what is tomato sauce really made of?
December 28, 2007 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm getting ready to make my first serious attempt at marinara. Recipes that I have seen vary on whether one should use whole tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato puree, or tomato sauce. What effect does it have on the finished product to use or not use any of these in particular?

I plan on working from my mother-in-law's recipe, which calls for a combination of tomato sauce and tomato paste, and is of the slow-cooking variety...

But as I've been looking at other recipes for perspective, I see that the most essential ingredient varies wildly looking at different recipes, since there are so many forms available.

I have seen this, this, this, and this, which are all delightfully packed with recipes and tips and make me desperately hungry for pasta, yet none of them address my question: what effect does it have on your finished red sauce if you do or don't use these variously processed or unprocessed forms of tomato?
posted by zebra3 to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Whole raw tomatoes are a crapshoot. You may get lucky with some plum tomatoes that actually have some flavour, but they would be hard to find at this time of year.

Canned whole or diced tomatoes (canned in juice rather than tomato paste) are my staple as they generally have good flavour and texture. I'm fine with the seeds, but many people prefer to strain them out. Strain out the juice for a thicker sauce base.

Canned crushed tomatoes have great texture, but can be quite bitter on their own. I wouldn't use them straight, but would combine them with canned tomatoes or tomato puree.

Tomato paste is useful in small amounts to add some body and umami to stews, but I find it a fiddly waste to add to a marinara most of the time.

Tomato puree/strained tomatoes, in the glass bottles from a good Italian grocery, are also a great all around choice as they have both decent flavour and texture.

I don't use tomato sauce and don't have an opinion on it.

I'd recommend a combination of canned tomatoes and tomato puree (gives you a thinner marinara) OR canned and crushed tomatoes (for a thicker marinara). It will thicken and intensify in flavour more as it cooks and reduces, so don't worry if you start with something that seems a bit thinner than what you want to end up with.
posted by maudlin at 1:02 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I like canned whole tomatoes, but I crush them myself, inserting my knife into the can and chopping up the tomatoes before I dump them into my saucepan.

I find that this entails larger, tastier chunks than you'd get with canned crushed tomatoes, which are more of a thick puree (and also bitter, as pointed out above).

Some people add tomato puree as a thickener, but I find that a good, long reduction gives enough thickening to the sauce. Oh, and for an even thicker, richer vegetable marinara--try adding diced veggies, such as onions, carrots or celery. (Dice them extremely fine and sautee before blending with the tomatoes). They'll give your sauce amazing richness and body (especially if you add judicious amounts of red wine).
posted by Gordion Knott at 1:09 PM on December 28, 2007


I'll start by answering the question and move on to other issues afterward.

I find that fresh tomatoes are not a good bet when they are not in season, which in my New Yorky part of the world is around September. Furthermore, my experience has been that fresh tomatoes can be quite a bit more acidic than the canned variety. And even though I love tomatoes, more acidic fresh ones can make me a bit uncomfortable. So my advice to you would be to purchase canned, peeled tomatoes (or the ones that come in the Parmalat-type container), de-seed them and then do what you want to them to achieve the desired consistency.

Traditionally in many parts of Italy you would run them through a food mill using the disc with the smallest holes. I find that I like a bit more chunkiness, so I use the one with the biggest holes. You could probably get close to this using a food processor.

Now. I congratulate you on your ambition, and while I'm sure your mother-in-law is a wonderful person, I do not find that slow-cooking or tomato paste improve a simple marinara sauce. I think that both of these aspects might suit certain kinds of meat sauces, particularly those that use chunks of meat rather than ground meat. Slow-cooking would then allow the meat to break apart and the flavor to spread through the sauce, and the tomato paste might complement and augment the meat flavor.

