Garlic, anyone?
April 25, 2006 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I am on an eternal quest to make the perfect tomato pasta sauce. Every recipie I've read says to start with a pan and some olive oil and then fry up onions and garlic. I then dump in my tomatoes--I ususally use whole canned tomatoes, chop them up a bit and let them simmer a while, then season, etc. The garlic is what I'm asking about, because I notice if I do this, the garlic will cook for quite a long time and the resultant sauce ain't so garlicky, even if I've added several cloves--it seems I've cooked away much of the flavor. I've tried adding the garlic later on, but that's not quite right either. How do you ensure your pasta sauce is full of garlic goodness?
posted by zardoz to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Don't use onions.

Italians usually use garlic *or* onions as a base flavor. Garlic if you want a spicy bite to the sauce, onions if you want it sweeter. Plus, as you noted, they take differing times to cook.

Add chopped garlic to the olive oil, cook for a few minutes over low-ish heat (no frying! Sautee!), then add the tomatoes. I actually prefer crushed tomatoes rather than whole, but either can work nicely.

If you *must* use both, cook the onions over low heat (again, no frying! Sautee!) for five or ten minutes, then add garlic for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes.
posted by occhiblu at 6:19 PM on April 25, 2006

Another trick worth trying: If you're making a very oily tomato sauce (like a puttanesca), you can also split the whole cloves of garlic and sautee those at the beginning, take them out right before adding the tomatoes, then chop them up and add them back in a few minutes before the sauce is finished.
posted by occhiblu at 6:21 PM on April 25, 2006

What occhiblu said. The longer you cook garlic the less flavour it has, especially if you've let it brown in the pan. Onions kill garlic flavour, too, as already said.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 6:21 PM on April 25, 2006

I'm glad you asked this question, since I've had the same problem. I basically gave up on making my own tomato sauce for this reason. But I do think the commenters are right to advise against too much onion (or using any at all).

Also don't forget some salt with the garlic, to pull the flavor out.
posted by Brian James at 6:30 PM on April 25, 2006

Salt is good, but don't add it *with* the garlic. Add it after the tomatoes have cooked down, because some canned tomatoes contain so much salt that you'll often oversalt if you don't check them first.
posted by occhiblu at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2006

An alternative, which will give you a really good flavour, is to use some really good olive oil, slowy cook the garlic (gently does it because burnt garlic is icky). Then remove the garlic and slowly cook the tomatoes in the same oil. I would use fresh tomatoes, because sometimes the tinned ones are (as occhiblu said) too salty.

For more garlic flavour, add more garlic later...

I'm not italian, but my brother in law and his father are and they slapped me silly till I did it their way... and their way was good.
posted by itsjustanalias at 6:43 PM on April 25, 2006

Another vote for using either garlic OR onion. You could try chopping the garlic into very large pieces, sauteing (sp?) it at a fairly low heat, so that the oil itself gets a lot of the garlic flavour, then removing the garlic pieces altogether, before you get on with the tomatoes (if you can get nice, vine-ripened organic tomatoes, then fresh tomatoes peeled and seeded make for a very good sauce. But good-quality canned tomatoes are better than shitty supermarket freshies). Doing this, I can get a very garlicky flavour without having to use too much garlic.
posted by bunglin jones at 6:45 PM on April 25, 2006

Short on time, but here are a few things:

Turn down the heat. A lot.
Use alcohol. Wine or vodka.
If the garlic changes color, it is too hot.
Don't mix garlic and onions at the beginning, as has been pointed out above.
You can always use more than one pot.
posted by bh at 6:53 PM on April 25, 2006

I use a different approach than the above. I roast whole garlic in a 375-degree oven with some drizzled olive oil and a bit of water in a baking pan. It becomes sweet and buttery with that bit of smoky, roasted goodness. It also mellows it out without that spicy, garlicky harsheness.

The tomato sauce itself starts with a sauteed onion base. Towards the end of cooking, add the soft garlic with the garlic oil from the baking pan. I typically make extra roasted garlic to use as an appetizer with the fresh tomato sauce and bread.
posted by junesix at 7:16 PM on April 25, 2006

Oh and since wasn't clear, to remove the garlic from its papery peel after roasting, use a sharp knife and cut off the tops (not base) of the whole cloves. Then use a small paring knife and pry the roasted cloves out. Mash the garlic with the flat of the blade against a cutting board and dice before adding to the tomato sauce.
posted by junesix at 7:19 PM on April 25, 2006

Good advice on use of garlic in Italian cooking here!

