How do you make spaghetti sauce?
February 23, 2005 10:30 PM   Subscribe

SauceFilter: starting with just a can of diced tomatoes, how do you make spaghetti sauce? I'm looking for simple recipes.

Here's what I usually do: cook for a fairly long time over lowish heat, and gently mash the chunks to get a consistent texture. Problem is I can never seem to reduce it enough--the sauce is sometimes a bit thick but there's also water that doesn't boil off. I add salt and pepper, garlic (sautee that first, in butter or olive oil), whatever spice I can find--basil, parsley, thyme--some sugar, and at the end some butter. It's not bad but I want to try something different.
posted by zardoz to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Fry onions, garlic, olive oil, bacon, whathaveyou. Add last night's leftover taco meat. Add can of tomatoes. Add pepper, basil, BBQ beef salt, whathaveyou. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick or until you're hungry. Pour over noodles.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:35 PM on February 23, 2005

Oh, and if you were to toss some flour in with the onions as they fry, you might find it nicely thickens the sauce.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:35 PM on February 23, 2005

There are some simple red sauces listed in this thread.
posted by fionab at 10:59 PM on February 23, 2005

At a minimum you have to have garlic, onion, oregano, salt, and oil.

Your sauce will be a lot better with some basil, a bay leaf and mushrooms.

I like to toss in a dash of white pepper, thyme, and rosemary, too. A diced potato will thicken it and complexify the flavor. Sauteed shallots: yum.

If you have the time, let it reduce to the right thickness by simmering. If you don't have time, strain some of the water when you open the can, or add tomato paste to thicken.

[contemplates FFF's "last night taco meat" - shudders]
posted by scarabic at 11:02 PM on February 23, 2005

My Italian friend has some cred in this department, I think. She says to saute some diced onions in olive oil until they turn translucent. Then she removes and discards the onions, but I like keeping them in. Add the can of tomatoes--you can buy them diced for super-easy prep, but the whole canned tomatoes are better quality. The canning companies keep the nicest ones whole, and it doesn't take long to dice them yourself. When I'm really lazy, I use diced tomatoes with basil and garlic, although some companies make a better version (Del Monte) than others (Muir Glen Organic or Whole Foods generic).

Saute the tomatoes and oil for a little while. You can add some tomato paste at this point for some extra flavor, but you can skip that if you want. Remove from heat and add salt & pepper. Then add a dash of cream, milk, or sugar--any of those will sweeten the sauce ever-so-slightly...just enough to remove any bitterness. Lastly, sprinkle the sauce with a little chopped basil and/or oregano. Voila!
posted by equipoise at 11:11 PM on February 23, 2005 [2 favorites]

If you want the flavour of the herbs, don't add it too early or it will all cook out into the sauce.
posted by madman at 11:13 PM on February 23, 2005

1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes (in oil, drained, chopped) or 1/4 cup tomato paste
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup red wine
A dash of crushed red pepper
Thyme and/or oregano

Sautee the onion until it just starts to turn brown. Crush the garlic and add. Stir for a minute. Add the sun dried tomato (if using it). Add the diced tomatoes. Add the herbs if they're dried. Stir until there's no pooling of liquids. If using paste, add it now. Puree. Add the wine. Cook two minutes. Add the herbs if you're using fresh.

Add a little bell pepper along the way if you like (about 1/2 of a large, roasted and peeled pepper should do it, or a handful of Trader Joe's Melange a Trois frozen pepper mix)

I make this all the time when I need a fast sauce. It's good and it's simple. Double the paste/sun dried tomato for a pizza sauce.
posted by Nothing at 11:20 PM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

Quarter an onion. Fry it in several tablespoons of olive oil, medium high heat. When clear, add tomatoes. Lower heat. Simmer for 20 mins or so. Now take out the onions. Add salt and pepper to taste, maybe a basil leaf or two (note: basil not traditional). Serve with pecorino romano. Simple and old, from the Napoli area.