What you want to achieve with a marianara, in my opinion, is a much lighter taste. So I suggest that after you saute your garlic, if you want to use garlic, add the tomatoes and cook no longer than 20 minutes or so. Then add basil if you like. I would also suggest going for fresh herbs over dried ones.
posted by lackutrol at 1:19 PM on December 28, 2007


Well, assuming you're in the northern hemisphere there's no way you should use fresh tomatoes. Whether they're better than canned for this type of sauce is a debate even in-season (well, not for me, but for some people :). Cook's Illustrated has lots of info, recipes, reviews on this topic. If I remember correctly their latest take on it is to use canned whole tomatoes, but to seed them and crush them yourself when you use them.
posted by madmethods at 1:22 PM on December 28, 2007


My wife's grandmother is Sicilian and makes the best marinara I've ever had. Whole canned plum tomatoes are the way to go - pour them out into a bowl and crush them by hand. No other tomato products necessary. No puree, no sauce, no paste.

If you can, get San Marzano tomatoes, as that's what she uses.

This is the closest recipe I've been able to find online, as she does her sauce more on intuition than recipes after all these years...
posted by po822000 at 1:29 PM on December 28, 2007


For a richer sauce (such as a slow-cooking sauce) add the concentrated tomato paste after you've sauted the garlic and onions (and anything else you're adding - it should be the last thing that goes in before the tomatoes) and cook it for two minutes. This really brings out the flavour, and also gives a rich base for the garlic and onion. Then add in fresh chopped tomatoes ONLY IF you can get nice flavoursome ones (in season, preferably local), if not use tinned whole tomatoes and crush them up in the pan. The texture is the same whether tinned or fresh tomatoes are used, especially if you leave the sauce to simmer for at least 45mins, but the flavour is better with fresh.

For a lighter sauce (such as for a primavera or simple summer pasta dish) omit the tomato paste and use fresh tomatoes when in season, whole tinned tomatoes when in not.
posted by goo at 1:29 PM on December 28, 2007


oops...the link to San Marzano tomatoes is here. My bad.
posted by po822000 at 1:30 PM on December 28, 2007


Oh, I forgot - you also need to add additional water to a slow-cooking sauce, otherwise it reduces too much. An extra 1/4 cup or so every half hour should be enough.
posted by goo at 1:33 PM on December 28, 2007


A non-answer kind of answer: As you seem to be interested in food, why not do the obvious thing and do an experiment and try the different variations yourself and see? Invite some friends and have a (semi)blind tasting, some fine wine and selected the best one. And for bonus points, write a blog entry and post it to projects.metafilter.com.

People saying "I do it like this and it's wonderful" isn't quite helpful unless they also specify the other ways they tried it and why it wasn't as good, which is why I recommend a more scientific approach.
posted by rpn at 1:34 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


The only time I use fresh tomatoes is if I can get seasonal organic Roma tomatoes, because of the taste, as maudlin mentioned. But even then I typically will make a quick red sauce with crushed whole fresh tomatoes rather than a slow-cooked marinara (some heirlooms can be good for this, too). A quick red sauce can be nice, btw. As far as the puree, many traditional red sauce recipes use about half paste with water to half crushed or whole (such as this one, which is tasty but very fattening). Reducing can work, as Gordion Knott mentioned, but the consistency will be a little different.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:35 PM on December 28, 2007


Here's a thread from great food blog. These people know what they're talking about, except the person who thinks marinara has meat in it.
posted by LiveToEat at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2007


i take stewed tomatoes and chop them, add them to the hot pan with the garlic and other seasonings over med to med-high heat, stirring constantly. this gives me a nice chunky paste to work from (probably 20ish minutes or so) then i add a can of petite diced, cook another 10 to 15 on med then med-low heat. add brown sugar between the tomatoes to cut the acidity.

i think it's rich and complex and warming. by far my favorite sauce to make.
posted by nadawi at 1:40 PM on December 28, 2007


I use Pomi chopped tomatoes and Marcella Hazan's recipes and everything has always tasted great. Going with packaged tomatoes at least lets you get your recipe down before you really start nerding out on the ingredients.
posted by rhizome at 1:43 PM on December 28, 2007


These people know what they're talking about, except the person who thinks marinara has meat in it.

Well, to the non-US world marinara sauce always has seafood in it. What you're all talking about here I know as a napoletana sauce.
posted by goo at 1:48 PM on December 28, 2007


People saying "I do it like this and it's wonderful" isn't quite helpful unless they also specify the other ways they tried it and why it wasn't as good, which is why I recommend a more scientific approach.