If you find yourself in Soho, London you could do worse than visiting Garlic and Shots. This is a restuarant where everything comes with garlic in it.
posted by asok at 8:24 PM on April 25, 2006

No no no. Use lots of onions, add your garlic (finely finely minced or squeezed through a press) at the end. The rawer your garlic, the garlickier your food is.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:05 PM on April 25, 2006

For insanely delicious garlicky goodness, I suggest you go with an uncooked tomato sauce. It's so easy. Just blend olive oil, garlic, chopped heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and ground pepper, and let the mix sit at room temp for an hour. The raw garlic flavor oozes into the sauce (and makes the kitchen smell wonderful) and stays strong and pungent when you toss it over hot pasta and sprinkle with grated parmesan (I usually add some lightly steamed veggies, too). Here's one recipe that's a good place to start. I prefer to use chunky hand-chopped ingredients instead of making a food processor puree, and add a lot more than two cloves of garlic.
posted by mediareport at 9:48 PM on April 25, 2006

Two tips: 1. the gourmet grocery stores near me sell pre-peeled garlic cloves in plastic containers and though it seems evil they're great and save much time. And 2. the best canned tomatoes are from Muir Glen, and if you use their canned plum tomatoes instead you'll be cooking off less water and therefore overcooking the garlic or onions less.
posted by nicwolff at 10:11 PM on April 25, 2006

I agree with the above about adding garlic later. I start with raw chopped tomatoes in a big pot, simmer them into sauce. Add fresh chopped garlic and other flavorings after about an hour, and don't pre-cook it.
posted by falconred at 10:49 PM on April 25, 2006

When you can smell the garlic in the air, it's done cooking. Cook it anymore and you'll flavor the air, not your dish.
A good tomato sauce recipe: alton brown's - I like the roasting method.
posted by muddylemon at 11:53 PM on April 25, 2006

Raw garlic tastes significantly different from cooked garlic (to me anyhow). Raw garlic will give you a very strong garlic flavour, but it's not going to be the same as the one you get from cooked garlic (which has a nice sweetness to it if the garlic's any good). And that pre-roasting thing that junesix recommends works really well.
posted by bunglin jones at 3:01 AM on April 26, 2006

Cooking garlic removes the aromatics. This is what gives you bad breath, or even comes out your pores when you sweat. There is flavor apart from the aromatics. This is what you taste in roasted garlic.

I've always made my marinara with both garlic and onions, browned in oil before adding tomato to the oil. I'm quite fond of the results. The recipe originates from my former Brooklyn-Italian mother-in-law.
posted by Goofyy at 3:39 AM on April 26, 2006

An alternative to buying pre-peeled garlic is to just cut the root-end off the clove, then belt the side of it with the flat of a cook's knife. The papery skin can be pulled off much more quickly and easily then.

Also, the Italians (that I know) put in a decent glug of olive oil at the last stage, when the pasta is mixed with the sauce. Mix vigorously and the whole lot emulsifies and thickens slightly.

Anyone serving the sauce atop the pasta like this is sick and wrong.
posted by Kiwi at 4:39 AM on April 26, 2006

I'm part Italian and the way I was taught how to make sauce (not sure if it is from the S Italian side or the Sicilian side) involves cooking the onions until they are clear and then adding garlic and cooking only until you begin to smell them (so for very little time).

We also always had thick sauce, using crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce or paste, so maybe that is why there are differences on when to use onions?

Kiwi - I don't think that's so bad as long as you mix it in your bowl. Eating it like that IS sick, though, wouldn't work at all.
posted by evening at 4:56 AM on April 26, 2006

(evening, from what I've seen, it Italy it's mostly garlic or onions. In Italian-American houses, it's often garlic and onions. Italian-American cuisine, while often wonderful, doesn't tend to resemble Italian cuisine very closely.

On the other hand, most of my firsthand experience is in northern Italy, though I have done much southern Italian cooking as well. But maybe there are different traditions in the south that got carried over to the US...)
posted by occhiblu at 8:16 AM on April 26, 2006

Now I'm obsessively looking at Italian cookbooks...

Ada Boni's Italian Regional Cooking has a couple recipes in the Apulian and Calabrian sections that use both garlic and onions. For both, she writes to

1. Heat 1/2 c. olive oil.
2. Fry a crushed garlic clove (so, not chopped) until it browns.
3. Discard the garlic.
4. Add the onion (one recipe has it thinly sliced, the other finely chopped) and continue to cook gently until onions are translucent.

Then add any meat, then the tomatoes, salt, and pepper.

And just for reference, from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking, in the "Fundamentals" chapter:

...When preparing them for Italian cooking, garlic cloves are always peeled. Once peeled, they may be used whole, mashed, sliced thin, or chopped fine, depending on how manifest one wants their presence to be. The gentlest aroma is that of the whole clove, the most unbuttoned scent is that exuded by the chopped. The least acceptable method of preparing garlic is squeezing it through a press. The sodden pulp it produces is acrid in flavor and cannot even be sauteed properly.

