This is my first instructable - I have had many ideas for what my first should be, but it seems I never have time to compile them into an instructable. Among my many hobbies is cooking, and I have always been somewhat famous for my spaghetti... which is of course all about the sauce, no? Since I have had a few friends bugging and begging me for a recipe (which I have never strictly had a recipe as much as a method), I decided to take the time to compile a whole bunch of information for some of them. And since I have been being so lazy/procrastinatory about getting an instructable done in the year or two I have been a member, well it all came together.
I am going to try and provide a lot of educational information in addition to the actual methodology/recipe for making a great homemade red sauce. That's just my style. As you can probably already tell, I am a very wordy person and tend to over-explain. This comes from a lifetime of teaching and tutoring others. If you feel I am spending too much time on a simple thing, simply move on to the next step!
I will also put in a disclaimer; I do not have a quality camera, and in searching the web for images to use, I have come across many websites with similar methodologies to mine - no big surprise; how I do what I do is not exactly a super secret (at least not in regards to cooking). I have no private recipes handed down for generations; merely lots of experience and trial and error, combined with a bit of formal culinary education. I'll list a few of these websites in the final step below. None are the sole source for any of my information, and in fact while many reflect what I am posting, very little is influenced by these or modified from what I would have written down if I hadn't gone searching for images... so feel free to peruse the links and you may find some of THEIR secrets I don't mention or use in this instructable.
Step 1: A Brief History
I knew some of this from my brief stint in culinary school oh so long ago, and some I just recently picked up online. If you're not interested in history... skip this step.
On Italian based tomato sauce in general;
The misconception that the tomato has been central to Italian cuisine since its introduction from the Americas is often repeated. Though the tomato was introduced from the Spanish New World to European botanists in the 16th century, tomato sauce made a surprisingly late entry in Italian cuisine: in Antonio Latini's cookbook Lo scalco alla moderna (Naples, 1692). Latini, not unsurprisingly, was chef to the Spanish viceroy of Naples, and one of his tomato recipes is for sauce alla spagnuola, "in the Spanish style".
Outside of Italy, the role of tomato sauce can be quite exaggerated: many people know little of Italian cuisine beyond pasta with tomato sauce. Italian varieties of tomato sauce range from Pasta Puttanesca sauce, seasoned with anchovies, capers, garlic, chilli peppers and black olives, to Bolognese sauce, a predominantly minced or ground meat sauce which normally contains a small-to-moderate amount of tomato.
Most often, Italian tomato sauces can be switched with more authentic white sauces; cavatelli is best served with traditional Italian white sauces (consisting of mostly fresh Parmesan and cream), and many other traditional ingredients.
Some Italian Americans on the East Coast refer to tomato sauce as "gravy", "tomato gravy", or "Sunday gravy", especially sauces with a large quantity of meat simmered in them, similar to the Italian Neapolitan ragu. "Gravy" is an erroneous English translation from the Italian sugo which means juice, but can also mean sauce (as in sugo per pastasciutta). The expression for "gravy" in Italian is sugo dell'arrosto, which is literally "juice of a roast" and is specifically not tomato sauce.
On 'Italian American' tomato sauce (what I'm covering in this instructable);
In most of the U.S. (my country of origin), "tomato sauce" refers to a tomato puree with salt and small amounts of spices sold in cans. This product is considered incomplete and not normally used as it is. Instead, it is used as a base for almost any food which needs a lot of tomato flavor, including many versions of the sauce described on this page.
Marinara Sauce is an American-Italian term for a simple tomato sauce with herbsmostly parsley and basilbut, contrary to its name (which is Italian for coastal, seafaring) without anchovies, fish or seafood. In other countries marinara refers to a seafood and tomato sauce.
American supermarkets commonly carry a variety of prepared tomato sauces described as "spaghetti sauce" or "pasta sauce". Common variations include meat sauce, Marinara Sauce and sauces with mushrooms or sweet red peppers.
