Learn how to make the best tomato sauce, by learning how NOT to make bad tomato sauce!
I’m sorry, but I just can’t take it anymore. I truly and honestly, CAN’T.
If I don’t write what I have been wanting to write, and hit PUBLISH, I feel like my head is going to explode, and that is not a good look for me.
If you want to skip my rant and just get the recipe for a PROPER and AUTHENTIC ITALIAN SAUCE, here you go.
I ask that you humor me. Read my rant. Understand my frustration. My (Italian) blood pressure has been rising and I have to do something about it. You’ve heard of catharsis, right? Well, I’m in desperate need of it, so here goes.
Deep breath, yes, you too. Actually, you may want to lie down on the couch, and pour yourself a glass of wine because this is going to take some time. At the end is a recipe to learn how to make the best tomato sauce, so stay with me.
Why am I so upset?
Part of the territory that goes along with food blogging is looking at other recipes, food photography, articles, food sections in newspapers, and magazines—you get the picture. I do it, but it does several things to me:
1. Often, it makes me realize how far I have to go in the world of food photography and styling, recipe creation and writing. Basically, it depresses the hell out of me.
2. Sometimes, it makes me feel as if I’m the best damn food photographer/stylist, recipe creator and food writer this side of the Atlantic ocean. You know those recipes and food photos that I’m talking about? The ones you should be looking at when you’re desperately determined to make your latest diet actually work?
3. And sometimes, reading some recipes or articles just gets my blood boiling, even before my pasta water has barely made it to a simmer.
“Why?” you ask? Well, I’ll tell you—it’s because so many recipes have been butchered even more than the rump roast and pork chops that are in them; made to sound like an Opera Cake when the outcome is more like a discordant Dump Cake.
I know what many of you are already thinking, “to each his own” and all those other quips which are thrown about when playing “devil’s advocate”. Allow me to clarify my point: anyone is free to post, publish, recite or otherwise create any recipe for anything they like. By the same token, I am also free to give my opinion of those recipes and that is exactly what I intend to do.
My tomato sauce background.
My mother was born in Italy; her parents were born in Italy, and their parents were born in Italy, and so on and so on, just like the ad for Breck shampoo. (Now I’ve totally dated myself.)
Types of tomato sauces are incredibly varied throughout Italy, but they are all made with quality ingredients. I grew up with a more southern-style Italian tomato sauce being made at home, and have continued to make it the way my family has always made sauce. Is there only one way? Absolutely not; in fact, we probably have over a dozen ways to make tomato sauce, and I rarely make it the same way twice in a row.
I’m also not claiming that I make the best sauce, or that I always make great sauce. (I once threw a ramekin of salsa into a simmering pot of tomato sauce thinking it was tomatoes—blechh.) However, it’s usually pretty darn good and it is an authentic Italian way of making sauce. Taste is subjective, so I’m not going to argue the point.
Having said that, here is what burns my cookies every single time: recipes which claim to be authentic Italian or Italian-style, yet are the furthest from anything an actual Italian would ever put in a pot. I have seen so many completely inauthentic tomato sauce recipes recently, claiming to be authentic, classic or “the best” which are just chock full of misinformation. Case in point: BuzzFeed’s “How to make the Best Tomato Sauce”. I’m going to give a detailed explanation why this is the biggest “how to” failure for making sauce that I’ve ever seen.
Fighting a losing battle.
One of the biggest reasons that I spend countless hours on my blog is to encourage people of all ages to get into the kitchen and cook healthy, unprocessed meals. I also want them to realize that many healthy, delicious meals and basic recipes do not take a lot of time and effort, expensive ingredients or specialized equipment. This BuzzFeed article has probably managed to scare off scores of potential cooks from ever wanting to attempt to make homemade sauce, and that upsets me. A lot. Facebook commenter Dan Holley says it best,
“I’m okay with store-bought tasting a bit inferior if it means I can bypass the 10 steps, 486 hours and dozen-or-so culinary devices required to make this sauce. :/ ”
I love to cook, even lengthy and complicated recipes at times, and there’s no chance in hell that I would ever make tomato sauce again if this was the only recipe I could use.
