Better with age
July 17, 2006 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Why does my tomato sauce taste so much better the day after?

I'm a frugal sort and purchase economy brands whenever possible. To the bottled sauce I buy I typically add garlic, a couple of sliced tomatoes, olives, a couple tablespoons of kosher dill pickle juice, pesto, a dash of red wine (usually a Shiraz) then boost the volume by about 50% with cold water.

Then I reduce the sauce back to it's original volume by a slow boil and serve over (economy, of course) pasta shells with grated cheese and olive oil.

Both GalPal and I have noticed that the sauce markedly improves upon a second heating, usually a day later. We generally don't make enough to last more than three days, but when we have we both agree the sauce is even better on the third day. The difference is so pronounced that I've taken to making a batch Friday evenings when we're going to be eating home over the weekend, so we'll can consume after a single days "ripening" for want of a better word.

From a rudimentary googleing we suspect something in the sauce is oxidizing, but what? Any tips on controlling or perhaps even improving the process? Bonus points if you can explain this in simple monosyllables a banker like myself would understand.
posted by Mutant to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My mother's conventional wisdom is that the flavors "meld" when you let something that involves mixing flavors (soups and stews especially) rest for a day or so. That's why leftovers are better :). I figure the various flavor agents have more chance to let out their flavor into the food. I have no idea what science may be behind this, if you can express it in scientific terms.
posted by MadamM at 10:43 PM on July 17, 2006

This is pretty common. The sauce's ingredients, especially the garlic, are getting more time to mix amongst themselves. It's the same principle for stews, stocks, reductions, etc. Basically, the various chemicals and proteins and such continue to break down and unwind, resulting in more complex flavors.
posted by frogan at 10:43 PM on July 17, 2006

I always feel this way about chili, it improves with age. My explanation is that spices (I think this is true of wine as well) can tend to have a rather raw, aggressive flavor that is mellowed with time (rather than pow, that's some chili/cumin/wine/whatever it becomes a unified whole). The chemistry behind it is probably terribly complex and varied, though... I wonder if anyone is injecting chili essence into a gas chromatograph, trying to figure it out.

But you could intuit many simple examples of how it might work - olives are salty, for example, with time that salt dilutes through and seasons the whole sauce, rather than just being a salty chunk in the sauce. Many flavors are soluble in oil, and I think a similar kind of dilution takes place.
posted by nanojath at 11:31 PM on July 17, 2006

I agree that 2nd day pasta is the best - but I think it's much more simple than oxidation or whatever else. Because I mix my sauce and pasta together and then store leftovers like that (not separately), the pasta has time to absorb the sauce. In effect, it's the meal that's better (and a little different) on day two, not the actual sauce.
posted by bozichsl at 3:54 AM on July 18, 2006

The conventional wisdom is that "the flavors have more time to meld."
But a google search for why doesn't turn up much. Maybe this is a good PhD thesis?

This is true, by the way, of most braises (like, say, coq au vin), chilis and all tomato sauces except the quick fresh ones. Sometimes I'll cook the day before a party so it tastes better (and is less work the day my guests are coming.)

These guys are even soliciting recipes that taste better the next day.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:01 AM on July 18, 2006

Also, I just have to say, I've heard of a lot of different things that people put in pasta sauce, but pickle juice? That's a first. Ewwwww.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:04 AM on July 18, 2006

I have always questioned that "melding" theory. It seems to me the palate does the melding, anyway. I think it's more likely that a certain amount of chemical breakdown is going on -- ripening, rotting, decaying, but just a little bit. It's the process that brings many fruits, cheeses, meats and other foods to the peak of flavor, and it starts to happen to pasta or chili as soon as you store it in the fridge. The way to test this would be to have a taste-off between sauces stored for various intervals of time. In theory is peak of flavor is reached after a few days, or maybe a week, after which things deteriorate as serious spoilage sets in.
posted by beagle at 5:33 AM on July 18, 2006

I hadn't heard about this happening with tomato sauce but I know it's true for potatoes so maybe there's a connection. Chilling & reheating potatoes causes the starches to break down into sugars, which would cause an obvious change in both the texture & taste. That's the theory behind twice-baked potatoes, which I learned from a cooking show (can't remember which, sorry).
posted by scalefree at 5:44 AM on July 18, 2006

If you do all that to your tomato sauce, you really should consider cans of ground or diced tomato rather than cheap sauce. You get less crap (sugar, salt, MSG, whatever..), and with a little tweaking you can probably get it to taste even better.

I notice the benefits of aging with pumpkin pie! The cinnamon doesn't really 'work' until the day after..

Chilling & reheating potatoes causes the starches to break down into sugars, which would cause an obvious change in both the texture & taste.

The glycemic index of potato salad from the fridge is lower than the glycemic index of the same potatoes right after cooking. I wonder how that changes when you heat them up again?
posted by Chuckles at 6:35 AM on July 18, 2006

Best answer: The flavor fairies only come out at night, so the flavor is best after they've had a chance to impart their blessing. Always works that way for my sauce, and soup, too.
posted by Goofyy at 7:18 AM on July 18, 2006

I just checked my copy of On Food and Cooking, and Harold McGee doesn't seem to address this issue at all, which seems a notable omission.

It seems possible that, with a tomato sauce especially, the acid from the tomato could break down some of the other ingredients and liberate their flavors. But I'm just speculating.
posted by adamrice at 7:46 AM on July 18, 2006

I've noticed this with almost any 'sauce-based' thing I cook. There was a programme on this a couple of years ago on TV in the UK. I didn't see it but friends of mine did and then proceeded to explained the phenomenon to me after a few drinks. Therefore it's hard to remember exactly what the explanation was but it definitely has something to do with enzymes breaking down. Either that or it's just pure magic.
posted by ob at 8:33 AM on July 18, 2006

I agree with beagle.

Microorganisms like tomato sauce, too, but not for the same reasons we do. They like it because they can produce sugar from the sauce. So the "better" taste is because the sauce is both sweeter and more alcoholic.

(my grandma told me this)
posted by infinitewindow at 11:58 AM on July 18, 2006

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