On the tomato itself;
The tomato is native to South America. Genetic evidence shows that the progenitors of tomatoes were herbaceous green plants with small green fruit with a center of diversity in the highlands of Peru. These early Solanums diversified into the dozen or so species of tomato recognized today. One species, Solanum lycopersicum, was transported to Mexico where it was grown and consumed by prehistoric humans. The exact date of domestication is not known. Evidence supports the theory that the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit, ancestor of L. cerasiforme, grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who called it xitomatl, meaning plump thing with a navel, and later called tomatl by other Mesoamerican peoples. Aztec writings mention tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt, likely to be the original salsa recipe.
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world, and their consumption is believed to benefit the heart among other things. They contain lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer but other research contradicts this claim. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin's ability to protect against harmful UV rays. Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic treasure trove of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels of anthocyanin (P20 Blue), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).
Though it is botanically a berry, a subset of fruit (as almost everyone probably knows), the tomato is nutritionally categorized as a vegetable (did you know that?). Since "vegetable" is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in a plant part being a fruit botanically while still being considered a vegetable.
Tomatoes are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The tomato is acidic; this acidity makes tomatoes especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauce, or paste. Tomato juice is often canned and sold as a beverage; Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to make salsa, or pickled. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often by sun, and sold either in bags or in jars in oil.
Okay, enough with the lessons already; if you still want to know more, google is your friend!
Step 2: Ingredients
There's a long list of ingredients. Let's get started;
First few steps:
12 - 15 pounds of fresh Roma Tomatoes
1 (3 quart) sauce pan
1 (2-3 quart) bowl (plastic, metal, glass, wood - doesn't really matter) filled with ice water
1 Blanching basket OR 1 pair of tongs OR 1 slotted spoon
1 paring knife
1 colander/strainer (optional)
Next few steps:
Tomato goop (~ 48 oz., made in first few steps)
6-8 quart sauce pan
2 cups Red Wine
1 cup Dr. Pepper (or generic equivalent - Mr. Pibb can work too; soda pop - but not coke/pepsi/root beer/etc.)
2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Fresh Ground Pepper (to taste)
Salt (preferably fresh ground sea salt) (to taste)
4 tsp. white sugar
2 tsp. paprika
2 Tbsp. fresh Basil, crushed
5 tsp. fresh Oregano, crushed
1 Tbsp. fresh Marjoram
1 Tbsp. Cayenne pepper (optional)
3 Bay leaves
3-4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1/3 cup red onion, chopped
1/3 cup yellow onion, chopped
1/3 cup green bell pepper
1/3 cup red or orange bell pepper*
1/3 cup orange or yellow (gold) bell pepper*
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1/2 cup carrots, julienned/shredded (optional)
1/2 cup olives, sliced (optional)
1 stalk celery, chopped (optional)
* The goal is to have 1 cup bell pepper in 3 colors/flavors. Each has a distinct flavor; green is all but necessary, red/orange/yellow are close enough to be interchangeable (but distinct enough that you want 2 of the 3)
Step 3: Fresh Tomatoes
The first step, and often the most important, is to select the right tomatoes for your sauce.
While many would argue that home-grown tomatoes from your own garden are better, or barring that, buying them 'fresh' at a farmer's market... I've honestly never noted much of a taste difference between a sauce made from fresh or store-bought tomatoes. As long as you buy fresh (within a day or so of making the sauce), and choose good tomatoes, the tomatoes in your supermarket should be fine.
Roma tomatoes, also known as paste tomatoes, are the best for making a sauce. This is mainly due to the fact that the Roma tomato has fewer seeds, thicker, meatier walls, and less water than other types of tomato. And that means thicker sauce in less cooking time; a very good thing! However I think Roma tomatoes also have a distinctive flavor that just makes sauce taste better, in addition to being quicker.
So, now that you know which type of tomato to grab, how do you choose which ones are best?
First, you want tomatoes that are mostly or completely ripe; no green, and no yellow; a light orange to a deep red color are the only shades acceptable. For some dishes/sauces, green tomatoes work better, but not this one. While looking at the coloring, make sure there are no bruises or dark spots on the tomato.