Note: this is not a thick sauce (actually, you could use a tomato puree or run your tomatoes through a food mill). The dish relies on the way the olive oil picks up flavor and coats the pasta. Many Italian sauces are quite simple : they need only one or two ingredients to carry the dish.
posted by lackutrol at 11:21 PM on February 23, 2005

Oh, and reserve 1/4 of the mixture before pureeing and then add it back in after if you want a chunky sauce.
posted by Nothing at 11:23 PM on February 23, 2005

On missing preview: equipoise, your friend is right, but you don't need to dice the onions. They'll add the requisite flavor in larger chunks (that is, if you want to try discarding them).

Can I add a plea for people to avoid dried herbs whenever possible? Dried basil is so sad when compared to its fresh cousin.
posted by lackutrol at 11:33 PM on February 23, 2005

The basic boring, as everyone has already said, involves sauteing onions until they are translucent, cook in some mushrooms if you want, throwing in some minced garlic, then the (well drained) tomatoes right before the garlic burns. Add a pinch of oregano if you want, maybe some red wine. Add more salt than you might think (tomatoes really need a good dash of salt) and cook at a medium heat till at the consistency you want. Top with fresh italian parsley if you want.

Another simple version is: Buy 1 hot italian sausage per person, chop into pieces, cook in a pan. Remove sausage from pan, add tomatoes, cook, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to remove all that crusty bit from the sausages (teflon is evil). Put back in the sausages and cook for a bit longer. This goes really well with some creamy goat's cheese.

Recently I've been avoiding the garlic (or cut way back, I used to use 4-5 cloves, now I normally only use 1 small clove) and onions and try other flavors instead. Mince some carrots and celery and saute those before you add the tomatoes. Olives go great, especially with a spicier sauce. Cayenne pepper or those pepper flakes are great for spicing things up. Another sauce I make involves cooking a few tomatoes with some salt and oil till soft and then throwing in some ricotta cheese and some minced sun dried tomatoes. Spinach goes will with tomatoes. Try throwing in some chopped frozen stuff shortly before you are done. It just needs to defrost.

One last thing, american canners add calcium to tomatoes because it keeps from from getting mushy in the cans. That's one of the major reasons italian canned tomatoes are better. Try imported tomatoes if your sauces always seem too hard.
posted by aspo at 11:41 PM on February 23, 2005

You gotta start with the onions, as everyone else including Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan recommends. Not only do I saute them till transparent, but I actually slice them into ultra-fine bits first, and I use a couple of whole onions and just a bit of oil. These are going to be the consistency and sweetness base for the whole sauce, so they have to be right.

Diced tomatoes are OK, but I prefer to crush 'em into a paste and pour the tomato juice off. Simmering it off takes too long, especially if you like to add a little wine.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:07 AM on February 24, 2005

Fresh basil at the very end is an excellent addition. It doesn't have to cook. Just chop it not too finely and stir it into the sauce right before you ladle it over the pasta. A few capers at the end are also very good. Don't forget the grated parmesian, and I don't mean the Kraft crap in the green can. That crap has never seen the inside of my fridge. If you really want good pasta, get you a little tiny block of real parmesian cheese and grate it, no pre-grated garbage; it makes all the difference in the world...oh, and a little crushed red pepper, if you like a little spice.

It's amazingly simple and fast to make an excellent red sauce. The recipes above should serve you nicely. You can have a sauce ready in about a half hour if you have everything chopped ahead of time. Remember, your pasta should never wait on the sauce, but it's alright if the sauce has to wait a bit for the pasta. Once the pasta is cooked, it should be served soon. When it's done, toss the pasta with a little olive oil to keep it from forming a sticky, congealed mass.
posted by wsg at 1:17 AM on February 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Did you ever see Goodfellas, when they were in jail and making the sauce? You gotta slice that garlic with a razor blade, and cook it till it just dissolves.

