Making a Great Spaghetti Sauce

flyinglentris

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We would all like to believe that our spaghetti sauce is excellent and fantastic tasting. But what is excellent and fantastic tasting? What are the qualities of a truly great spaghetti sauce, in the first place? And how does one achieve those qualities?

If you don't know the flavor of a truly great spaghetti sauce, perhaps looking to the bottled varieties will help.

Michael's of Brooklyn sauce is highly regarded and costs about $8.00 USD per 12 Oz. bottle.
Raos sauce has good reviews and sells for about $6.00 USD.

By comparison, lesser quality sauces, like Classicos, sell for about $2.00 to $3.00 USD.

So, if you don't know whether that restaurant sauce you've been treated to is great, try Michael's of Brooklyn. That's a great yardstick to judge a quality sauce and set a goal by. It is the best available store bought bottled sauce that I know of.

Given that you now have something to judge your own sauce by, how does one go about achieving a truly great personal spaghetti sauce?
 

caseydog

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One way I can tell a good sauce is by the number of ingredients. If there are 20 ingredient, including things I can't pronounce, I don't want it. That's where bottle sauces live.

I've heard good things about Rao's, but I'd still rather take a little time to make my own.

My sauce has 7 ingredients -- San Marzano D.O.P. (canned) tomatoes, herbs and seasonings. That's it.

CD
 

flyinglentris

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To summarize the qualities of a great spaghetti sauce, the following might apply.

1) Reduction of water when applied to pasta.
2) The sauce's ability to adhere to pasta noodles.
3) The retention of flavors in good melding when the sauce is heated and cooked without dissipation or flattening.
4) No sugar or forced sweetening.
5) No overkill with tomato paste or canned tomato sauce.
6) No over-addition of oils.
7) Freshness of ingredients.
8) No loss of size of ingredients with none being totally pureed into the sauce.
9) A suggestiveness of the flavor of the sauce for other food items, like meats, especially.
 

NailBat

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If tried Rao's, its definitely better than the $2 sauce, but tomato sauce is so easy to make that I'd rather just do it myself. It's one of the first foods I learned how to cook, and its the sort of thing that's very easy to customize to your personal tastes.

One way I can tell a good sauce is by the number of ingredients. If there are 20 ingredient, including things I can't pronounce, I don't want it. That's where bottle sauces live.

I think this applies to homemade sauces as well. I've heard a lot of people ask for advice on improving their tomato sauce, and then they list 25 ingredients. When you're an expert chef with utter mastery of combining flavors, then you can make a 25 ingredient sauce. Until then, most of those ingredients will be fighting each other and adding up to less than the sum of their parts.
 

MypinchofItaly

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To summarize the qualities of a great spaghetti sauce, the following might apply.

1) Reduction of water when applied to pasta.
2) The sauce's ability to adhere to pasta noodles.
3) The retention of flavors in good melding when the sauce is heated and cooked without dissipation or flattening.
4) No sugar or forced sweetening.
5) No overkill with tomato paste or canned tomato sauce.
6) No over-addition of oils.
7) Freshness of ingredients.
8) No loss of size of ingredients with none being totally pureed into the sauce.
9) A suggestiveness of the flavor of the sauce for other food items, like meats, especially.

I second the 4th point hardly. No sugar added, at least to me. To reduce tomato acidity I add a piece of carrot (sometimes a pumpkin one) that releases its natural sugar. This doesn’t mean I never ever put sugar, sometimes I did/do, but only when I ran out of carrots.
Herbs might help too.
 
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garlichead

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I'm just going to assume you meant tomato sauce and not a spaghetti sauce. I take CD's and rascals approach and keep it simple. I never use tomato paste, might add a parm rind but always a low heat and longer cooking time to bring out the sweetness if it lacks some. I'll freeze this base sauce and use it for multiple recipes including pasta. Depending on the pasta dish I'm making, time of year, ingredients being used a different tomato sauce might be more appropriate and a tomato sauce that requires little cooking time utilizing fresh varieties of garden tomatoes in season, cooked until just heated through and may have more garlic, herbs and could have some love sauce thrown in (butter) just to bring it together. We had a great tomato season this year in the County and we took full advantage and had tomatoes splattered all over our summer menu. If someone cooks with passion, that's good enough for me. Cheers.
 

garlichead

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Just wanted to mention that if I'm using my base tomato sauce for spaghetti for example I've been known to add EVOO and probably more than most would imagine for a serving of spaghetti along with some microplaned parm or romano cheese. It's a mouthfeel and flavor that I very much appreciate.
 

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I second the 4th point hardly. No sugar added, at least to me. To reduce tomato acidity I add a piece of carrot (sometimes a pumpkin one) that releases its natural sugar. This doesn’t mean I never ever put sugar, sometimes I did/do, but only when I ran out of carrots.
Herbs might help too.

Oh good, I'm not the only one. I keep on hearing "add sugar to pasta sauce, its such an amazing hack!" I never thought my tomato sauce needed to be any sweeter. Heck, part of the reason to cook at home is to avoid having sugar added to everything!

