IT TAKES JUST 20 MINUTES TO OUTDO JARRED SAUCE
Contrary to what many people think, making a great tomato sauce needn’t take hours. In fact, long cooking time is the enemy here, robbing the tomatoes of their freshness. Along with a handful of key partners, canned tomatoes can be transformed into a superior sauce in the time it takes to boil pasta.
Canned tomatoes, packed at the peak of ripeness, consistently taste better than the flavorless supermarket tomatoes you find most times of the year. But they do have one problem. Canned tomatoes contain the preservative citric acid, which throws off the delicate balance between sweetness and acidity found in fresh tomatoes. When using canned tomatoes to make a sauce, the job of the cook is to add back some sweet notes.
Sugar is an obvious place to start but any more than ¼ teaspoon is too much. You need subtler sources of sweetness—compounds that taste more like the natural sugars in fresh tomatoes. We tried a variety of options before settling on onions. When cooked long enough, their flavor changes from pungent to sweet. Onions actually contain long chains of fructose molecules and as the onions break down these chains are broken, allowing the natural sugars in the onions to dominate. At the same time, the volatile compounds that make raw onions so harsh are cooking off.
Slowly cooking the onions for a quick tomato sauce doesn’t make much sense so we developed a method for preparing and cooking the onion that shortcuts this process to just 5 minutes.
While not as simple as opening a jar (nothing is), this sauce is a revelation. Make it a few times and you will want to commit it to memory. It’s that good.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Pick the Right Can
Crushed tomatoes are our top choice for a quick sauce because they already have been pureed. Brands that list tomatoes, rather than tomato puree, as the first ingredient will have a fresher flavor. We particularly like Tuttorosso and Muir Glen crushed tomatoes.
Grate, Don’t Chop
Grated onion pulp browns faster than chopped onion. The large holes of a box grater are the perfect tool for grating a peeled onion. Use a medium onion, which will easily produce the necessary amount of grated onion while still leaving a sizeable chunk in your hand (thus keeping your fingers and knuckles safe).
Butter to Start
Most tomato sauces start with olive oil. But since the flavor compounds in good olive oil are extremely volatile, even the best extra-virgin oil doesn’t add much flavor when used this way. You might as well start with vegetable oil. We took another path. Sautéing the onion in butter does the best job of enhancing the flavor of the tomatoes. That’s because the butter speeds the browning of the onion and contributes its own browned milk solids, ramping up the sweet notes in the sauce. The butter also adds a layer of richness.
A Brief Simmer
Simmering a simple sauce for more than 20 minutes actually dulls its flavor. You want to simmer the sauce just long enough to thicken it to the correct consistency—a process that takes just 10 minutes when you start with crushed tomatoes.
A Fresh and Fragrant Finish
Swirling in aromatic fresh basil right before serving adds bright grassy notes and makes up for the lost fragrance of fresh tomatoes. Using olive oil to finish the sauce is the best way to capture its flavor.
Great sauce requires a little sugar and a lot of fresh basil.
Quick Tomato Sauce
MAKES ABOUT 3 CUPS; ENOUGH FOR 1 POUND OF PASTA
- 5 minutes to prep ingredients
- 5 minutes to cook onion and garlic
- 10 minutes to cook tomatoes and finish sauce
- Box grater for grating onion
- Can opener
- Medium saucepan
- Chef’s knife
Substitutions & Variations
- If you don’t have crushed tomatoes, you can substitute one 28-ounce can of whole or diced tomatoes processed with their juice in a food processor until smooth.
- This recipe can be doubled if you use a large saucepan. Note that the simmering time might be slightly longer.
Grate the onion on the large holes of a box grater.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup grated onion
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, ½ teaspoon salt, and oregano; cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and onion is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and sugar; increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in basil and oil; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
SPICY QUICK TOMATO SAUCE
Add 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes with garlic.
CREAMY QUICK TOMATO SAUCE
Add ¾ cup heavy cream to finished sauce and simmer until thickened, about 3 minutes.
ZESTY QUICK TOMATO SAUCE
Add 8 minced anchovy fillets with garlic. Add ½ cup pitted and chopped olives and 3 tablespoons rinsed capers with basil.
A Better Way to Cook Dried Pasta
Never has so much bunk been written about something so simple. Oil in the water? Throwing pasta against the fridge? Rinsing pasta? Not only do these “tricks” not work, they distract many cooks from the things that do. Here’s what you need to know to cook pasta correctly.
1). Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in Dutch oven or large pot (at least 6 quarts). (Pasta leaches starch as it cooks and abundant water dilutes the starch and reduces the risk that the noodles will stick together.)
2). Add 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water. (Most of the salt will go down the drain. And forget about adding oil to the pot. It creates a slick surface on the water but won’t keep the pasta from sticking. However, it will end up on the drained pasta and prevent the sauce from adhering properly.)
3). Add pasta and stir constantly for about 1 minute. Stir every minute during first half of cooking process, when noodles are most likely to stick.
4). Several minutes before you think pasta will be done, start tasting. (Forget about the times on the box.) When pasta tastes just shy of al dente, it’s done. (Residual heat will continue to soften the noodles so it’s best to undercook them ever so slightly.)
5). Reserve cooking water (½ cup or amount specified in recipe) and then drain pasta. Don’t rinse pasta and don’t shake it bone-dry. (A little moisture on the pasta will help spread the sauce.) Use reserved cooking water if you need to loosen sauce further.
6). Return drained pasta to now-empty pot and toss with sauce. (Saucing in the pot gives you room to toss for even coverage and keeps everything hot.)
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