Seriously, onions and garlic are must. I second the recommendation for whole tomatoes vs. diced. You don't even need to chop them, just smash them with a wooden spoon as you are stirring. I think a long-sih simmer is the best, as it evaporates all the water and concentrates the flavors by reducing.
posted by fixedgear at 2:24 AM on February 24, 2005

Don't used chopped plum tomatoes, use whole ones. Simmer the tomatoes whole at first for around 10mins to let the sugar cook from the flesh of the tomatoes. If you use chopped tomatoes - or if you crush up whole tomatoes too early in the cooking process - you end up with a sauce made bitter by the tomatoe seeds.
posted by fire&wings at 3:44 AM on February 24, 2005

Basically what equipoise and other have mentioned, but a couple of notes: When you can get good flavorful tomatoes, use them instead; just use a regular old cheese grater with largish holes (grating into a large bowl), cut the tomatoes in half and grate them down 'til you're just left hold the skins. Yes, this adds another level of complexity, but to me it's actually fun to grate the tomatoes.

Also, if you are using parmesan/regatto on top of your pasta, it's very worthwhile to seek out the good stuff, freshly grated to order (or you grate it yourself) instead of the prepackaged things from the supermarket. Huge difference.

For me keeping the whole thing as simple as possible (fresh basil - yes, but go easy unless you really want a strong basil flavor), but with these above two techniques really makes a great sauce.
posted by taz at 4:00 AM on February 24, 2005

I like a-spicy-sauce so I add crushed red pepper to my sauce. And I use a lot of garlic and less onion. I also sometimes add freshly grated parmesan cheese to the sauce while simmering.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:43 AM on February 24, 2005

for a minimal sauce, empty your can of tomatoes into a pan (chop them up if not chopped - you can use the can lid for this, incidentally), add a stock cube, and heat. simmer to make thicker. add other stuff if you have it.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:55 AM on February 24, 2005

If calories aren't really a problem, you can try the fantastically delicious oilier version and only add one or two whole canned tomatoes to a lot of hot olive oil. (I like to crush the tomatoes in my hand before adding - stress reducer!) The tomatoes boil off fast and you end up with a rich oily sauce that is more flavored oil than tomato. (Garlic and hot peppers go extra well with this one.)
Also, even if you hate anchovies on pizza or in salad, try adding one or two filets to your sugo. They melt away completely and add a really great deep flavor that you would never realize was anchovy.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:25 AM on February 24, 2005

I like to get the canned tomatoes that have basil and oregano already added. Then I add lots of basil and oregano to the sauce (fresh if I have it, dried otherwise).

And yes, as everyone else has said, start by sauteeing onions, though I usually add garlic as well because I like the way that it puffs up and gets golden brown.

I'll add chopped sausages, mushrooms, black pepper, red pepper, red wine, et cetera, and let it cook down (10-15 minutes.) I tend to taste frequently and add what I think it needs.

oh, nifty anchovy trick, CunningLinguist! I'll have to give that a shot.

(along similar lines, I sometimes reserve the olive oil that good tuna comes packed in -- it's great for sauteeing things.)
posted by Vidiot at 5:58 AM on February 24, 2005

Do what everyone else says, and while you are stirring the cooking-down tomatoes, put up another fry pan with a 1/2 can of Progresso tuna in light olive oil, a handful of capers and as CL wisely promoted, the sublime anchovy. Stir it all around until the anchovy has reduced to a creamy texture -- that's when it's done. Use this mixture to top your mound 'o' pasta and tomato sauce. Or another version, a real crowd pleaser, take a ladle of the tomato sauce you've cooked up and add it to the cooked tuna mix after the achovies have cooked down. Serve with a side of (fresh if you can) ricotta -- a wonderful, quick, impressive dinner.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:17 AM on February 24, 2005

As someone who loves onions, I think putting onions in spaghetti sauce is a mistake. Garlic rules the day.
posted by transient at 7:14 AM on February 24, 2005

The best way to use the anchovy trick is to add it to the sauteeing onions towards the end and make sure it melts into the oil before adding the tomatoes. I'm going to have an Italian lunch I think.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:18 AM on February 24, 2005

Wow, this is one for the bookmark pile. I'm hungry now.

Make sure to add any herbs at the very end, as has been suggested. Fresh basil especially. You want to cook in the basil oils just a tiny bit.
posted by AlexReynolds at 7:43 AM on February 24, 2005

[contemplates FFF's "last night taco meat" - shudders]

I know, I know, it made me shudder, too. But it was a kid's night to cook, and he went for it.