It is possible, and often desirable, for the fragrance to be barely perceptible, a result one can achieve by sauteing the garlic so briefly that it does not become colored, then letting it simmer in the juices of the other ingredients as, for example, when thin slices of it are cooked in a tomato sauce. On occasion, a more emphatic garlic accent may be appropriate, but never, in good Italian cooking, should it be allowed to become harshly pungent or bitter. When sauteing garlic, never take your eyes off it, never allow it to become colored a dark brown because that it when the offensive smell and taste develop. In a few circumstances, when the balance of flavors in a dish demand and support a particularly intense garlic flavor, garlic cloves may be cooked until they are the light brown color of walnut shells. For most cooking, however, the deepest color you should ever allow garlic to become is pale gold.

In my experience, the light-brown garlic does not work well with tomatoes (though it's great in just garlic-and-oil sauces).
posted by occhiblu at 8:39 AM on April 26, 2006

Aside from the typical Marinara I make for everyday use Ive got two special tomato sauces I make; Summer Sauce and Roasted Tomato Sauce.

Summer Sauce. I call it this because it's all about the best possible tomatoes which means Summer. It's a cross between the Salsa Cruda that mediareport described and a thing I saw some Italian Countess make on TV. The idea here is an olive oil infused with toasty garlic flavors emusified with the juice and flesh of ripe tomato which is barely poached in the flavored oil. It's basically a quick Confit of garlic & tomato.

In a heavy pot (enameled cast iron is good) heat up a lot of really good Olive Oil to just below the smoking point. You want to see that distinct cellular ripple pattern forming at the bottom of the pan. Dip in a thin slice of garlic and it should sizzle right away. When the oil is hot enough dump in a lot of garlic sliced thin or in little matchsticks. Either way you cut it, keep it consistent. When the garlic goes from golden towards caramel colored (yes, you're deep frying garlic) and you smell that nutty/toasty garlic scent, dump in the prepared tomatoes (stand back) and stir thoroughly. If the tomatoes are really ripe turn off the heat after a few moments. If not so firm bring it to just below a boil then take off heat.

To prep the tomatoes I cut them in 1/2" dice if not so ripe, big chunks if really ripe and toss in a bowl with salt and let macerate while I prep the garlic and all. If a lot of juice comes out (hopefully it will) I pour off most of it into another bowl and add it to the pot after the tomato flesh has been shocked in the oil. I do this to keep the temperature up on the tomatoes at the beginning. The quantities depend on how much tomato you've got and I've never measured it but I'd say for 1/2 gallon of prepped tomatoes you'd use up to 1/2 liter of oil (depending on how juicy the tomatoes are) and up to 1 large head of garlic. You kind of have to experiment. I don't usually use an herb except as a garnish on the finished dish. Try it on Pasta but its also nice on grilled fish or Poached Chicken. I'll also use it as a condiment on Crostini.

Roasted Tomato Sauce. You're just roasting Tomatoes with Garlic and Parsley. This is a nice way to make something special from not so great tomatoes. You can use decent plum tomatoes, the vine ripened kind you can get year round imported from Holland or Israel, even canned whole San Marzanos. Of course ripe locals are best. Pack as many halved tomatoes, cut face up, as will fit in a roasting pan. I prefer a ceramic or dark metal pan for this. Don't line with foil as it tends to inhibit caramelization. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt. Place 2 or 3 not too thin slices of garlic on top of each tomato half. Don't let garlic drop into pan or it'll burn. Drizzle with good Olive Oil taking care to make sure all the garlic has been kissed with it. Cover the whole thing with Parsley, stems and all, that you've rinsed and barely shaken out. Don't completely smother in parsley, but you want good coverage. The parsey is sacrificed in protecting the garlic but it adds a lot of flavor in the process. Drizzle the whole mess with more oil and pop into the lower third of a 450 degree oven.

The amount of oil I use depends on the juicyness of the toamtoes. Drier tomatoes get more oil. You don't want a dry pan bottom. After about 20 mins things should be sizzling along nicely. Drop the heat to 350 and move the pan to the upper rack. After about an hour total (it depends on how big and juicy the tomatoes are) the parsley will be largely burned to a crisp, the garlic will be a mid to deep caramel color, the tomatoes will be deflated and caramelized at the edges and bottoms and their juices will be reduced at the bottom of the pan along with the garlic & parsley flavored oil. Pick off the parsley and too burned bits of garlic (keep the nice bits). Lift out the tomatoes with a large spoon into a bowl, pour all the liquid on top and let rest. To make a sauce just mash with a fork or a mortar & pestle. Sometimes I'll emusilfy in a Cuisinart with some fresh Olive Oil and a bit of raw Garlic and hot Chili Pepper.

Damn, now I'm starving!
posted by HK10036 at 8:39 AM on April 26, 2006

I saute garlic and onions first. (I usually do a meat sauce, so that should be added here.) Then add tomatoes. Then add a clove (or four) or freshly crushed garlic. And, like junesix, I like adding roasted garlic. I think one bulb per large can of tomatoes is a good rule of thumb.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:25 AM on April 26, 2006

Response by poster: As always, you Mefiers have come through for me. Thanks everyone! (keep 'em coming, too)
posted by zardoz at 5:10 PM on April 26, 2006

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