Basic Tomato Sauce

When people find out that I cook a lot, they almost always ask me what my “specialty” is. I think many people put too much emphasis on recipes, when I believe it’s more important to focus on technique. Once you’ve got techniques down, you can adapt them to almost any ingredients. So I’m starting what I hope will be a recurring column about basic cooking techniques.

People are often astounded when I tell them I make my own tomato sauce. I think they must be imagining a big pot of Sunday “gravy” or an all-day ragu. The truth is you can make a great tomato sauce in minutes, while the pasta boils, with a few simple ingredients. The most basic involves the few ingredients you see above — olive oil, salt, a can of tomatoes, and half of an onion (things you should keep in your pantry at all times). Yes, that’s it. Once you’ve got the technique down you can customize it and flavor it however you’d like, and I’ll mention some ideas along the way. I recommend starting out with the most basic formula, so you can see just how great these four simple ingredients can be. Ready? Here we go.

Let’s start by talking about olive oil. More specifically, extra virgin olive oil. A lot of people will tell you that you shouldn’t cook with extra virgin olive oil, and there is a little bit of truth to that. Certainly you shouldn’t cook with your $40 bottle, which is much better for drizzling over foods just before they are served. But there are lots of serviceable extra virgin oils available — Union Market here in Brooklyn has a really good one for only $9/bottle. Why is the oil so important? The thing to remember when making any pasta sauce is that no matter what the ingredients are (i.e. whether you’re making a tomato sauce or a cream sauce) that the sauce is really based on the type of fat you are using to start it (olive oil, or butter, or even pork fat). It might be useful to think of it as an olive oil sauce with tomatoes, rather than a tomato sauce. So you should really get the best oil that you can without breaking the bank. Pour enough oil into your pan to coat the bottom and crank the heat all the way up.

Now you should cut up half of an onion. How should you cut it? It really doesn’t matter. You can slice it, or dice it, or whatever you like. I like using a technique called frenching, which is super easy and gives nice looking results. Onions are added for a couple of reasons. Flavor, of course, is the main reason to add any ingredient to a dish, and along with the onion flavor they tend to soak up any flavor added to them. The other reason to add onions is they add body, or texture and volume, to the sauce. They will cook away to almost nothing, so the smaller you cut them originally the less time this will take. Add the onion to the hot oil and let them soften. Here’s where you could theoretically add other ingredients — some pepper or chili flakes would be good, maybe some chopped herbs.

Once the onions have softened add some salt. How much? Enough to season them. How do you know? Taste them. Seasoning is going to be the next big thing in determining how good your sauce is, and salt makes things taste good. So add enough salt and stir it together with the onions. Again we’ve reached the point where you could add some flavoring — if you were going to add a splash of wine this is when you’d do it. I find some fresh lemon juice makes a nice addition at this point.

Once the onions are ready, move them off to the sides of the pan to make room for the tomatoes. If there is no more oil left in the bottom of the pan you should add a little bit more before adding the tomatoes. I like to use whole Italian tomatoes, but find a brand that works for you. The biggest difference is that due to complicated import laws, imported Italian tomatoes are canned in a tomato puree while American canned tomatoes are packed in tomato juice. Some people prefer the “fresh” taste of the juice but I find it too watery. Whatever brand you use, I find that one small can is just about right for half of a pound of pasta, which can feed two people (or one very hungry person). After adding them you should crush the whole tomatoes — purists will tell you to do this by hand but if you have a pair of tongs there’s no reason to dirty your hands. Immediately salt the tomatoes and stir them in with the onions. When the tomatoes start boiling turn down the heat and let it simmer for a while.

This is what you’re looking for. The sauce should cook down so much that you can see the bottom of the pan when you drag your tongs through it. If the sauce is too wet just turn up the heat and let it cook down some more. If the sauce is too thick you can add some of the water from the pasta that’s cooking. Did I mention that you should be cooking your pasta in salted water while you do this? Any type of pasta will be fine with this particular sauce, though I’d recommend something short and thick rather than long and thin. I used farfalle, bowties.

There’s an old maxim when it comes to cooking pasta and sauce: “the sauce should wait for the pasta, but the pasta should not wait for the sauce.” The worst thing you can do to your pasta (other than not seasoning the water) is over cook it. In fact, you should pull it out of the water about a minute before it’s really done, and then add it into the waiting sauce. Go ahead and add a splash of the pasta cooking water as well — this is going to add some seasoning, but it’s also going to add the starch from the pasta which will help the sauce adhere to the pasta. What you’re looking to do is basically “stain” the pasta with the sauce. Let it cook until the pasta is cooked the way you like it. Here you could add some unsalted butter, fresh herbs, or some grated cheese, but all we’re going to do is turn off the heat and add a splash of the same $9 olive oil.

That’s it! Really and truly, this will make an incredible pasta. Again, you could top the individual servings with cheese or chopped herbs, but you really don’t need to. I encourage everyone to try this, and let me know how it turns out for you.

Also, if there are any other basic techniques you’re interested in learning about, please let me know. I’m planning the next column about risotto, but I’m open to more suggestions.

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