Second, you'll want to lightly feel the entire tomato to ensure there are not pits, holes, or soft spots beneath the skin. Some bruises or areas of rot don't show up as discoloration, or at least not enough to see on casual inspection. I typically put the tomato in my palm, and wrap my hand around it without squeezing. I use the tips of my fingers and my thumb to test the surface of the tomato, rolling it in my palm as I do so. It takes just a few seconds for each tomato to be sure it is firm throughout!
Third, if you can find tomatoes with little to no stem, this makes your job slightly easier in the kitchen; however it also makes the tomato more susceptible to bruising - so I would tend to get tomatoes with a small stem and just cut it off later in the process. This is the least important consideration of the three (thus, it is the third and last qualifier in his step).
Step 4: Blanching and Peeling the Tomatoes
At this point you need to blanch and peel the tomatoes. This process is very easy to describe; so to sum it up, you will put the tomatoes in boiling water for a brief time, then transfer them to an ice bath. After that, the skin comes right off!
Now, to go into my typically wordy description!
You will want to take a pot, possibly the ultimate sauce pan you will be using to make the sauce, and fill it about 3/4 of the way with warm unsalted water. Some people advocate salting this water, but I find it affects the taste of the sauce, and prefer to have the tomatoes 'virgin' at this point. This also helps in case you are peeling extra tomatoes for other purposes besides a sauce.
Put the water on the stove top and bring it to a boil at somewhere between 3/4 and maximum heat (depending on your stove - just enough to keep it boiling).
While it is coming to a boil, score the bottom of each tomato with a small 'X' cut. You don't want this cut to be very deep, just get the skin if you can. This is also the time to cut off any stems if you got tomatoes which have the stems on them.
For every cup to cup and a half of water in the sauce pan, you can add one tomato at a time. I usually use a 3 quart saucepan, filled 3/4 of the way up for about 9 cups of water - and I will blanch 4-6 tomatoes at a time (depending on their size). Don't put in so many tomatoes that they are squeezed in and pressed against each other or the sides of the pan.
This is mainly to prevent too many tomatoes from cooling the boiling water down, not to prevent bruising; but I have seen some ripe tomatoes get bruised at this point too; so it is another possible issue with overfilling the pot.
If you have a blanching basket, or something that will substitute for one, by all means use it! This is basically a wire basket which allows you to dip the tomatoes in and pull them out in a batch, instead of using a slotted spoon and getting them one at a time.
So the process of blanching is this; you add the tomato(es) to the boiling water, either with a blanching basket, tongs, or a slotted spoon. You leave the tomato(es) in the boiling water for right about 1 minute. If you can see the bottoms of any of the tomatoes, you'll notice the skin starts to pull away from the meat - this means it is ready. I would never go longer than about 90 seconds tops - anything further and you're cooking the tomatoes. If they aren't blanched in under 90 seconds, you have the heat too low and the water is simmering, not boiling, or else you put in too many tomatoes at once and the water temperature dropped too much.
Now you need the bowl full of ice water handy; as soon as you pull the tomatoes from the boiling water, place them in the ice bath. This is the bowl you prepared which is roughly the same size as the sauce pan you're using... filled 3/4 with ice first, then with enough water added to cover the ice. I did tell you that you'd need to prepare this before you boiled the tomatoes, didn't I? NO...? I didn't? I'm sorry. I hope you're not doing this as you read it for the first time!
Leave the tomatoes in the ice bath for a minute or two, at least as long as they were in the boiling water. Then when they are safe/comfortable to handle, pull them out and slip the skin off. It should peel right off the meat of the tomato with next to no problems. Usually all in one piece.
Throw that skin away. It contains a few trace vitamins and minerals, but unlike many other vegetables, (yes the tomato is a vegetable as well as a fruit - didn't you read that part?), the skin is not where the main nutritional value is. If you try to puree it and include it in the sauce, hings just get ugly. And not too tasty.
You're done with this step... and it probably took less time to perform than to read! Now lets move on to seeding the tomatoes!
Step 5: Removing Those Seeds (and Some Excess Water)
This is an even easier step... and much shorter to boot!
You'll want to slice each tomato in half long-wise (so that you slice from where the stem was down to where the base was).
You'll want to make sure your hands are clean (but they should certainly be before now, since you've been handling the tomatoes all this time, right?)...