I think a big part of this is what kind of tomatoes to use. The acidity in canned tomatoes varies wildly between brands and I figure some of the people who think they need sugar "to cut the acid" are just using very acidic tomatoes.

However that's also just my tastes. I like my sauce savory, and whatever sweetness comes from the tomatoes themselves is plenty for me.
 

flyinglentris

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Oh good, I'm not the only one. I keep on hearing "add sugar to pasta sauce, its such an amazing hack!" I never thought my tomato sauce needed to be any sweeter. Heck, part of the reason to cook at home is to avoid having sugar added to everything!

I think a big part of this is what kind of tomatoes to use. The acidity in canned tomatoes varies wildly between brands and I figure some of the people who think they need sugar "to cut the acid" are just using very acidic tomatoes.

However that's also just my tastes. I like my sauce savory, and whatever sweetness comes from the tomatoes themselves is plenty for me.

I see 'canned tomatoes' and 'canned tomato sauce' in responses to this thread. If a choice of tomato is desired, skip the canned stuff and use whole tomatoes. That gives two blessings, a determination of the type of tomato for acidity and a capacity for some chunkiness in the sauce.

Tomatoes cook down to first, softness and then, semi sauce. They can be pureed in a blender, of course. Tomato paste isn't even necessary, if you understand reduction.

The thing to avoid when making a tomato/spaghetti/pasta sauce, especially with onion and peppers, is to avoid having your sauce evolve into something more like a salsa or a tomato juice or soup. Tomato is the base ingredient of tomato/spaghetti sauces and should hold sway over all other ingredients, only absorbing the flavors of other ingredients after long cooking time. The other ingredients should not overwhelm the tomato.

The basic tomato and basil sauce is not an essential. Choice often leads to using oregano, of course, and even acidity can be increased by using balsamic vinegar to create that special type of sauce. Olives and extra olive oil are not totally tabooed. The basic tomato and basil sauce is an identity base for tomato/spaghetti sauces and may be considered as a starter for more complex sauces. Pizza sauces and marinara sauces are not far departures from the base sauce. Even vodka sauces can be spawned from the tomato and basil base sauce.
 

caseydog

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Oh good, I'm not the only one. I keep on hearing "add sugar to pasta sauce, its such an amazing hack!" I never thought my tomato sauce needed to be any sweeter. Heck, part of the reason to cook at home is to avoid having sugar added to everything!

I think a big part of this is what kind of tomatoes to use. The acidity in canned tomatoes varies wildly between brands and I figure some of the people who think they need sugar "to cut the acid" are just using very acidic tomatoes.

However that's also just my tastes. I like my sauce savory, and whatever sweetness comes from the tomatoes themselves is plenty for me.

I never add sugar to my tomato sauce. I start with good, sweet tomatoes. I'm okay with a certain amount of acid, without feeling the need to "balance" it with sugar.

CD
 

caseydog

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I see 'canned tomatoes' and 'canned tomato sauce' in responses to this thread. If a choice of tomato is desired, skip the canned stuff and use whole tomatoes. That gives two blessings, a determination of the type of tomato for acidity and a capacity for some chunkiness in the sauce.

That's easy to say, but tomatoes are highly seasonal, and "fresh" whole tomatoes found in the grocery stores in most places are usually picked well before fully ripe, stored, shipped, and then sometimes treated with ethylene gas to chemically "ripen." Where I live, the only way to get good fresh tomatoes is to grow them in your own yard.

Top quality canned tomatoes are actually way better than the "red water bombs" sold as fresh in the stores where I live. I use these...

Screen Shot 2021-11-11 at 7.34.25 AM.png


CD
 

NailBat

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The term "tomato sauce" means totally different things in different parts of the world, and I suspect we've all been ping ponging between the different definitions.

For where I live, "tomato sauce" is a complete sauce meant to be served with pasta, fully seasoned. For others though, "tomato sauce" is more of a base, which is then meant to be taken in different directions depending on the goal.
 

NailBat

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That's easy to say, but tomatoes are highly seasonal, and "fresh" whole tomatoes found
Totally agree. Fresh tomato sauce is a whole different game, but one you can only get a few months of the year.

However, there is a way to get mileage out of those "water bomb" out of season tomatoes. Roast them until the skin blackens and rubs off easily. You'll still need a good quality canned tomato (I also like Cento), but the roasted tomatoes add a whole different flavor dimension to the sauce.
 

Morning Glory

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The term "tomato sauce" means totally different things in different parts of the world, and I suspect we've all been ping ponging between the different definitions.

For where I live, "tomato sauce" is a complete sauce meant to be served with pasta, fully seasoned. For others though, "tomato sauce" is more of a base, which is then meant to be taken in different directions depending on the goal.

Very true. In the UK tomato sauce is often a term used for tomato ketchup (the sort in bottles that you dollop on your plate to dip chips (fries in the US) into.
 
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