I realize that writing this is not the most politically correct thing to do, but I feel so strongly about saving authentic Italian cuisine from extinction, that I’ve decided that this is something I must do. Nonno and Nonna would be proud of me, and that’s what matters the most to me.
Time for another DEEP BREATH. (Another glass of wine?)
Are you ready for BuzzFeed’s 12 steps to the “Best” Tomato Sauce? I’d rather do the other 12 step Program to tell you the truth, but this has to be done. First, I’ll list BuzzFeed’s instructions in caps, then I’ll add my rebuttal, and let you form your own opinions from there.
How NOT to make tomato sauce. Read on.
- USE FRESH TOMATOES WHEN THEY’RE IN SEASON. Who can argue with that? However, Buzzfeed is completely off-base in giving advice on which fresh tomatoes are good to use for sauce and which are bad. Roma and beefsteak tomatoes are listed as being “good” for sauce, when in fact, Romas are good and beefsteak are in fact better for salads. Buzzfeed also claims heirloom and cherry tomatoes are “bad” for sauce, but what is so interesting to me, are the reasons for stating these tomatoes are bad for sauce: “heirlooms are just too expensive to use for sauce”. Well, I happen to know that many people actually grow their own heirloom tomatoes (and there are many different types) and sometimes have too many to eat fresh. The piece also advises that cherry tomatoes are bad because they “…will take forever to peel because they’re so small…” (REALLY?) And “…they don’t have much flesh anyway”. Here goes my blood pressure again: good-quality cherry tomatoes can make a fabulous sauce! Next, the instructions state, “You will need to peel and crush them.” Here we go again, I don’t recall any rule or law stating that I have to peel my tomatoes in order to make sauce. First of all, why must tomatoes be peeled? I happen to like getting extra nutrition whenever possible, and eating the tomato skin is a good thing (as long as they’re organic). I for one, refuse to peel my tomatoes. Oh, and BuzzFeed, here’s a tip: a 6 step tutorial in step one of a recipe, does not bode well if you actually want cooks to stick around until the very end of the recipe.
- WHEN THEY’RE NOT IN SEASON, USE CANNED. Okay, I’ll agree with the fact that fresh tomatoes can be pretty bad when they’re not in season, but canned tomatoes are also infamously bad for having some of the highest levels of BPA in food. Glass jars of tomatoes are what I would recommend, instead. Unless you’re going to buy D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes (BuzzFeed’s Cento photo) you won’t be assured of good quality tomatoes (the San Marzano tomatoes in the can in the top photo are terribly acidic and bitter). BuzzFeed’s recipe calls for four 28 oz cans of tomatoes; I don’t know about you, but when I make a big pot of sauce, I use about half this amount. Unless you’re cooking for a small Italian village, I’d recommend not making such a massive quantity, which will also make it easier to season.
- BUILD A MORE FLAVORFUL BASE. Now we are told to start roasting garlic. O.M.G. Another recipe within a recipe? And this only takes 50 minutes. While you’re at it, why don’t you start making tomorrow morning’s breakfast? Beat some eggs and throw in some stale bread for overnight French toast, and maybe unload the dishwasher while you’re waiting on that roasted garlic. Also, fresh garlic is not always used in all authentic Italian sauces, but I don’t know anyone in Italy who roasts their garlic before putting it in the pot to make sauce. Okay, so next we’re supposed to chop up onions, celery and carrots which is fine, if that’s how you want to flavor your sauce. However, there’s a couple of MASSIVE errors in this step: cooking the vegetables in two tablespoons of vegetable oil? NO! NO! NO! First of all, it must be olive oil, extra virgin olive oil to be exact, (a little lard is good, too). Secondly, for two large onions, two celery stalks, a carrot and 7 lbs of tomatoes, am I to believe that two tablespoons of oil will be enough? Now I’m starting to think that this guide is supposed to be humorous—did I miss something earlier?
- SEASON AS YOU GO. Again, this isn’t what I would call “wrong”, as one must taste and season as needed, but if you are cooking for a small army, with unsalted, fresh or canned tomatoes, “a pinch” of salt here and a “pinch” of salt there, ain’t gonna cut it. You’re going to need teaspoonfuls of salt, and several of them. The type of salt used is important (I like Kosher or sea salt), and depending which type of salt is used, the amount, and flavor will vary greatly.