Now, holding the tomatoes over _ (your garbage disposal, your garbage can, your compost bin, etc.), squeeze. Keep the sliced side out, the skin side (where the skin was) against your palm. Squeeze gently but firmly; you want the squeeze out the water (some call this tomato juice, I think it lacks enough flavor to be juice, but if you wish to save it... go ahead). Some of the seeds will come out now too.
Finally, using your fingers or thumbs, scoop out most of the rest of the seeds. You don't need to get every last seed; just most of them is fine.
And... well, I already said finally, didn't I? Okay, but this is an optional 'finally' - so the last step might be your last step. Or this one might be. Drop the de-seeded and squeezed tomatoes into a colander/strainer, and just let them sit there and drip out excess water while you blanch/skin/de-seed more tomatoes.
As an interesting note; the 12 - 15 pounds or so of tomatoes you started with (I did say 12-15 pounds, didn't I?) will be reduced to about 3 quarts (48 ounces) of tomato paste/goop.
Oops, I almost left out this bit - initially I was going to put it in the next step, but it fits better here. So here's a third finally. But this really is the last task to this portion of the instructable. Take all of those peeled and de-seeded tomatoes, and chop them up. Some people like to puree them in a blender or food processor; I do not.
Step 6: Starting the Actual Sauce... Sauteing the Veggies
Okay, now that we have some good tomato goop (not quite paste) ready, we want to get the sauce going. You'll need a larger saucepan this time; I recommend 8 quarts or bigger, 6 quarts is about the minimum. If you don't have any pans that big, and don't want to acquire one, then you'll have to do the math to halve or quarter this recipe yourself.
Start with the hardest/largest and crunchiest of the optional veggies you're using... we'll be sauteing those in the olive oil.
To saute, you will bring the oil in the pan (the bigger saucepan) to a medium-high heat; watch the surface of the oil and when you see ripples or 'wrinkles' form in the oil, it is ready. Do not get the oil too hot, as it will burn.
Once the oil is hot enough, place the hardest veggies in. Here's the order you'll put them in - I know these are mostly optional, so if you're omitting one ore more, just skip that veggie in the list.
Celery (60-90 seconds before the next veggie)
Carrots (30-60 seconds before the next veggie)
Red Onion (~ 30 seconds before the next veggie)
Yellow Onion (~ 30 seconds before the next veggie)
Garlic (~ 30 seconds before next veggie)
Bell Peppers [all] (~ 60-90 seconds before the next veggie)
Mushrooms (final veggie)
If you're adding them all in, you should have had it going for 4 to 6 minutes by the time you're done adding the mushrooms in. Let is go for another 2-3 minutes, the onions should become transparent but not browned.
There's a lot of 'playing around' in this step; it depends a lot on the temperature of your oil, which all veggies you're using, etc. All I can say is that if you burn them, you will know when the sauce is done by the slightly burnt flavor. And if you don't cook them enough, the sauce will be a bit too crunchy. It takes experience to get perfect every time - but hopefully you'll be lucky enough times before the experience kicks in, that you never notice the little failures!
Step 7: Turning It Into Sauce...
Now that the veggies are all sauteed, and we have that tomato goop sitting to one side, we need to make this stuff into a sauce.
First, reduce the heat to medium. Give it another 30 to 60 seconds to cool off a bit.
Add in the wine. You'll probably get a lot of steam, oil popping and spitting, and a bit of a stench (some people like the smell of the hot olive oil steaming red wine; I don't). Pour as slowly as you can without burning yourself (popping oil and/or steam can hurt!). Try to stir with your free hand as you add the wine. Not too vigorously, just enough to mix it all up.
Into this soup, put the chopped (or pureed) tomato goop. Again, stir slowly as you add it...you're not trying to liquefy anything with your stirring, just get a good mixture of flavors.
Toss in the sugar and salt now, but not the pepper or other spices.
Notice how we're not yet adding those spices... you can if you want, but doing so now will make the sauce very spicy/strong.
