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How to make your own Italian tomato sauce recipe

How to make your own unique Italian tomato sauce recipe

by Great British Chefs 05 October 2018

Every family, nonna, cook and chef in Italy will have their own way of making a simple tomato sauce, but knowing the most common variations can help pinpoint the one that’s best for you. Take a look at the different ways this seemingly basic sauce can be created.

How do you make an Italian tomato sauce? It’s a simple question – ask a few of your friends, however, and you’ll probably get totally different answers. But this is one of the reasons why Italian cooking is so expressive and loved here in the UK; there are no right or wrong answers. Some people will keep it simple, while others will add all sorts of aromatics, herbs and vegetables to add complexity to the final flavour. They might change things depending on whether the sauce is for pasta, pizza or a stew, or have an all-round basic recipe that they swear by.

Rather than dictate how a tomato sauce should be made, it’s better to look at the different factors, methods and ingredients that many cooks use to create their own interpretations of this simple dish. Some will suit certain dishes more than others, and it’s a good idea to swap, mix, match and tinker with different combinations until you’ve found a recipe you can call your own. Below are some basic questions you should ask yourself when coming up with a tomato sauce, which will result in different flavours and textures. At the end of the day, whatever you like best will be the perfect tomato sauce recipe.

Fresh or tinned?

You might think that Italians, with all those incredible tomatoes growing in their gardens, would always favour them over the tinned variety. But in fact, the quality of tinned tomatoes is so good these days that they’re generally better suited for sauces. If you have access to incredibly fresh, beautifully ripe tomatoes (which are hard to come by except in the very peak of the season) then you want to celebrate them by serving them raw; when making a sauce, tinned varieties are readily available, contain peeled tomatoes (so you don’t end up with shrivelled skins) and come in a variety of forms. There are whole plum tomatoes which can be crushed and cooked slowly; chopped for a chunkier, rustic sauce or passata for something much smoother and uniform. You can even get tinned tomatoes made with specific varieties such as Pomodorini, Datterini or Tuscan.

Fast or slow?

Many of the great dishes of Italy require gentle cooking over a long period of time, with a pot emanating delicious aromas and the soothing pop pop pop of bubbles whilst it simmers away. If you’re making a meaty ragù for pasta or a rich, intense beef dish, then low and slow is key. When it comes to tomato sauces, however, you can go both ways – a long slow cooking time will break down the tomatoes into a dark, jammy state, with their red colour intensifying and the flavour getting deeper. If you’re in a rush, however, don’t fret – this is actually a better way to create a tomato sauce if you’re after something lighter, fresher, sweeter and more acidic. A brisk simmer (uncovered) for twenty minutes should be long enough for the tomatoes to break down and create a uniform sauce whilst ensuring those top-note flavours are kept intact.

Butter or oil?

Think of Italian cooking and nearly every first step of a recipe involves a few glugs of olive oil in a pan. But a lot of cooks will use butter when making a tomato sauce, especially if they’re after a richer, more decadent, velvety finish. The creaminess of the butter contrasts nicely with the bright acidity of the tomatoes, and the two combine to create a flavourful sauce that’s perfect for richer, wintry dishes. Don’t ignore oil completely, however – if you’re after a lighter, fruitier tomato sauce, a spoon of olive oil will help get the tomatoes cooking. A final drizzle just before serving will give the sauce a more prominent olive oil flavour.

Onion or garlic?

A tomato sauce is rarely 100% tomatoes (although if that’s what you like, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that) – most cooks will add a few aromatics to make it a little more interesting. Garlic is the most common, but it’s incorporated in different ways. Finely mincing a clove or two into a paste then frying it until just starting to colour will result in the strongest garlic flavour, but you can also keep the garlic cloves whole, fry them in a little oil or butter and then remove them either before or after you cook the tomatoes. The key is to not let the garlic turn dark brown – this will give the sauce an acrid bitter taste.

A lot of cooks will also use onion for added depth and sweetness, which leaves you with the same choice. You can finely chop it and fry until softened before adding the tomatoes for added texture and a more pronounced flavour, or simply peel and halve the onion, add it to the tomatoes while they cook and then remove them before serving.

Basil or oregano?

Ingredients like garlic and onion add depth, but herbs are where you can play around with the top notes of your sauce. Tomato and basil are one of those combinations that work on every level, which is why it’s such a common pairing. Just be sure to use the freshest basil you can find – dried basil doesn’t really work here – and add it at the last minute for maximum flavour. If you add leafy herbs like basil earlier on in the cooking, they’ll turn black and lose their vibrancy.

Another common herb used in Italian tomato sauces is oregano, which acts a little differently to basil. It’s almost always used in its dried form as it has quite a distinct flavour that’s reminiscent of marinara pizzas and big bowls of sauce-covered pasta. It’s a good idea to add this earlier on in the cooking process, so the flavour has time to infuse into the tomatoes and mellow a little (a hefty sprinkling of dried oregano just before serving can be somewhat overpowering).

Choosing which of the above routes to take will result in very different tomato sauces, and there are countless variations you can play around with. You could add red or white wine; take the time to incorporate a soffritto or sprinkle a little sugar for added sweetness. Keep experimenting, tinkering and – most importantly – tasting, and soon enough you'll have a tomato sauce you can call your own.

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