The Simple Way To Upgrade Basic Tomato Sauce

We've all been there. You followed the recipe, you paid attention to the amount of seasoning to use, and you made it with love — but your tomato sauce still turned out to be more or less mediocre. Or maybe you were in a crunch for time and you bought some sauce in a jar from the closest grocery store near you (like a barbarian, gasp!) and it really needs some help. What should you do? First and foremost, don't give up. There are a few easy tricks you can use to turn a blah sauce into an awesome sauce!

First, know what tomatoes to use. While you can make good tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes when they're in season, chefs sometimes prefer to use canned tomatoes. The reason? They're available any time of year, and they contain a high concentration of flavor (via the Food Network). Canned tomatoes can also stand up to the simmering heat of a tomato sauce better than fresh ones, so save your fresh tomatoes for gazpacho or a nice MLT. (That stands for "mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich" — when the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe and perky, as Miracle Max would say.)

Start with high quality tomatoes

Starting with quality ingredients is a no-brainer for many, but when it comes to canned tomatoes, some people might not realize just how much San Marzano tomatoes stand above the rest. Accept no substitutes! These special tomatoes are different from other varieties of tomato because they have fewer seeds, are pulpier, and more sweet than most other tomatoes. According to CNN, San Marzano tomatoes are grown in a very specific part of Italy, between Naples and Solerno, near Mount Vesuvius. 

So why this comparatively small piece of land? Per CNN, the climate in that particular part of Italy is very hot, and the volcanic soil makes the tomatoes sweeter, but at the same time less acidic than many other types. Are they a little more expensive? Yes, but not by very much. Start using San Marzano tomatoes and your sauces will instantly be just that much better. It will make your sauce thicker, sweeter, and richer.

All that being said, be on the lookout for fakes, though! Per the European Commission, real San Marzanos are labeled with an authentic designation of origin (DOP) – in other words, they have government-certified protection status. Additionally,  San Marzano tomatoes will never come crushed or diced and are only sold as either whole or halved. Examine well before buying to make sure the label doesn't say, "San Marzano-style" — those aren't the authentic Italian product you're looking for! There should be a certification number on the bottom of the can on the real thing.

Use fresh herbs to improve the flavor of your tomato sauce

Adding herbs to your tomato sauce can make a big difference in increasing the vibrant flavor (via Premio Foods). If you can find fresh herbs like basil, oregano, and thyme, that's optimal. If you throw in the whole sprig, they are easy to fish out later with your bay leaves. If you don't have access to the fresh stuff, no worries — dried herbs will work as well. Adding in a dash of red pepper flakes can also give your sauce a little more flair.

Aside from the more commonly used herbs listed above, there's another unlikely secret ingredient you can add to your repertoire that can change your tomato sauce forever: fish sauce. That's right – this fermented anchovy sauce can add some much-needed umami to your tomato sauce. But be careful! Don't add it at the end of your cooking process — add it incrementally, so your sauce will have time to distribute the flavors throughout, so it doesn't overwhelm your senses. It needs to simmer. And less is more! A tablespoonful is enough for two quarts of sauce. 

Another small but important change is to add some wine to your sauce. Adding red wine can not only enhance the acidity of your tomato sauce but adds a certain depth of flavor to it as well. If you're out of red, good news! White wine works just as well.

Add fat to your tomato sauce to make it richer

According to some experts — like Italian food expert and cookbook author Marcella Hazan – a great way to make your tomato sauce better is to add a pat or two of butter (via The Guardian). The butter will melt into the sauce and make it richer and silkier, while also balancing out the acidity present in the dish. The same result can also be achieved by adding a splash or two of good quality extra virgin olive oil. Using extra virgin olive oil not only adds flavor but makes the sauce creamier and tastier.

Another technique some professional chefs use when making tomato sauce is adding in a little pasta water (via Smithsonian Magazine). The starchy water actually binds with the fat in the sauce, or, in other words, emulsifies it — so always reserve a cup or so of your pasta water instead of throwing it all out.

Another great tip is to add freshly grated cheese — especially Parmigiano Reggiano – as a garnish once you've plated your pasta and sauce. This not only adds a lot of great flavors, but it will thicken your sauce, giving it that final finishing touch.