Or just read the America's Test Kitchen / Cook's Illustrated books, which do tell you all this.
posted by smackfu at 1:58 PM on December 28, 2007


Yes, lackutrol, this recipe is actually for use with meatballs, but I'm sure I'll come up with other purposes for it too. I've already picked out recipes for chicken cacciatore and lasagna and plan on making heroes too.

I'm getting the sense from what you're saying (and what I see elsewhere) that there's no point in doing long, slow cooking of tomatoes if there's no meat in there. Is that right?

As you seem to be interested in food, why not do the obvious thing and do an experiment and try the different variations yourself and see? Invite some friends and have a (semi)blind tasting, some fine wine and selected the best one. And for bonus points, write a blog entry and post it to projects.metafilter.com.

Because honestly, my personal taste is kind of peculiar sometimes. I tend to like things much spicier and more flavorful than most people do. I'm not a bad cook, but I've heard quite a few comments over the years that imply that my food is more strongly flavored than they would like. So I don't really trust myself as an arbiter of taste.

Also, I know a lot of people here have considerably more kitchen experience than I do, and I'm sure my husband will appreciate anything that makes my food taste better faster.

Or just read the America's Test Kitchen / Cook's Illustrated books, which do tell you all this.
Neato, I'll check those out. I'd always rather understand why things are necessary or preferable in cooking than just follow a recipe.
posted by zebra3 at 2:45 PM on December 28, 2007


Here is the thing about sauce: it is really personal. I make sauce like I make it because my mom taught me how to make sauce. Making someone else's sauce is anathema, and all these people's strange suggestions are wrong to me, because this is not how we make our sauce. And even if you make it the same, it always tastes slightly different anyway.

Because honestly, my personal taste is kind of peculiar sometimes. I tend to like things much spicier and more flavorful than most people do. I'm not a bad cook, but I've heard quite a few comments over the years that imply that my food is more strongly flavored than they would like. So I don't really trust myself as an arbiter of taste.

Also, I know a lot of people here have considerably more kitchen experience than I do, and I'm sure my husband will appreciate anything that makes my food taste better faster.


This is against the whole point. You may as well just buy it if you don't make it yours. Experiment. Make your husband taste. And then, in ten years or so, you will have real sauce that is good because it is yours.
posted by dame at 3:17 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cook's Illustrated did a great article where they taste tested all of the canned tomatos they could find for which made the best sauce. You have to subscribe to see it, but they have a 14 day free trial offer. Your library may have an archived copy as well.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:23 PM on December 28, 2007


  • Fresh tomatoes are usually terrible unless in season.
  • tomato puree and tomato sauce are made from inferior tomatoes and often taste musty.
  • Tomato paste will give you a deeper tomato flavor and will make your sauce taste like it has been cooking longer. I recommend Amore paste as it comes in a tube and you can save the rest.
  • Diced tomatoes can be tough. There is a preservative put in with canned tomato that reinforces the cell structure. The more tomato exposed to this preservative, the tougher it will be.
  • My top tomato choice is whole canned tomatoes. They are easy to clean of any ick, like stem ends, seeds, and skin. They also have great flavor and texture. Don't get any that have been packed with herbs, you will want to add that yourself. Muir Glen is a nice brand that is available throughout the U.S. but I have found most brands of canned whole tomatoes to be fine.

posted by Foam Pants at 3:31 PM on December 28, 2007


This is an amazing non-traditional marinara (probably shouldn't call it a marinara, except that it's a tomato sauce made of nothing but tomatoes).

I'm with everyone else here-- I like using canned whole tomaoes; I crush them with a fork once they've cooked a while. I do use a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, probably for no other reason than that that's how my mother made it.
posted by nax at 3:57 PM on December 28, 2007


tomaToes
posted by nax at 3:58 PM on December 28, 2007


The truth is that any of these ingredients can result in a pretty decent marinara. A lot of the differences are subtle and if this is your first ever sauce the most important thing to know is that it is hard to get it perfect, but even harder to make it turn out bad. Odds are good that it will be fine no matter what happens, so long as it does not burn.

