive oil, can of good plum tomatoes either crushed by hand (my preference) or put through the food mill (my husband's preference.) If I'm keeping it really simple, S & P are the only other additions, though I will add a slice of lemon zest if the sauce is bitter (for some reason that sweetens it up.) From there it can be as simple as a handful or two of fresh herbs--parsely, sage, oregano, thyme, basil, marjoram--or as complicated as sauteed mushrooms and/or chopped oil-cured black olives, even cubed/browned proscuitto if I'm not staying vegetarian.

                                1. Great question. Yes, everyone has their favorite marinara sauces, some "authentic" and some not. I've experimented with many variations on the issues you've raised, and while I don't have a set recipe, so every batch is a bit different, here's how I handle your specific questions:

                                  1) Wine. The type of wine you use is very important, as much (if not more so) than the quality. Cabernet sauvignon is usually high in tannins, and while can be desirable while drinking, is not while cooking. Syrah's can be too fruity. There was a Cook's Illustrated piece on this a few years ago, you might be able to find their results. I try to use a Cotes de Rhone for cooking, something in the $10 range. It's a balanced wine made with several grapes. I find that balance does well in dishes, whereas single varietals (cab, merlot, syrah, zin, etc.) exaggerate their strengths to the point they are undesirable - there are exceptions for some dishes and techniques, but I find a Cote de Rhone always works well in a marinara. Yes, alcohol brings out flavors from tomatoes that are only alcohol soluble. But there's not a ton of alcohol in wine, and you don't want to turn your sauce into a wine sauce. I throw in about a 1/2 to 1 cup for 4 28oz cans whole tomatoes.

                                  2) Duration - I shoot for 2-5 hours. Under that, I don't get the flavor development I want. More than that, I don't see a point.

                                  3) Carrots and celery - Yes. Plus onion. For around 4, 28 oz cans of whole tomatoes, I'll throw in 1-2 carrots, each cut into 2-3 pieces, ditto with celery. 1 onion, quartered. After cooking, I pull the chunks out. That way you get the flavor (and importantly, the sweetening from the the carrot), without dealing with pieces in the final sauce.

                                  3b) Meat - Yes, you didn't ask about this, but I have found this crucial. I throw in some mpork. Either a 1 pound hunk of shoulder, or some country-style ribs (both cheap). Maybe I'll brown the meat first to get some Maillard, and then brown the carrots/celery/onion, then throw in the tomatoes. Sometimes not. In either case, the meat adds a flavor depth to the sauce. I will never make a marinara that does not have a meat added.

                                  4) Paste - sometimes yes. sometimes no. I don't know why some are opposed to paste, makes no sense to me. It's just concentrated tomatoes, so what's the big deal? Paste has umami flavor, like mushrooms and some meat. So why not? Adding it doesn't make it better, or worse. Just different. If you like adding a few TBS paste, fire away. Why not?

                                  I use a mixture of whole and crushed. Add the elements above (sometimes browned ahead of time, sometimes not) plus the wine (plus a little garlic, and good amounts of black pepper and salt, and sometimes a touch of nutmeg). When sauce is done, I pull the chunks (onion, carrots, celery, meat), and blend the heck out of it with a stick blender. That way, I get all the flavoring, and a smooth sauce, without it being too "vegetably".

                                  1. The simplest marinara is sauteed shallot, garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil. Add a can of hand-crushed peeled tomatoes and shreds of basil. Simmer 20-30 minutes. Sometimes I add a teaspoon or two of sugar.

                                    The other sauces with tomato paste, carrots, meat, wine, and/or anything else and cooked for an hour or more is a "gravy" or what the Italians call a "sugo."

                                    Well, that's my opinion at least. As you can see we all have our own. :)

                                    1. Much has been covered by other posters, but I'll throw in my two cents as well:

                                      1. Wine is optional but there are flavor compounds in tomatoes that are alcohol soluable, so a little wine or other alcohol contributes more than just its own flavor to the sauce - it opens up the full tomato flavor as well. I rarely make a tomato sauce without some type of alcohol for this reason, but it doesn't have to be wine. I use red or white according to my whim, or vermouth (or a splash of vodka or even sherry or Marsala) if I don't have wine.

                                      2. I rarely cook a straight marinara more than 30-40 minutes. Those long cooking times are for Italian-American "gravy," which I don't ever make (and honestly don't really get that excited about, because I find the flavor to be dulled by too much meat and too long a cooking time), and/or things like ragu Bolognese, which is a totally different animal from marinara.

