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May 4, 2012 08:06 PM

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. :)