Welcome to Pretty Fly for a DIY, a series in which we take a closer look at commonly purchased food items, and highlight the most important things you need to know in order to successfully make them for yourself at home. Why would I make it instead of buy it, you ask? We know convenience factor is a real consideration when it comes to getting food on the table, but every so often, it’s super satisfying (and fun) to get into the kitchen and create a higher quality, more delicious product than what you can find on supermarket shelves.
When you're short on time and just trying to get some stuffed bell peppers on the dinner table, there are plenty of solid jarred tomato sauces on the shelf--but even that super fancy one that's "imported from Italy" and costs $10.99 for the 12-ounce jar doesn't compare with a pot of homemade. An aromatic, robust from-scratch tomato sauce that's been building flavor on the stove for hours is one of my favorite foods in this world. Give me a big bowl of it and plenty of crusty bread, and I'll consider it the best meal of my week. And it's one of those things I genuinely love to make from scratch when I have a little time on the weekend A.) because I find chopping ingredients for it cathartic B.) it overwhelms my tiny apartment with an odor that I assume is the same as what heaven smells like C.) I can make a huge batch of it and stock my freezer with tomato sauce for meals down the road. Everyone has their own twists and special touches when it comes to sauce and I'm not going to sit here and say mine's the best or even technically super "correct," but I will say I have made a lot of tomato sauce in my lifetime and I have some strong feels about it. And these are the things I believe are most important for you to know.
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The Five Things You Need to Know:
1. A recipe isn't the be-all and end-all.
For something like tomato sauce, a recipe is a great place to start, especially if it's your first time making it, but it's important to allow yourself flexibility. Think of the recipe as a guide--something to give you an idea of what to do--rather than strict instructions. Even if you're using your great grandma's sacred sauce recipe, I promise you--there's room for adaptation (I bet you even she didn't follow that weathered note card to a T... if she followed it at all). Hell, some of the remaining tips below may not be included in the recipe you use, but that doesn't mean they can't be applied.
2. Starting with good tomatoes means you end with better sauce.
The hierarchy of desirableness regarding tomatoes for sauce is as follows. Ripe, fresh, in-season tomatoes are first choice. But if you're making sauce out-of-season when the only fresh tomatoes available are likely mealy and awful, go for high-quality canned. My favorite to use are Muir Glen Fire Roasted Tomatoes. Seriously, these make for perfectly awesome tomato sauce. I love them. And finally, if you decide on a whim you want to make tomato sauce, have no intention of going to the store, but do have some store-brand unsalted diced tomatoes in your pantry, they'll work fine. And given the choice between mealy, crap fresh tomatoes and generic canned tomatoes--still go with the can.
3. Produce besides tomatoes is important too.
Obviously, tomatoes are the star player here, but what goes into the pot before the tomatoes is equally important for building a robust depth of flavor--I'm talking aromatics and other veggies that you start your sauce with by sautéing them olive oil. The non-negotiables--as in, you honestly shouldn't even bother if you aren't including these--are chopped onion and plenty (I use 8 to 10 cloves) of fresh minced garlic. The items I swear by, but likely aren't in your recipe, are finely chopped celery and carrots. I start every pot of tomato sauce I make with a mirepoix (i.e. the combo of chopped onion, celery, and carrots) + garlic. This creates a more dynamic flavor that, to me, distinguishes the basic from the next-level tomato sauce.
4. Wine and sugar are welcome here.
I like to welcome wine and sugar into as many aspects of my life as possible, and thankfully, they just happen to do wonders for homemade tomato sauce. Like the produce items I mentioned above, these 2 simple ingredients will also deepen the flavor of your sauce like you wouldn't believe. Once you add the tomatoes to the pot, add anywhere from a few glugs to half a bottle of dry red wine (#YOLO) and allow your tomatoes to simmer in the wine, soaking up flavor as it reduces. At any point here, stir in about a tablespoon of sugar. That little touch of sweetness is exactly what a pot full of acidic tomatoes needs to feel "whole."
5. Finish with a touch of richness.
Once you're coming up on being ready to serve your now glorious, fragrant, hearty pot 'o sauce, I always suggest finishing it off with just an added touch of richness--as in fat. Stir 1-2 tablespoons of butter or heavy cream in right at the end. You won't regret this.
P.S. I also stir in a touch (seriously just a dash) of freshly grated nutmeg at this point in the process. Give it a try.
6. You decide the texture.
Depending on what you're using it for and who you're serving it to, you may or may not want to leave all of your sauce in it's thick and wonderful, but also slightly chunky, state. You have all f the magnificent flavor of your homemade sauce, but if you're serving to kids or want to use it as a pizza sauce, having something closer to the jarred texture could be more convenient. No biggie. You can puree some or all of your sauce in the blender to produce a velvety, chunk-free sauce. (If it's still piping hot, remove the center piece of the blender lid, so that there is an opening for steam to escape, and hold a clean folded kitchen towel over the opening once you start blending).
The Recipes You Need to Have:
So you have all of this kick-ass tomato sauce, here's a few thoughts on where to put it:
Steak and Mushroom Pizza-dillas
Cheesy Baked Pasta Shells
Shrimp Marinara Soup with Crumbled Feta
Italian Meatball Sliders