                                      3. Unless I'm making a "marinara with xyz vegetable" (for instance, I occasionally make a marinara with sauteed fennel), I don't use anything other than onions, garlic and/or shallots in my marinara. I don't particularly like celery or carrots, and I think they taste wrong in a marinara (ragu Bolognese is a different story).

                                      4. I use tomato paste if I feel like it. I find it's especially helpful if I don't have time to reduce the sauce to the proper consistency, or if the tomatoes I'm using are especially watery. However, as far as tomatoes go - I NEVER make sauce from fresh tomatoes (with the exception of a roasted cherry tomato sauce, which is not marinara). I think canned plum tomatoes are 100 times better for sauce - they're more consistent, less watery, and you don't have to worry about peeling them, etc. I buy whole San Marzano tomatoes (supposedly the whole ones are higher quality than the pre-crushed, because with pre-crushed they can use second rate, bruised or otherwise undesirable tomatoes in the mix) and crush them myself by hand.

                                      Anyway, as for the rest, I use various ingredients depending on how lazy I'm being that day, what I have in the house, how I'm going to use the sauce, who else is eating it and what's growing in my windowbox. My most basic is a ton of garlic sauteed in olive oil, pinch of red pepper flakes (or not), splash of alcohol, tomatoes, salt. More involved includes onion sauteed in bacon fat, caramelized garlic, red pepper flakes, tomato paste, splash of alcohol, tomatoes, salt, sugar if I think it needs it, dried or fresh thyme, oregano (if my husband isn't eating it, he hates oregano) and/or rosemary, fresh basil at the end (if I have it). I often throw a couple of anchovies into the oil while I'm sauteeing the garlic for an umami hit, or I just use nam pla (fish sauce) if I don't have anchovies or I'm being lazy. Butter to round it out if I feel like it. As I said in another post, I consider the other elements of the meal and adjust accordingly.

                                      As you can see from the variety of answers on this thread, there really are no rules! Given that you are looking for a "full-flavored" sauce with a bit of sweetness, though, I would definitely continue to use tomato paste in your formula, go with a sweeter wine (try Marsala or vermouth, you might really enjoy them), and find a brand of canned tomatoes that you like (unless you grow them yourself or have an amazing source, fresh will probably never give you the results you want). Also try something like anchovies, fish sauce, animal fat or porcini powder for an umami hit.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: biondanonima

                                        Long cooking times are used in southern-Italian "sugos" in Italy. They are not just an Italian-American phenomenom. And they are very delicious when made right. But you are right biondanonima, the are NOT a marinara.

                                      2. As an aside, tomato paste (because of its concentration) can be a cause of heartburn. Once I eliminated the tomato paste from the sauce, the problem went away. Don't know if it would work for others, but just thought I'd pass that along.

                                        1. Here is my recipe, taught to me by my first mother in law, that i still use to this day:

                                          Saute onion and garlic in olive oil in the sauce pot. Add a can of crushed Italian tomatoes. Simmer for an hour on very low heat. Put the mixture through a Foley food mill to smooth it out. Put back in the sauce pot.

                                          Add a can of tomato puree and a can of paste. Smooth it out with a whisk. Bring to a boil and immediately turn the heat to the lowest setting. This is when you add the meat - either meatballs, sweet or hot sausage or brasciole.

                                          Cover and simmer, stirring with a metal spoon so the sauce doesn't stick to the bottom of the saucepot, for about 2-3 hours. Usually at that point I'll make some eggplant parm or lasagna with the sauce.

                                          The Foley food mill is the key. It takes out any seeds or skins and makes it very smooth.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: mrsbuffer

                                            But once you add the meat we have moved beyond a marinara sauce IMHO. For a marinara, strictly vegetarian and done in less than half an hour.

                                            1. re: escondido123

                                              Agreed escondido. What mrsbuffer describes is a long-cooked "sugo" not a marinara.

                                          2. Ok, I'll add my opinions to the chorus, adding as a disclaimer that I don't claim to be the voice of authority here, just throwing in my two cents.

