One of the first things I learned how to cook as a kid was a basic tomato sauce (a.k.a. marinara sauce). It’s the basis for so many dishes and sauces from lasagna to eggplant parmesan, and despite its apparent simplicity, it’s actually quite complex. What you add to the sauce and how you treat each addition can create wildly different variations of the same sauce.
Now that I teach cooking, it’s one of the first dishes I teach my students. I feel a bit like Mr Miyagi teaching Daniel-san to wax-on wax-off when I make a student cook a batch of tomato sauce for the umpteenth time, but what you learn from making a good tomato sauce forms a foundation that can be used universally across dishes and cuisines.
Beyond the obvious stuff, like knife skills, and the importance of the Maillard reaction, I make tomato sauce a foundation of my culinary curriculum because to make a good tomato sauce, you have to understand the nuances of, and be able to balance, the five basic tastes: saltiness, sweetness, tartness, bitterness and umami.
I could call this the best tomato sauce recipe ever, but because ingredients and kitchens vary, there’s a good chance your tomato sauce isn’t going to turn out exactly like mine. Even if you were able to buy exactly the same ingredients as me and use the same equipment, you and I have different palettes and so what’s perfect for me, may be too sweet or under-salted for you.
This is what cooking with no recipes is all about, it’s about understanding the balance of tastes that you prefer and then being able to make dishes that fit that profile. My students don’t hire me to teach them to ace a dish, or even to master an entire cuisine, they pay me to teach them how to cook everything well.
While there’s no way I could possibly distill everything there is to know about balancing tastes in a blog post (or even a book), I will give you my basic tomato sauce recipe, along with a few pointers so that you can begin your journey towards finding your best tomato sauce.
As someone who’s so insistent on cooking from scratch you rarely see me calling for a can of anything. Tomatoes are one exception for a few reasons. The first is that for most of the year it’s impossible to get good ripe tomatoes. Quality canned tomatoes are usually harvested at their best before being canned so for most of the year, a canned tomato is going to taste a lot better in a sauce than a fresh one. The second reason is that using canned tomatoes is a lot faster because they’ve already been peeled and stewed.
To further cut back on cooking time, without sacrificing the rich tomato flavor a long simmer builds, I like to add tomato paste to my sauce. You’ll immediately notice a difference in color when you add the concentrated tomato and the change in taste is just as apparent. It’s kind of like being able to add two tablespoons of time travel to your sauce which magically fast-forwards it 40 minutes into the future.
The other part of a tomato sauce that takes a long time to get right is caramelizing the onions. This is the part where the Maillard reaction turns pungent tear-inducing onions into sweet umami laden bits of flavor through the application of heat over time. Properly caramelizing diced onions can take about 30 minutes, but you can dramatically speed this up just by dicing the onions into smaller 1/8-inch pieces (technically called a brunoise)
Lastly on the balance of tastes, there are a lot of levers to pull to change the sauce’s profile, but perhaps the most effective one is to add a little sugar. That’s because most of the time what makes a tomato sauce taste unbalanced is that the tomatoes are too tart. A small amount of sugar has a way of taking the sharp edge off of a sour tomato sauce in the same way it turns a glass of undrinkable lemon water into delicious lemonade.
- Put the olive oil, onions and garlic in a pan and saute over medium high heat while stirring constantly until the onions are a medium brown and have reduced to about half their original volume (about 5-7 minutes).
- Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, salt and pepper. Turn down the heat to medium low. Simmer for 10-20 minutes or until the sauce has the consistency you're looking for.
- Taste the sauce. If it tastes a little bland and lacking in umami, try adding more salt. If you find the sauce is tasting too sour, try adding up to two teaspoons of sugar.
How long you need to simmer the tomato sauce will depend on your personal preference as well as what you plan to use it for. If you're using this in something that will be cooked again, like an eggplant parmesan, you don't need to get it that thick. If you're using this as a pasta or dipping sauce, you may want to get it a little thicker.