Reputation Of A Stain
Grease-ball; Spaghetti-slurper; Provolone; these are just a few of the racial slurs applied to Italians in the U.S. – particularly to east coast Italians. That’s because food is not only central to Italian culture – it’s all over our faces, hair, and clothes and nothing is more frequently splattered on us than tomato sauce… and… stereotypes.
And, boy, do we love tomato sauce! Symbol of the glory of Italian cuisine; iconic, indelible stain that can turn a table cloth into a map of your most cherished meals; a shirt into a decorated uniform to wear with swelled pride, tomato sauce is a seal of culture. Italians around the world wouldn’t be the same without tomato sauce. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the love Italians luxuriate in all over the world is directly proportional to the world’s love for tomato sauce.
Nothing is quite as tempting and comforting as a succulent drip of sweet tomato sauce generously coated around your favorite carb be it bread, pizza or pasta – and nothing screams Italian more than that drip slipping off your chin and landing on your shirt. I personally can go on only so much without tomato sauce. I’ve got to have it every so often, and it’s never too much – except if on my shirt…
But Italians aren’t the only ones who love it… and spill it. Everybody loves tomato sauce.
That’s why making your own tomato sauce at home is a statement of culture; a worldly culture Italians have shared for over a century. Take it from me: you are an Italian when you make tomato sauce; and when its fragrance permeates during meal time hours, your home feels more like your Neaples, Italy, home – a more home home than just a home.
Let me be blunt: if you’ve never made tomato sauce, you’ve never truly cooked; and if you’ve never cooked, you’ve never truly loved.
So, while everybody is having sex with sauce all over the house now, I must begin by saying that tomato sauce, as most staples of Italian cuisine, comes in multiple versions, myths, and misconceptions. Like, you know… love.
Sauce Of Sauces
For starters, it’s not really an Italian invention. This may come as a nearly mortal blow to many a chefs’ nationalistic culinary pride but as tomatoes were in fact one of the many Spanish empire’s New World imports, they were first used in seventeenth century Europe by chefs of Spaniard royalties. They, in turn, used them in much the same way Aztecs had for over a thousand years in central America: raw or charred whole by an open fire and chopped to a puree to apply as condiment for vegetables, soups, meats or fish. It’s enough to approach any taco truck or central American food restaurant to realize the multitude of “salsa” versions all rigorously tomato based – red, yellow, or green. The famous chilled Spanish soup itself, the Gazpacho, is after all an off-shoot of central American salsa. Yet, while it’s fair to give credit where credit is due, it’s just as fair to admit that Italians did take the tomato based sauce to a whole new level layering flavor by slow cooking technique. Tomato sauce is such a successful sauce across culinary cultures and tastes that it has officially made the eponym of “sauce”. The sauce of sauces, indeed.
Fruit Of Revolution
Not bad for a fruit that, in the United States, up to the mid nineteen century was thought to be poisonous to human health. In fact, tomatoes became a great favorite at the White House during Lincoln’s tenure after they were used in a failed attempt to poison him. It’s also noteworthy that by the early part of the twentieth century, Italian tomatoes gained international reputation as the best tomatoes on earth largely on account of the formidable attributes of the San Marzano variety which, thanks to their quick and easy growth, allowed for mass production and distribution by way of a then booming method of canning. While the cultivar of this miraculous variety originates from Chile, San Marzano’s hail from the volcanic areas surrounding Neaples, Italy, and are widely considered the best expression of what a tomato can be.
The famous Neapolitan novelist and actor, Luciano De Crescenzo, wrote that “the discovery of the tomato represents for the history of nutrition, that which for the development of social conscience has been represented by the French revolution”. A truly democratizing tomato, San Marzano’s almost zero acidity, and nearly seedless, scrumptiously juicy and uniquely meaty pulp make it the perfect fruit for canning, mass distribution and… well, sauce.
Yes, We Can Tomatoes
And – yes – canned tomatoes are your best option for sauce. Make no mistake, unless you can get your hands on fresh, fully volcanic-soil-vine-ripened Neapolitan San Marzano’s, let’s not get into that “fresh is always better” grandstanding, please. You can use other tomatoes for the sake of using fresh ingredients but it’s just not gonna be as sweet, pulpy-thick, and bright red a sauce. Sure, you could apply some craftily surgical techniques such as adding sugar and tomato paste to your non-San Marzano-but-hey-they’re-fresh tomatoes yet chances are your texture is not going to be as smooth and your gustation not as well rounded. That’s because canned tomatoes are ripened on the vine to a point you just can’t crate them and ship them through a chain of distribution without arriving on the shelves practically… well… sauce. Besides, canned tomatoes have the advantage over fresh tomatoes of including juice which comes from fruits that somehow didn’t make it whole from the vine through the peeling process to the can (because they’re that ripe!) Which comes real handy in the kitchen because you don’t have to add water to your sauce in order to avoid simmering it down to a concentrate. Sorry, fresh folks, but in the case of tomato sauce canned is just better. Actually, let me say it: way better!
And here’s more support to that fact: true San Marzano or D.O.P. Certified San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino (a EU approved Protected Designation of Origin), come from a specific designated area: the nutrient rich volcanic soil of the Valle del Sarno, in the province of Salerno, by the Vesuvius, near Neaples, in the Italian region of Campania. Volcanic soil is rich in minerals from major, to secondary, to trace and rare earth elements endowing any crop with incredible flavor complexity. Furthermore, D.O.P. San Marzano’s must be sowed and cultivated by specific cropping methods and hand-picked at a specific ripening point by a specific technique! Match that… with sugar and paste… hm…
However, certified D.O.P. San Marzano’s may not always be available – I get it. So if you can’t get them, then perhaps you might want to consider other canned San Marzano’s just, please, don’t settle for diced, chopped, or pureed tomatoes (if you… well… can). Chopped, diced, and pureed tomatoes are usually a melange of tomato varieties that arrive to the processing plant broken, unripe, or somehow blemished. Use rigorously peeled whole San Marzano tomato. If, however, you really can’t find any San Marzano at all – canned D.O.P., non- D.O.P. or fresh – then you could go fresh and use its closest relative: the extremely common Roma tomato. The Roma tomato, as a variety of the fruit, differs from the San Marzano in a few important ways. If you cut tomatoes horizontally, you’ll notice that they almost all have four and sometimes five seed loculi. Roma tomatoes have three. San Marzano have two – sometimes three but mostly two. So Roma have less seeds than most tomatoes yet more than San Marzano which therefore have more pulp to go around and, if you know tomato seeds from your heirloom tomatoes for salad, you also know that that’s where the acidity comes from – delicious for salad; awful for sauce. Additionally, the skins of San Marzano are thicker and easier to peel off than Roma or any other tomato. Roma tomato tend to lose pulp with peeling which always breaks your heart. However, Roma is your best alternative to a lack of San Marzano but, in my opinion, you might still need to fortify your sauce with some tomato paste and possibly adjust that touch of acidity with a little sugar.
That said, folks, please, if you can’t get your hands on any low-seed, thick-pulped, ruby-red, sweet tomatoes, then perhaps mother nature isn’t calling you for sauce today – make a salad, or salsa, or Gazpacho. There are thousands of other fabulous applications for all kinds of tomatoes just don’t mess with tomato sauce! Thank you.
I don’t mean to discourage anyone – you definitely shouldn’t be discouraged – but while tomato sauce is relatively easy to make, it’s far from simple.
I Say Tomato Sauce; You Say… Marinara?
In fact, let’s clear out some of the confusion surrounding what exactly is tomato sauce. Here, in the United States, it’s a common misconception to generically refer to tomato sauce as “marinara”. Don’t do that, please. It’s approximative, careless, and coarse. At best.
Marinara is an application of tomato sauce. As the name “marinara” implies – of, or relating to the marine – this sauce should contain some fishy ingredient – typically anchovies – and it can be seasoned with capers, olives, oregano, garlic, and more. However, in English speaking countries, the fishy ingredient can be dropped as marinara is not an English word and therefore it bears no semantic relation to the thing other than that given in the English dictionary. Italians remain bound to the fishy ingredient.
Marinara can be applied to fish, meats, soups, pastas, or pizzas. Tasty stuff but not so much a version as an application of tomato sauce. Don’t even try to counter this by saying “my great grand parents from Italy used anchovies and they called it tomato sauce” or vice-versa “they didn’t use anchovies and yet called it marinara” and by these kinds of irresponsible statements hijack the concept and hide behind some claim to inherited semantics, or preferential subjectivity non-sense! Get over it: until you add any of the afore mentioned ingredients, tomato sauce is not marinara and once you do, it’s no longer tomato sauce – it’s marinara. Period. Taste is subjective; language is not. Can’t have your own personal language. Sorry. No one wants to take away anything from you or your inherited culinary culture; you can have your sauce and eat it too just call it by its proper name.
For Sauce’s Sake!
I’m not making this up. Tomato sauce as a recipe was codified and enshrined in the big five list of mother sauces of classical French cooking by the great August Escoffier – and the recipe did not include anchovies, I guarantee you. Notably, the famous Haute Cuisine chef had a penchant for thickening sauces by way of roux – usually butter based. This is possibly on account that canned San Marzano’s were just beginning to make their splash into the culinary world right around that time and the great chef might not have had the opportunity to try them. Inevitably, Haute Cuisine made its time and was eventually eclipsed by other waves of culinary schools such as Nouvelle Cuisine. Nevertheless, Escoffier did set a legacy that remains time honored and respected among chefs around the world, and he was right to make of tomato sauce a mother sauce, meaning a sauce from which other sauces are made – hence Marinara (to… ahem… cite an example.)
And let me give you further support to that concept. From tomato sauce there can be obtained a wide variety of sauces including but not limited to: Arrabbiata, Amatriciana, Puttanesca, Livornese, Bolognese, among others including the more modern and despised by some fundamentalist Italian chefs (Italiban chefs), the cream-devil-himself-based Vodka Sauce! A head-spinning double blasphemy where either cream and booze (especially foreign booze!) cannot be mixed with tomatoes – scripture says (wherever that is). New York’s own pizza is made from tomato sauce or some application of it. Not so Neapolitan pizza. No-no-no. Make no mistake. That’s made from straight raw tomato puree, canned and rigorously D.O.P. San Marzano, seasoned with oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s not tomato sauce. It’s Neapolitan pizza sauce. Different…
… moving on…
Anatomy of Sauce
So what makes tomato sauce an actual tomato sauce and not something else, you may ask. Good question – and one I’m honored to attempt the best possible answer.
To that end, allow me to recap what has been said so far in this post. We’ve seen that it should be slow cooked to layer the flavors rather than combine them thus breaking away from the definition of the Hispanic Salsa. Then, we’ve argued that it should be sweet and thick as best obtained with canned San Marzano’s – not by way of roux. Finally, we’ve forcefully vindicated that the recipe shouldn’t include any anchovies or other ingredients with too strong a character lest we compromise it’s versatility.
So it’s really not all that complicated. Tomato sauce should have a deeply savory sweet flavor with only a touch of acidity; it should be thick and pulpy; and it should be applicable to a variety of purpose. However, I’m not a fan of strict rules. Rules are made to be broken. And cuisine is nothing if it isn’t an expression of personal experience and interpretation. So, by all means, break these rules to make your own tomato sauce. You could make a more acidic version by adding white wine to serve with a filet of fish. It could be a runnier, smoother version to smother fresh ravioli with goat cheese; or it could be a heavily spiced version just to reflect your environment if you’re, say, in Louisiana.
In fact, any chef that’s anybody has at some point presented their take on tomato sauce. Here are only some examples from notable culinary authorities:
Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, chef Marcella Hazan, introduced America to Italian cuisine. I love her take on the sauce because with only four ingredients including canned San Marzano’s, butter, onion, and salt, she framed the most minimalist recipe you could conceive without sacrificing flavor complexity thanks to simple technique. Two cups of tomato for one split onion, five tablespoons of butter and salt to taste are combined in a pot, brought to an uncovered simmer for 45 minutes breaking the tomatoes with a spoon and discarding the onion before serving. That’s it. As I said, using butter in tomato sauce is not exactly a traditional take but it does add a sweetness and smoothness that are quite hard to resist. So if your planned use for the sauce doesn’t conflict with the presence of butter then, by all means follow this recipe – it will rock your sauce world. If, however, you’re making it as a mother sauce, substituting butter with olive oil might make things more practical in the future.