                                            First, I too draw a distinction between marinara and a regular red spaghetti sauce. My understanding is that a marinara is very lightly seasoned and minimally simmered, not really reduced at all. Oil, maybe onion. Garlic, tomatoes, simmered maybe half an hour, and done. The simplest end of the red sauce spectrum, except for a no-cook sauce. I make mine by cooking garlic in olive oil for a scant couple of minutes until it's just golden (NOT brown: I'm told the Italians say "blonde, not brunette"), adding canned ground plum tomatoes and a pinch of oregano, simmering maybe half an hour, and adding a very small amount of basil towards the end, plus a bit of salt & pepper. Light and simple- not spicy, not sweet, not thick..Anything more complex than this IMO is no longer a marinara, and sometimes I don't even use the oregano and basil.

                                            What I call spaghetti sauce is a bit more involved, and more seasoned. There are a few things I always do for this- sautéing onion and a bay leaf in the oil before adding the garlic, precooking the tomato paste in a separate pan (with a bit of water) to deepen the tomato taste and sweeten it up a bit, and seasoning in layers as recommended by Sandra Bowens in this short article: http://www.apinchof.com/layers1020.html That's one technique which really changed the way I approach anything simmered.

                                            Alcohol definitely does release some flavors from tomatoes. But I don't like adding enough that it ends up tasting like a wine sauce. A couple glugs of port added along with the tomatoes is as far as I'll go myself, unless perhaps it was a really robust meaty sauce- then maybe red wine and some beef broth even... Several have suggested vermouth or Marsala, and i know there are those who make a vodka sauce, which in small quantity might enable that alcohol flavor boost effect without any "wineyness" at all. As far as cooking the wine down first, it seems to me that would defeat the purpose of letting the alcohol bring out more flavor from the tomato and probably just result in more pronounced wine taste.

                                            Tomato paste is another issue the OP mentioned, and another variable. To me it's an acceptable way to compensate for not cooking the sauce down all day, especially if the paste is darkened a bit beforehand. I know the old school Italians consider it a shortcut and if I were actually simmering all day long, I might not use tomato paste at all. But I'd say if you aren't planning a long simmer, adding a bit of tomato paste is not sacrilege. I always use some myself. Someone whose opinion I've come to respect once said she gets a pretty good result using equal parts tomato paste and water- no canned tomato at all- but I've never tried this. If I did I'd use distilled water for a livelier flavor, a trick that makes more difference than you might expect in sauces and soups.

                                            Sweetness is another related issue- to me a marinara isn't meant to be sweet at all, but spaghetti sauce can have a bit of sweetness to offset the acidity. If the sauce is cooking for a couple of hours a grated carrot will give enough sweet without adding sugar, and will essentially dissolve in the sauce to the point where it isn't recognizable. For a shorter cook time a bit of sugar to me is acceptable, or even honey. There's a restaurant near Albany that's known for its sauce, and one unusual element I recognized in it was a touch of honey. If the sauce becomes noticeably sweet I'll finish it with a splash of vinegar to wake it up a little.

                                            As for celery, I don't use it in tomato sauces. Just my taste. But it goes in a lot of the soups I make. I also avoid bell peppers, which can tend to take over.

                                            I do like the suggestion of separating out the seeds and liquid from fresh tomatoes and adding them back after the sauce has been reduced. If ever I'm working with fresh tomatoes I'll try and remember to do that. I'd never heard of adding a couple tomato leaves to a sauce before; might just try that one too someday.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: eclecticsynergy

                                              FWIW: Tomato leaves and stems contain atropine and other tropane alkaloids that are toxic.

                                              1. re: Gio

                                                From Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (p. 331):

                                                "Tomato leaves have long been considered potentially toxic because they contain a defensive alkaloid, tomatine, but recent research has found that tomatine binds tightly to cholesterol molecules in our digestive system, so that the body absorbs neither the alkaloid nor its bound partner. It thus reduces our net intake of cholesterol! (Green tomatoes also contain tomatine and have the same effect.) It's fine, then, to freshen the flavor of tomato sauces with the leaves."

                                              2. re: eclecticsynergy

                                                Wow, that was extremely educational, thanks!

                                              3. I know it's probably late, but may I suggest sauteeing celery onion garlic on high with olive oil, season with salt and pepper once tender-crisp,turn to low add one 8 oz can of tomato paste and a large can of whole Italian tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes on low heat, add fresh parsley, basil and oregano In equal parts with 2 large bay leaves. Cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, remove bay leaves, and process your sauce in a food processor until desired consistency. If you wish you can cut your sauce with olive oil or water while processing. This a true marinara.