- ADD SUGAR. I can barely hold it together with this one. This has to be my very biggest pet peeve with tomato sauce recipes. PEOPLE, listen to me, tomatoes are a FRUIT, and they do not need added sugar! The only reason sugar would be necessary, is if the tomatoes are not good quality, acidic, bitter or tasteless. If this is the case, then it should be a pinch and without good tomatoes, you won’t end up with good sauce, anyway. I would choose not to make sauce in the first place if I had to use tomatoes of the previous description. BuzzFeed’s instructions actually advise adding one tablespoon to the vegetables and the rest of a quarter cup (2 oz) of sugar to the tomatoes! PLEASE, NO! Keep the sugar for your desserts, because it doesn’t belong in your sauce. I know this is going to cause a major backlash of people stating, “my mother always used sugar in her sauce or “gravy” and it was the best I ever had. I can appreciate recipes which are handed down from past generations, but in this day and age, we have so much processed, over-sweetened, sugar-packed foods in our diet. Can’t we at least try to make homemade tomato sauce completely unprocessed and without adding sugar? Trust me, the flavor will not suffer if you use good quality ingredients.
- ADD WINE BEFORE TOMATOES. All I’m going to say to this is that I have never added any wine to my tomato sauce. I’d rather drink half a bottle than have it reduce in a pot of sauce that will taste frickin’ amazing without it. So for me, add the wine to my glass instead, grazie.
- ADD TOMATOES, COOK 15 MINUTES. So, here we are three days later, and we’re finally adding tomatoes. Uncork another bottle of wine to celebrate!
- PUREE WITH A STICK BLENDER. What about not blending at all? And if one must blend the tomatoes, I would do so before cooking them. In this “recipe” that means all your veggies are going to be blended too. By now you should realize this article is not going to teach you how to make the best tomato sauce.
- IF YOU WANT MEAT, NOW IS THE TIME. Oh, dear God. Are you kidding me? After all that, and now you want me to get another pot and start cooking meat? Is your head ready to explode yet? I’m kind of scared to keep reading; I might be told to go hunting for my meat next! Oh, wait, if I want meatballs, they’re included in recipe #3, and I’m told I have to sear the meatballs before adding them to the sauce or they’ll fall apart—THIS IS COMPLETELY FALSE! (You know, back in high school and college, heck, even in grad school, I remember having to have a bibliography to show where I got my information when I wrote a report. I think that this is a good idea and maybe it should apply to articles like this one). Dropping raw meatballs into simmering sauce makes awesome meatballs that do not fall apart and I know this from experience. Here’s my advice on using any kind of meat in sauce: sauté it with extra virgin olive oil and garlic, and/or onion in the beginning, so that the flavor of the meat comes through in the sauce, plus, you’ll dirty one less pan!
- LET IT SIMMER 1-2 HOURS. Depending on how thick or runny the tomatoes are, will determine how long you should simmer the sauce. Cook it to a consistency which will stick to the pasta without being too runny or too thick. I’ve never simmered my sauce for two hours as it would be much too thick (imho).
- STORE SMALLER BATCHES. If you’ve used 7lbs of tomatoes to make sauce, yes, you will need to store smaller batches in the freezer.
- EAT PASTA FOREVER. Okay, Buzzfeed, I can’t argue with this one. Let’s just work on the other 11.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s extremely likely that no one has ever used this “recipe” to make this sauce. (Which is a shame, as I doubt I’d be writing this if they had). I also bet if they have, they’d agree that they didn’t learn how to make the best tomato sauce, too.
As a recipe developer and food writer, I know the importance of testing recipes, not just once, but over and over, so that I end up with a quality recipe to offer to my readers. I do not have a clue as to how many times I have made pasta sauce, but I can practically do it with my eyes shut. My next post will be a very quick and simple, completely unprocessed, sugar free, delicious tomato sauce. Coincidentally, it does not have 10 steps, take 486 hours or require a dozen culinary devices in order to make it. I hope you’ll come back and try it.
Thanks for listening.
I feel better now.
* How to make the best tomato sauce? Find my recipe here.
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