Proper… tomato sauce

Categories: Expert guidance

From the perfect bacon sandwich to the best-ever hot cross buns, in this new series Daniel Tapper consults experts to reveal how to master six classic comfort food dishes. This time, proper Italian tomato sauce

“I can’t think about a life without tomatoes. Really, I can’t,” says Giorgio Locatelli in his now legendary cookbook, Made in Italy. And frankly, who can? The perfect combination of sweet and savoury but with a bracing hit of tart acidity, the humble tomato is perhaps the world’s most versatile, cherished and delectable fruit. And no dish offers a purer expression of this remarkable ingredient than Italian-style tomato sauce.

My earliest attempts were carried out as a student and in hindsight were nothing less than a culinary abomination. Inspired by the jars of ready-made sauce I’d eaten as a child, I naturally assumed that the real deal was a hotchpotch of cheap passata, red peppers, desiccated basil and chunky caramelised onions—not forgetting rogue additions of chilli, garlic powder and smoked paprika.

It wasn’t until I married an Italian that I realised that the best examples are not fussy, complicated and showy but are instead built around a handful of quality ingredients cooked with patience and attention to detail. Rush a tomato sauce and it will be thin, watery and entirely forgettable. Scrimp on ingredients, and you may as well have bought a cheap jar.

Gentle sweetness
The beating heart of any tomato sauce worth its salt is the san marzano tomato, a thin, pointy plum variety cultivated in Naples, Salerno and Avellino. Harvested in summer when plump and juicy, these tomatoes are famed for their gentle sweetness and concentrated flavour. More still, they boast lower water content than most varieties and fewer bitter-tasting seeds.

The virtues of the san marzano don’t end there. When blanched the skins practically melt away, leaving you with the all-important pulp needed to create the sauce. Crucially, they are also exceptionally adept at being canned. Far from being a second-rate version of the ‘real thing’, many claim that canned tomatoes are even better—and I would have to agree.

But what of the other ingredients required? I may be wrong here, but one of the things that makes an authentic tomato sauce so endlessly alluring is how brimming it is with contradictions. It is at once sweet but sour; warming yet refreshing. And though all of its ingredients are deeply, steadfastly different, they each bring something unique to the table.

Lavish floral aroma
A small amount of onion, for example, lends a gentle dose of sweetness, helping to counterbalance the sauce’s acidic oomph. A scattering of earthy pecorino lends a much-needed umami kick, and though only added at the very last moment, a scattering of torn basil leaves imbues the dish with a lavish floral aroma.

Of course, it is how you use these ingredients that matters. Fry the onion for too long and it will become insipidly sweet. Add the basil a moment too soon and it’ll taste mouth-puckeringly bitter—and woe betide those too impatient to cook their tomatoes for at least 40 minutes.

Your choice of pasta is equally important. Dried not fresh is the classic Italian pairing with tomato sauce, a legacy of the dish’s roots in southern Italy where the latter was once considered a luxury. And though many swear by rigatoni, fusilli and conchiglie because of their sauce-friendly nooks and crannies, the oldest written reference to the dish is from the 1790s and explicitly describes spaghetti. Can I—a man who once paired his pasta with smoked paprika—argue with more than 200 years of culinary history? I think not.

The recipe
This recipe will make enough for 4 people. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a saucepan on a low heat and add 1 small finely chopped onion. Soften until translucent, but not coloured. Stir in 3 crushed garlic cloves and cook for a further 30 secs (no longer!). Crush 800g tinned plum tomatoes with your hands and add them to the pan along with a dash or red wine or red wine vinegar, 1 tsp brown sugar and 1 tsp tomato paste.

Season lightly and simmer gently for 40 mins uncovered, stirring occasionally. The sauce should thicken and become noticeably sweeter. 10 mins before the sauce is ready, add 400g dried spaghetti to a pan of boiling water along with a splash of olive oil. Drain when it still has a little bite.

Stir the pasta through the sauce and serve with torn basil leaves, grated Pecorino Romano and 2 tbsp olive oil.