Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What's missing in your tomato sauce?

I'm going let you in on some trade secrets for creating an amazing tomato sauce. But what makes a tomato sauce great? Flavor? Sweetness? Aromatics? There always seem to be a missing component, but you can never put your tongue on what is.

Shown above is spaghetti bolognese, a meat sauce using a pomodoro base.

Let's start with the basics
There are two general types of tomato sauce you can make: marinara or pomodoro. To simplify, marinara sauces do not simmer for long periods of time, producing a bright, chunky, and fresh sauce. A pomodoro sauce on the other hand is stewed for hours, developing a different set flavors and textures. For now, we're only going to talk about the latter.

The key to an incredible pomodoro sauce is to not think of it as a sauce, but as a soup. We build the layers of flavors on top of each other in such a way that the body of the sauce becomes more than just stewed tomatoes. Take chicken stock for example. You start with your aromatic vegetables consisting of carrot, celery, and onion. Chicken bones are roasted for more flavor and added to the stock. Herbs are added and the entire pot is simmered to meld all of the flavors together. We are going to do the exact same thing with our tomatoes.

Consistency and Body: The Vegetables
Try eating a spoonful of your sauce. Does it feel watered down? Too thick? One of the things I hate most about tomato sauces is when the water separates from the body of the sauce. This is a common problem when using store bought pasta sauces. Do I still use them? Of course I do, they're incredibly convenient (I do prefer using San Marzano tomatoes though). Even with store bought sauce, I start with the same base every time. Grated carrots, chopped celery, finely diced onions, and lots of minced garlic. After everything has simmered away for a few hours, the vegetables break down and create a wonderful body. I like to enhance this mouthful feeling by adding red or white wine, which adds a small stringent factor to the palate. Plan to simmer the sauce and reduce it until the desired consistency is reached.

Umami: The Meat
A word commonly obsessed over by food critics. The easiest way to add umami to your pot is by adding meat. But wait! If there was one thing I wanted you to take out of this entire lengthy entry, is to try using this:

Don't freak out! I know anchovies have a bad wrap for being just plain weird, but think about the other common sources of umami. Fish sauce is the liquid extracted from fermenting fish and soy sauce is a variety of soy products fermented with mold! If anyone has ever eaten any of the Italian dishes that I have made in the past two years, then you have eaten anchovies. It is the equivalent of using fish sauce as an umami bomb in non-Asian cooking. A large pot can use a whole tin of anchovies as shown above, whereas a small pasta dish made for two people can use just 2-3 filets. I usually add the filets in while I saute the vegetables. Don't forget to use the olive oil in the tin! It's packed with flavor! Just be careful in not over salting your food.

If you haven't tried playing around with stock pots/cubes/powder/bastes, now is the time! Some chicken bouillon does wonders for this type of sauce. In a pinch, chicken broth will do, but will add to the cooking time if there's too much liquid in the pot. We can also sear meat in the bottom of the pot before adding your vegetables in, giving us those lovely meat bits packed with flavor and umami. Any meat will do, just pick! I suggest using any tough cuts with lots of connective tissue, like ribs or shoulder cuts. The collagen will eventually break down into delicious gelatin, providing more body to the sauce and improving the consistency and adding to flavor.  If this is a meatless sauce, then just stick with the anchovies.

Tomatoes: The Red Thing In Your Sauce
As mentioned above, store bought pasta sauce works in a pinch but San Marzano tomatoes are king here. Try it once and you will understand why. They come in whole, dice or puree'd varieties. Pick and choose whichever you like! I would add in the tomatoes after the vegetables have cooked down and become soft. If the batch of tomatoes you're using are a bit tart and sour, a pinch of sugar will do the trick.

Aromatics: The Herbs
I'm partial to adding basil and oregano, but depending on what you want to do with the sauce, you can change it up! Hot pepper flakes, parsley, thyme and etc. Certain herbs should be added right before serving (like parsley), where as others should be stewed. Most recipes will specify when to add what, so don't worry too much about that.

Time: The Waiting Game
I suggest a minimum of 2 hours on simmer. Always remember to taste for seasoning and don't forget about reducing/adding water to the pot. I always do the final taste test before serving. It's always better to under salt at first, than to over salt and try to fix it.

Shown above is an Italian Sunday meat sauce before simmering and reducing. I used a combination of beef shin, pork spare ribs, and Italian sausage for the meat. Don't forget the anchovies!

I never said that achieving a great tomato sauce can be done in 20 minutes. But it definitely is simple! Start with a vegetable base, introduce umami, add aromatics and simmer!

I hope you enjoy this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it!

1 comment: