Every Italian person can make a red sauce based on pure instinct. Period. It doesn’t mean it’s the perfect sauce for everyone but damn it’s a sauce that makes you proud. Maybe it’s inconsistent, but Italian cooking has always been about availability and making something work. It’s about utilizing what you have to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Folks get very caught up in validating or invalidating Italian food when in reality, Italian food isn’t one cuisine but a holistic way of cooking. In reality, nothing about tomato sauce is Italian. Tomatoes are from Mexico, and Italy didn’t even exist when tomatoes traversed the Atlantic.
So cook with what you like and what you have. If you don’t know where to start, here’s what I always and never do to make my sauce distinctly mine.
- I always start my sauce with onion and garlic. I slice the onion nice and thin and let it sweat out in olive oil and salt until it becomes translucent. Garlic goes in after the onions have released some liquid (garlic can burn easily so don’t add it at the same time as onion). Sometimes it’s 3 cloves, sometimes it’s more.
- Salt throughout! Don’t wait until the end to add salt. Build the flavor starting with salting the onion and taste as you go. The sauce should reduce so constantly check your seasoning.
- Use three herbs: basil, oregano and bay leaf. I find that these three (any variation in any amount) imbue the most iconic flavors to the sauce. If I have fresh basil, I’ll definitely take advantage of it, but dried basil and oregano do the job just fine. The bay leaf seemingly doesn’t add anything, but I was always told to add a bay leaf to take some of the acidity out, reducing the chance of heartburn and indigestion. I thought it was some Old Nonna Tale, but apparently bay leaves reduce inflammation and can aid digestion.
- Let the sauce cook down! I don’t always add tomato paste (because I don’t always have it on hand) but cooking down your sauce and scraping the concentrated tomato that builds up along the interior sides of the pot add more flavor, basically mimicking tomato paste!
- Whole, crushed or pureed tomatoes are my favorite. It depends on what else is going into the sauce (i.e. meat) or what’s available. I don’t typically use diced tomatoes. I don’t know why. Yes, the can is fine unless you’re living the dream and making fresh passata all summer.
- Use anything but olive oil. Unless it’s Marcella Hazan’s butter and onion sauce. I just like the flavor of olive oil and the higher smoke point gives you some wiggle room when sweating those onions.
- Rosemary. I don’t know why people put rosemary in sauce. To each their own, I guess, but it’s a little too hearty for something as rich as a tomato sauce. Bright herbs only for this girl.
- Use pre-seasoned tomatoes. Maybe it’s a quick way to get dinner on the table on occasion, but if you’re going to simmer a sauce use the unseasoned tomatoes.
So my order of operations is:
- Sweat the onion in olive oil. Season with salt.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
- Add tomato sauce, basil, oregano, bayleaf, salt and pepper.
- Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer for at least 30 minutes.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust.
- Remove bay leaf and basil (if fresh and whole) before serving.
The simplicity is what makes this work. Add your extras like red pepper flakes, anchovy fillets or tomato paste, but consider those the icing on your weird, savory, already-delicious cake.