If there’s one grocery store item I deeply despise, it’s pre-canned tomato sauce. Actually, there are a lot of grocery store items I despise, but they almost always follow the same pattern: simple, basic things that have been over-processed, over-priced, and sold as completely impossible or impractical to make at home. And, frankly, the worst offender is tomato sauce.
The real truth is tomato sauce is not only dead-easy to make at home, but cheap, fast, and totally customizable. Soon, you’ll have a go-to personalized favorite that freezes and keeps well, and will blow away any of the jarred store-bought stuff. Front-to-back, it takes 30 minutes, and made in big batches you’ve got freezer stock for a month.
So, step one is get some canned tomatoes.
I know, I just went on a screed about pre-jarred sauce, but canned tomatoes are different. First, fresh tomatoes at the grocery store are almost always picked green and “ripened” in warehouses on on the way to the store. As a result the natural sugar content isn’t allowed to develop, nor are the important tomato flavor components. It’s why a garden-fresh specimen tastes absolutely nothing like the grocery-store counterpart.
Canned tomatoes, however, are usually allowed to come to full ripeness and are canned almost immediately, meaning they taste more like fresh tomatoes than… well, “fresh” tomatoes. AND canned tomatoes have a ton more uses than jarred sauce. So, get yourself some canned tomatoes and keep them around.
What kind? Well, go whole if you can, and chopped if not. Avoid crushed or stewed. Once you have a pantry full of the stuff, let’s ride.
Step One: Your aromatic base. This is going to be the… aura, I suppose, of your sauce. These flavors are going to be melded into the background, and should be things that play well with others. Personally, I like celery and onion. Other favorites include shallots, carrots, leeks, and the white ends of fennel.
Importantly: I almost NEVER use garlic as an aromatic. More on that later.
Today we’re keeping it simple:
If your final goal is a puree (mine almost always is), you can be pretty sloppy with the cuts. If you’re going to for a rustic end product (like for mussels or bruschetta) take a little more care with your knife work:
Get some olive oil going over low heat in the biggest pot you have, add your aromatics with a sprinkle of salt and sweat for ten (10) to fifteen (15) minutes.
Step two: Get your tomato cans. The beauty of this method is we’re going to use the tomatoes AND the reserved tomato juice to make something really incredible. But, first we need to separate them. I use a salad spinner, but you can use a regular old colander if you want, so long as you don’t lose any of the juice and you get the tomatoes as dry as possible
Once they’re separated, add the tomatoes to the aromatics and crank the heat to high. The goal is to cook the remaining liquid out, and also to get some color on the tomatoes and on the bottom of the pot. It’s going to take a while, and will need some occasional stirring, but you don’t need to watch it like a hawk.
Step three: Alchemy. Let’s talk about the real magic of this method: the flavor bomb that this juice will become. The plan here is going to be to flavor this with our second “profile” of ingredients – the things we REALLY want to stand out in the final sauce – and concentrate those flavors into an enchanted tomato-potion.
Today we’re going with garlic, in whole cloves, because I want maximum garlic flavor. The reason I don’t use it as an aromatic is because it seems to both overtake the other flavors, and also muddy everything up that way. Also, with the high heat employed in the tomato cook-off, the garlic has a propensity to burn.
We’re also adding some dried oregano, chili flake (because I like a little heat), and some white sugar to balance the acidity. Were I doing a mushroom sauce, I’d add those here. Similarly, any herb or spice you like should go into this part of the recipe, be it star anise, fennel seed, dried basil, dried parsley, or whatever. This is where the sauce picks its major, so to speak.
A word about the sugar: yes, it’s necessary. You don’t need very much, but the final sauce will be too acidic without it. Go light, and you can add more at the final tasting if you want (you probably won’t).
Anyway, once our elixir is composed, put the spurs to it with high heat. The goal is to boil off the water in the juice and get down to a sort of loose syrup. Here’s the before and after:
Notice how much farther down from the pot rivets the sauce is. All of that missing volume is flavorless water.
Step four: alcohol. By this point the tomatoes should be good and dry, with some good caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan. We need to introduce the other major secret weapon in this method, which is some form of alcohol. For complex chemical reasons, tomatoes and booze play REALLY well together. The short version is tomatoes have a ton of alcohol-soluble flavor compounds that only come out to play with a stiff drink (similar concept to our pot roast recipe).
I typically use vodka, since it’s relatively flavorless, and my end goal is to get pure tomato flavor on steroids. But, wines also work well, particularly if you’re planning on having wine with the end dish. Just be aware that whatever flavors are in the wine will hit the sauce, so while a nice buttery-oak chardonnay may work great with a mushroom meat sauce, a grapefruit-bomb Sauvingon Blanc won’t. Similarly, if you’re going red, be aware of the tannin content and what that may do to the final product.
Anyway, add the booze with a hearty stir, drop the heat to low, and let it cook for another ten minutes or so:
From here, it’s pretty straightforward. Combine the two pots, and (if you’re going puree) buzz it with the stick blender, then taste and adjust for salt and sugar. I find that I almost always need more salt, and very rarely sugar, but that’s why we taste.
For tonight, it’s homemade spaghetti (pasta dough recipe here) from some farm-fresh eggs, and a little basil from the garden: