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cooking the perfect tomato sauce

What to Know About Cooking the Perfect Tomato Sauce

Posted by Megan DeAngelo on August 12 2016

Let’s talk tomatoes.

Before we do, note that Italian food is much more than tomato sauce, and Italian cuisine varies widely in the different regions of the country.

Another myth we’d like to dispel is that Italians eat spaghetti and meatballs. Actually, Italian-Americans eat spaghetti and meatballs. Americans are notable for adding meat to traditional dishes. 

When Italians talk about tomato sauce, they typically mean Neapolitan sauce from the island of Naples, the home of the original tomato pizza in the 19th century.  (You may hear that pizza or pasta was invented by the Chinese. We think that makes sense only if you redefine what both of those foods are today.)

This sauce is a simple, basic staple with typically only a few ingredients—tomatoes, virgin olive oil (added at the end), garlic, salt and onion.

What's the Ideal Tomato to Use?

 ideal tomato san marzano plum tomatoes

A basic tomato sauce, to be eaten on its own or as a base for another sauce, starts with the plum shaped San Marzano tomato, which many chefs agree is the world’s best sauce tomato.

Why? Good sauce tomatoes have little seeds or water to dilute the taste. Plum tomatoes have less water than the round kind. 

Italians are proud of this tomato, but have been unable to stop Californians from labeling their tomatoes with the San Marzano appellation, similar to the Parmigiano Reggiano issue. Authentic San Marzano tomatoes (and Parmigiano cheese), have the D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) emblem, which identifies Italian food products protected by law. 

It’s interesting to note that Italians didn’t even grow tomatoes until they were brought back to Europe from the Americas in the 17th century. And at first they were considered ornamental and raised for flowerbeds.

Italians don’t agree on the exact recipe for tomato sauce. It's more of an art than a science. Do you add sugar to the tomato sauce, or is this a practice promoted by the Arabs who once dominated southern Italy that should be renounced?

What all can agree on is this: Mix up your basic ingredients, add a little tomato paste, and simmer for an hour, not all day.

What about the experts?

Famous Chefs Weigh in on Tomato Sauce

cooking tomato sauce

Chef Mario Battali’s recipe includes thyme and shredded carrot. "The key here is San Marzano tomatoes from Italy—not from Chile and not from California," he insists.

Lidia, of Lidia's Kitchen fame, adds chopped celery, peperoncino flakes, bay leaves, and optionally, honey, for a basic tomato sauce and dresses it with basil, omitting the chopped celery in her marinara recipe.

Marcella Hazan adds raw onion halves into the sauce and takes them out before serving. She makes a sauce, reprinted in the New York Times, with four ingredients: butter, tomatoes, onion and salt.

Giada De Laurentiis, cable show host, has the longest list, incorporating all the previous ingredients, with the exception of pepper.

While we're talking about famous chefs, let’s not leave out Julia Child. Her version of tomato sauce is French and is started with roux and cooked for one and a half hours. Maybe she should have lived in Italy instead of Paris?

 And don’t ask if it's called sauce or gravy. We don't have time for that debate!


If you’d like to find out more about where to eat and cooking lessons you can take while in Italy give us a quick call today at 877-723-0802.

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Topics: italian culture, italian food, history

Megan DeAngelo

Written by Megan DeAngelo

Travel Consultant BellaVista Tours