Much to our delight, it was damned good. I imagine the salt levels were something atrocious, but call me Sally if it didn't work.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:04 AM on February 24, 2005

This is something I make every week. If you want simple, you can leave out the wine and the spices and change the canned tomatoes to diced tomatoes. The basics have been covered in the above comments, but just to put it all together here is:

Mama Gravy's Red Sauce
3 Tb Olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic minced or crushed
1/4 red wine
1 to 2 TB sugar
2 cans whole roma tomatoes
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 Bay leaf
Red pepper flakes to taste
pinch of fresh Thyme
Salt and pepper

Saute the onion in the oil on low heat for 10 minutes and then add garlic. Saute another 2 minutes being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the rest of the ingredients, including a light salting. Cook slowly, smashing the whole tomatoes as you go. Simmer for an hour or so. Finish with salt to taste.

Note: For extra rich, extra thick sauce:
After simmering an hour pour into large baking dish, drizzle another 2 TB oil and bake at 325 for another hour or two. This is the best sauce for pizza.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:06 AM on February 24, 2005 [2 favorites]

Just a note on dried herbs vs. fresh.

I challenge the notion that dried herbs are just "bad" across the board. There are some herbs that probably shouldn't be dried (basil, yes), and fresh herbs certainly are much brighter, but drying gives some heartier herbs, particularly oregano, a nice mellow flavor that works well in long-cooked stews and sauces. Drying totally changes the character of herbs, and there are some good flavor possibilities in there.

Very important though - just because they're dried doesn't mean that they last forever. There is such a thing as "fresh dried herbs". Generally, dried herbs are good for no longer than 3-6 months.

Also, for fresh herbs, there's nothing wrong with adding them in batches at different times during the cooking. You'll layer the flavors nicely that way.
posted by Caviar at 9:11 AM on February 24, 2005

Our own adrober had a post on in which he described a sauce by Marcella Hazan: quarter an onion and simmer the tomatoes, not in olive oil, but butter. Fucking. Awesome.
posted by kenko at 10:09 AM on February 24, 2005

Caviar, you have a point. I shouldn't have slammed dried herbs across the board. Your are correct that they have a marvelous place in long-cooking stews and sauces.

To be a little more descriptivist: traditional Italian tomato sauces (as opposed to sauces involving meat) depend on a few strong bright flavors. They are typically simmered for a short time and involve fresh ingredients when possible. One of my summer favorites uses fresh tomatoes and basil with olive oil and isn't cooked at all (note: don't do this if you can't take the acid).

Meat sauces are more complex, and often involve meats that need time on the simmer to break down and absorb different flavors. These are the things that you want on the stove for a long time.

Now, Italian-American cooking is a totally different animal and more often involves dried herbs. In most cases, I totally understand the thinking behind this, but in the case of the simple tomato sauce, I don't.
posted by lackutrol at 10:11 AM on February 24, 2005

I add a half cup or so of red wine so my sauce starts out pretty wet, but I simmer it for most of an hour, which cooks down the liquids pretty well. If you still find your sauce too loose, Muir Glen sells canned organic plum tomatoes which contain less water.

I get big cans of Italian artichoke hearts (with stems) in herbed sunflower oil and use that oil to sauté the quartered hearts and halved garlic cloves till the garlic is soft. No onions. Then I add Pepsi Blue Muir Glen whole canned tomatoes mushed up by hand, and the wine, and some whole basil leaves. Salt and pepper and let simmer while you make fresh linguine (flour, egg, salt, a little water; knead into balls and let sit for 30 minutes; roll flat with a wine bottle and cut into narrow strips).

I add the juice of 1/4 lemon near the end of cooking, and only about 1/4 teaspoon of brown sugar. And some more basil leaves.

Try grating fresh pecorino instead of parmesan for a bit of a twist. The pecorino we get here is really salty, so cut back the salt in the sauce if you do this.
posted by nicwolff at 10:23 AM on February 24, 2005

Here is a very simple sauce I read in the Spectator - I've used it very frequently as a base.