In general, tomato paste is used only to help thicken the sauce. Add it a few minutes before the sauce is finished to give it a nice smooth texture.

If you attempt to make a sauce from whole tomatoes, it will save you a lot of cooking time to get rid of the seeds and the gloop around them (an easy way is to chop them in half at the "equator" and then squeeze). Then chop finely and add to the pan...they should cook down and soften. If the tomatoes aren't sweet enough a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt should help (apparently salt makes things taste sweeter by blocking our taste receptors for bitterness).

A small splash of extra virgin olive oil at the end of the cooking time will add a lot of nice flavor to the sauce at the very end.

So to answer your question: the reason all of these are listed is because they all will make a pretty good sauce. You could probably tell the difference between them if you're very familiar with making sauces, but the biggest difference will come from additional ingredients and familiarity with the process so you know how long each kind needs to be cooked. In a pinch, you can replace fresh and canned, whole and chopped or crushed, and the rest of the recipe will come out fine so long as you watch the sauce rather than going by the time given for the other kind of ingredient.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:42 PM on December 28, 2007


Oh! One really important distinction! In some countries, tomato puree is like the Italian passata -- basically, ground up tomatoes around twice as thick as tomato juice. In others, tomato puree effectively is tomato paste. In the UK, I believe what Americans think of as paste is sold in tubes labelled Tomato Puree.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:46 PM on December 28, 2007


Seconding lackutrol and others, whole canned plum tomatoes have the best flavor and less water than canned round tomatoes, so you don't have to cook them down as much. I just crush them in my hands into the pan on top of some halved garlic cloves that have been sauteed soft over low heat, add a little good red wine, and a very little lemon and sugar. Sometimes I do add tomato paste for a more intense tomato flavor. I cook mine a long time, to break down the tomato meat, then add whole fresh basil leaves five minutes before serving. If it's still a bit loose when I'm ready to serve it, I kill the heat and grate some pecorino romano right into the pan which thickens it right up.

It's good.
posted by nicwolff at 6:52 PM on December 28, 2007


Uh, salt and pepper go without saying. But not too much salt, since the pecorino we get in the US is usually real salty.
posted by nicwolff at 6:56 PM on December 28, 2007


Zebra3, yes, that's right. The long, slow cooking is for a meat sauce. Seems to me we're talking about two different sauces here--a marinara, which strictly speaking is a light sauce using just tomotoes, and a rather thicker meat sauce. For a meat sauce I use diced onions, celery, carrots, and garlic and add wine and sometimes stock. Even then it doesn't need to cook all day, just an hour or two depending on the meat used.
posted by lackutrol at 8:20 AM on December 29, 2007


*tomatoes*.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm so bad at spelling a word I use so often.
posted by lackutrol at 8:22 AM on December 29, 2007


Lackutrol-- you say "tomotoes" and y'know, I'm going to start saying it too, because it's really an excellent typo.
posted by nax at 10:24 AM on December 29, 2007


This is against the whole point. You may as well just buy it if you don't make it yours. Experiment. Make your husband taste. And then, in ten years or so, you will have real sauce that is good because it is yours.

I think you misunderstand me. Of course I'm going to experiment and develop my own recipe; my statement about not trusting myself as an arbiter of taste was in response to only the comment I quoted. I know I can make something we like, but I don't intend to dictate to the rest of y'all.


Anyway, the sauce came out pretty well. I used a mix of crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, and a little water, along with the obligatory vegetables and herbs. I tried to use Goo's tomato paste trick, but I didn't add much, so it's hard to tell that it's in there. But I did slow-cook the sauce to reduce it, and I now have a thick, flavorful sauce to use for the meals I've planned. Thanks to everyone for your recommendations. I think next time I'll try the vermouth and balsamic idea mentioned in that other thread. Sounds good!
posted by zebra3 at 8:30 AM on December 31, 2007


This is against the whole point. You may as well just buy it if you don't make it yours.

I thought the point was to make better sauce than you get in a jar.
posted by smackfu at 8:39 AM on December 31, 2007


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