Another notable version comes from American culinary icon, Julia Child, who in her seminal cook book Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, included a wonderful recipe that’s an obvious descendant of Escoffier’s as it is thickened by way of a olive oil based light roux. This recipe features what we all love the most about French cuisine: the flavors of provence and impeccable technique. Appropriately named Provençal Tomato Sauce, Child’s recipe includes a herb bouquet of parsley, bay leaf, and thyme to be added in with fresh tomatoes milled over the the onions in roux along with sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, fennel seeds, saffron, coriander seeds, basil, and orange peel. This incredible melange of fragrances is set to infuse into the rendered tomato juice obtained by a ten minute covered simmer after which process the cooking continues uncovered for an hour or until thick. I’m not gonna touch this. It’s just phenomenal. Just remember to call it by its name: Provençal Tomato Sauce.
James Kenji Lopez-Alt
Author of the New York Times best seller, The Food Lab, and recipient of the James Beard Award for General Cooking, and IACP cook book of the year award (among other distinct recognitions), James Kenji Lopez-Alt, ever the science-wizard of culinary techniques, takes the slow cooking aspect very seriously and to a whole new level in his tomato sauce recipe. He’s going for a 5 to 6 hours braise in a semi-covered dutch oven at 300 degrees, or 45 minutes in a pressure cooker. Two different techniques, same ingredients. Separating about a third of the hand crushed canned tomatoes, to be added back into the sauce at the very end for added complexity, he combines the other two thirds with large chunks of carrot, a split onion (removed at the end), and basil into a dutch oven based with chopped garlic, chili flakes, and oregano fried to fragrancy. Interestingly, this recipe calls for both extra-virgin olive oil and butter. That’s because Kenji is looking for that toasty butter flavor given by the breaking down of proteins before reaching its smoking point but to avoid overwhelming the delicate vegetable flavor he’s careful to not brown the butter and to cut it with extra-virgin olive oil. I tried it; I’m still dizzy.
And Without Further Ado
Chef Mouthful’s recipe:
Your personal take will most likely be affected by what’s available to you. Therefore the version I present to you today is mandated by what I found available at the local Famers Market.
I found some fresh San Marzano tomatoes at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Unfortunately they didn’t seem super ripe to me so I also got some Roma tomatoes and set out to make a sauce.
As I already mentioned, both varieties are on the low side with acidity – which is good – but, being fresh, there’s still need for some juice. So to make up for that I planned to add some water to the sauce but first I had to make sure that water would in turn be replenishing substance, in this case given by tomato paste or concentrate.
Additionally, I really wanted to be sure I got all the sweetness possible out of these tomatoes so I opted to slow roast them for 45 minutes before transferring them to the sauce pan with the herbs. This allowed for the Maillard effect on the sugars and amino acids to increase sweetness and umami in the flavor compounds.
I skipped the peeling part as I really didn’t want to lose any precious pulp in the process. This would not pose a problem because I don’t use a blender for my tomato sauce anyway. Call me old fashion but I find the results obtained by milling the sauce to be far superior to a blender’s. I grew up in a time when blenders were not around and tomato sauces were coarser than smoother. I also find hair curling the fact that a blended sauce turns slightly lighter in color to almost pink. Awful. So I use the old fashion way of passing it through a medium disk of the food mill and the skins remain on this side of the mill.
As far as the herbs, being a base sauce – a mother sauce, as Escoffier would have it – tomato sauce should be left as neutral as possible to maximize versatility. A bit of onion for sweetness and body, a bit of celery for a slight aromatic bitter, and garlic for… well, garlic is good and that’s what it’s for.
This time, I added some chili pepper merely because I got some Thai chilis at the market and why not. I love spicy.
The inevitable basil and, finally, the bay leaf – and I want to pause here for a moment. On the bay leaf. I had countless arguments with some chefs out there in the world (you know who you are…) about the use of bay leaf. Bay leaf adds fragrance and it’s a pretty powerful herb. You can just stick your nose in the container to perceive that. It’s strong and not all that good. That’s because you just stuck your nose in a container full of bay leaves. It’s a powerful spice. Taken individually they add just the right amount of aromatic to your sauce or stock; use too many and it’ll overpower everything including your appetite. I can walk in a kitchen, smell the air, and know there’s a stock with just too many bay leaves simmering in it. So, please, don’t use multiple bay leaves in a single gallon of sauce or stock. It’s excessive. All you need is one – even half a leaf would do in a two quart sauce pan. I have solidly stood my ground with countless chefs on bay leaf and always will. Fight me on this. Make my day.