Add one can of tomatoes to a sauce pan. Put on low heat, add a knob of butter, 1 tsp spoon sugar, salt and black pepper to season.

Variations include adding a whole garlic clove or half a peeled onion (not chopped). Chuck these out once you use the sauce. Amazing how cooking tinned tomatoes really alters them.
posted by laukf at 10:30 AM on February 24, 2005

And if you don't want to go tomato sauce use 2/3 cup olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 or 2 lemons depending on how tart you like things), lots of grated fresh parmesan and some fresh rosemary, salt and (black and/or red) pepper and whirl it all together, then toss w/pasta and top with more cheeze (if you like). Nummy.
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2005

Well, since Goodfellas has already been mentioned, I think another shout-out might be in order:

"Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick."
posted by Vervain at 12:44 PM on February 24, 2005

If you want to kill your guests with a sumptuous dish laden with heavy cream, and make sure they get to heaven:

For four people

1lb campanelle ("bell") pasta - your choice (anything that soaks up the sauce and has a unique texture)

1 tsp olive oil
8 med mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup peas
2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
2 lg tomatoes, chopped into long slivers
1 cup heavy cream
Tsp fresh black pepper
1 1/4 tsp fresh thyme or parsley
1/4 cup fresh grated romano parmesan
8oz or what suits of smoked salmon

Put some plates in the oven to warm. Start boiling water for pasta. Sauté vegetables and garlic, add seasoning, add cream, add cheese. Boil the pasta about 8-10 minutes. While you're doing this, cook down the sauce until thickens. Add salmon 2 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh parsley. Send me a thank you note.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:19 PM on February 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Less is more.

Big can of tomatoes. A few good lugs of extra virigin olive oil. The oil helps the tomatoes to fry, sweeten and darken, gives the sauce a lovely gloss and contributes a big flavour hit. A couple of good pinches of sea salt. Let simmer til thick. Add another lug of extra virgin, fresh basil, check salt. Toss through spaghetti. Top with freshly grated parmesan.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:55 PM on February 24, 2005

Response by poster: Wow! Excellent, excellent recipes, folks. Thanks so much!

/scampers off to make pasta
posted by zardoz at 4:03 PM on February 24, 2005

The key to good gravy is to avoid the onions completely (and like Transient, I love onions).

I've worked on this recipe for years. It's a mixture of my ex-girlfriend's italian mothers' recipes and Mario Batali's (Food Channel).

Put some amazingly good quality olive oil in the pan and add garlic. Don't put the heat up too high or you'll brown the garlic, which is bad. Add red pepper flakes to taste (and dried oregano or basil if you don't have fresh). After a few minutes, add half a can of tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste. When the paste is caramelized and stuck to the bottom of the pan (which is the *key* to good sauce and can take 10 minutes or more), then add your tomatoes from the can. If you don't have a lot of time, don't add the liquid and break them (releasing the juice) before you add them. Crush them with your hands. Add 1/4 or 1/2 a cup of red wine, fresh basil or oregano, lots of freshly grated parmesan cheese. simmer for as much time as you can stirring occasionally so that you don't burn it. At the end, add a splash more oil. Add tabasco if you want arabiatta-like sauce.

Everyone above who is adding sugar should really just be using tomato paste.
posted by about_time at 5:48 PM on February 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, for really garlicky sauce, add another clove of crushed garlic a few minutes before the end of cooking. The rawer it is, the stronger the taste.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:58 PM on February 24, 2005

Much to our delight, it was damned good.

Oh. I thought when you said "it made you shudder" you meant like... toxic shock or something ;)
posted by scarabic at 7:20 PM on February 24, 2005

OK, didn't read the comments in this thread but I use Deborah Madison's:

1. Heat 2 tblsp olive oil in a pan. Sautee diced onions on medium heat with a touch of salt until soft and sweet.
2. Add 1 28oz can diced/pureed/ground (your preference) tomatoes (NOT paste).
3. Cook until desired thickness, or until the water desn't leech out when you stir the sauce. Season with s&p to taste.

posted by scazza at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2005

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