Cover this stew with a lid, and let it simmer on medium heat for a few hours. At least 3, but preferably for 6 or 8. Check the stew every 30 to 90 minutes, stirring it gently to prevent burning/sticking. It's best if you don't disturb it too often, but until you're familiar with your pots/pans/stove/veggies/utensils/etc., it is better to be safe than to scald a portion of the sauce - the whole batch is ruined if a little bit gets burned!
Step 8: A Quick Note on Wine Selection
I am not a drinker of alcoholic beverages. Well, I do 'socially', but I don't like the taste of beer, wine, champagne, shots, etc. And I don't really get drunk - I am a big guy with a liver that works overtime... so there's no point to me drinking.
I say this to illustrate one point . . . up until a few years ago, I would just go to the local liquor store and ask the clerk for a red wine that goes well with tomato sauce. I never checked into which wines are actually better, what the specific differences are, etc.
But several years ago I met and later married a woman who fancies herself a wine connoisseur. I don't know that she actually deserves that title, but she sure knows a heck of a lot more than I do, and so I started educating myself on wines - more to stay up with my wife's interests than any other reason.
And I found out a few things about wines and cooking, things I was never taught in culinary school (though I suppose I should have been!)
First, we want to use a medium to high acid wine. If the wine is not acidic enough, we'll need to add in a splash of lemon juice; but I feel this adds an extra and unwanted flavor; so an acidic wine is best.
Contrary to that, the wine you drink with the meal should be a low acid wine, to not clash with the flavor of the sauce. So all those years I thought I was being smooth and cooking with the same wine I served to drink... I was really making a huge faux pas!
Now the flavor or 'body' of the wine, both for cooking and for serving, should be medium. A good tomato sauce is a 'medium' flavored sauce; it is strong enough to be distinct but not overpowering in its flavors. Likewise, the wine should be medium bodied. If the wine has too much or too little intensity (in the sauce or in the glass), either the flavor of the food or the flavor of the wine will be lost and you will miss the opportunity to enjoy the interplay of the two flavors.
Also in both the sauce and on the table, you want a low tannin wine. If either wine is tannin rich, you will get a bitter (or astringent) aftertaste.
To complement the bright, focused fruit flavor of the tomato, the right wine needs to have a bright and focused fruit flavor as well. This doesn't mean a berry wine or something typically considered to be 'fruity'; but it shouldn't be too earthy, woody, or nutty in flavor either. I'm sorry if this is not a good explanation, but like I said I am not the expert!
So, which types of wine are best? I believe a Chianti is the best choice overall. Also most wines with 'Rosso' in the name are Italian reds, and fairly safe. Beyond that, as to brands and varietals; well maybe you should just ask the clerk in the local liquor store?
(If any of you are wine aficionados, I would welcome comments to expand/correct anything on this step!)
Step 9: Chunky or Saucy?
Here's a very quick/short step. After you've simmered the sauce for a few hours, if you prefer a smooth sauce with little to no chunks, you can remove it from the heat, let it sit for an hour or two until it is room temperature or cooler, and process it in a blender or food processor to remove the chunks.
Personally, I love the 'garden' style with lots of chunks it it; but I know others don't. You still want the veggies in the sauce, though; for flavor (and fiber), so don't just strain them out.
Note that at this point we have still not added spices!
If you do choose to do this, try to use a slotted spoon to pull out mostly chunks with only as much sauce as needed to process them; if you blend it all together and don't reserve any sauce, you'll screw up the texture and not have a smooth sauce in the end! Also make sure to add in a few ounces of water when you process the chunks, this will further help in keeping the sauce thick but saucy.
Step 10: Spicing Things Up!
Okay, I will first disclaim this step with the following statement: I never measure my spices/seasonings/herbs. I go by what feels right, using experience and my taste buds as a guide. This has the side effect of no two batches of my sauce ever tasting the same... sometimes this is a good thing! So all listed quantities of herbs, spices, and seasonings are best guess approximations. If you're familiar with any or all of them and how their flavors interplay, you should be able to judge for yourself what you need extra of or may have too much of. If not, I think the listed amounts will make a pretty good sauce.
The one biggest exception is the Cayenne. My tastes do not allow for 'spicy' Italian red sauces. I never add any cayenne or other pepper (aside from ground black). I know that many people can't stand tomato sauce without it being hot/spicy, and others are like me. I just tossed out a guess as to what may be appropriate, but if you like medium to hot tomato sauce, I'd recommend starting small and slowly adding more until it as as hot as you'd like...and even then be conservative because the longer this sauce cooks, the hotter it will get!
Okay, that all said, toss in all of the spices now.
Here's how... (what, you thought you just throw them in?)
If you're using fresh herbs, you'll want to pull or slice the leaf portion of each herb away from the stem, and discard the stems. You can cook the stems too, but they get stuck in teeth and don't add too much flavor, so why?
After you have the leaves separated, chop them up; first hold a bunch and roll it up, then slice in one direction... then take the strips and chop at an angle (not 90 degrees). Finally, put the chopped leaves in your (clean) hand and use the thumb of your other hand to muddle (that's actually a cooking term - it means crush the leaves until the juices/oils start to seep out). Finally, you are ready to toss them in.
Now, if you're using dried herbs, you skip all the way to that last bit... pour the herb into your palm and muddle it with your thumb. If/when the oils start to release, you can toss it in.
The one herb you DON'T want to chop/muddle is the bay leaves. These taste horrible if they actually get chopped up into the sauce. They are actually there to absorb certain acids from the sauce, while allowing others to blend with the rest of the spices. They also impart some aroma into the sauce, which isn't necessarily noticeable on its own, but one of several factors blending to make this sauce irresistible! Drop them in last, let them float on the top for the next while, and remember to pull them out just before serving the sauce!
Step 11: The Super Secret Ingedient
Not really a super secret, but not many people use this stuff. I found long ago that Dr. pepper and its generic equivalents, and to a lesser degree Mr. Pibb, have several good qualities in cooking.
Great for using in marinades to tenderize meats, especially meats you pan on smoking.
Also good for adding a bit of zest to a rich tomato sauce.
Pour in 1 cup (8 oz) of the bubbly stuff. Stir it around until no more bubbles are forthcoming.
I might have misspoken myself in the last step. I think perhaps it is best to add in all other spices/herbs besides the bay leaves, then add in the carbonated beverage, stir it all up, and then last add in the bay leaves.
Yes, that's the ticket!
Step 12: Let It Cook Some More...
At this point, you will cover the sauce again and reduce the heat to medium low. Let it sit another few hours; 3 minimum but 6 to 8 is better again. This time you don't need to stir as often; 60 to 150 minutes is a decent interval between stirs.
Again... the longer you leave it undisturbed, the better... but the first few times it is better to be safe than sorry.
Step 13: And You're Done!
Start to finish, you could make this sauce in under 8 hours; but it is better if you give yourself a full 24 hours or more (over the years, I've had more than one batch take 2-3 days).
Once the sauce is finished cooking, take it off of the heat, leave it covered (or transfer it to one or more covered/sealable containers) and let it slowly cool to room temperature. Any portions you know you won't be using, refrigerate (but not until after it has slowly cooled to room temp) or can/jar (while it is still warm).
I typically will take about 1/4 of this sauce as soon as it is 'done' but before it cools to room temperature, and use it to prepare a meat (Bolognese) style sauce...very heavy on the meat, so more of the "vegetarian" sauce can be mixed with it to varying degrees of meatitudeosity.
I will also take another portion (probably about 1/8) and use it to season a pan in which I am baking meatballs and/or Italian sausage.
I will then serve these three or four sauces individually; vegetarian, meatballs/sausage, and a hearty meat sauce. My guests are then free to mix/match as desired. Once the 'formal' dining experience is completed, if any of the sauces remain, I will lump them all into one container (or several containers but thoroughly mixed together) and store for my own pleasure later.
This sauce has a rich flavor, and only gets better with time. You can freeze it, but that negates the last statement, frozen sauce doesn't get worse (unless it gets freezer burn), but neither does it get better over time. Refrigerated for up to 4 or 5 days it is safe to eat and gets better every day! After a week or so... if it survives that long... well, I can't say - I've never had any survive that long!
Please let me know in comments if you think I have made any mistakes, or if you try the sauce and love it or hate it!