If you still make tomato sauce like Mom or Grandma does, you might be missing some of the key elements to take it from fair to fantastic. The difference between a home cook and a professional chef is a focus on the METHOD for sauce making, not the recipe.
You might think this mother sauce is very easy. After all, you just simmer some tomatoes until you have a sauce, right? Perhaps, but the object is to build many levels of flavor more than just tomato. Layering tastes takes more effort than chopping and simmering tomatoes like past generations did.
To make tomato sauce like a pro, you need to start with concasse’. Tomato Concasse is seeded and skinned tomatoes created by poaching the fruit in simmering water and then shocking them in an ice bath to loosen the skins.
I don’t consider myself a “snotty” chef, I don’t think my way is the only way, and I’m not here to insult your Mom’s sauce making skills. However, I do have a few pet-peeves when it comes to cooking. One of these is when home cooks leave the tomato skins in their sauce. Without concasse, tomatoes are just chopped and the skins shrink into rolled up “quills” that stick between your teeth. They are tough, chewy and you don’t digest them very well.
“But the recipe doesn’t tell me to skin the tomatoes, ” you might respond. Of course it doesn’t! Recipes often leave out important methods in favor of the list of ingredients. A recipe won’t teach you to cook anymore than sheet music will teach you to play piano. If you followed the written notes to a famous Beatles song, would it sound exactly like the original? Certainly not, you’re not Paul McCartney and your interpretation of the notes on a page will be different from everyone else.
When you make tomato sauce with peeled and seeded tomatoes, vegetables and seasonings, you’re starting to build one flavor on top of another. In a truly classic sauce, you’d add a beef bone or ham hock to simmer in the sauce, giving yet another dimension beyond just tomato. However, in a contemporary sauce, flavorful beef or vegetable stock is added instead of the bones.
Keeping in mind that method is more important than a written recipe, the best sauces start with sauté. Using direct heat along with oil or fat will start to build levels of flavor as the onions are sweated, then celery, then carrots for sweetness. Tomatoes should be the last ingredient added to this sauce because they will accept all the flavors that came just before them.
Rather than just simmering tomatoes, what if you started with rendered bacon fat? The meatiness of the bacon will give yet another dimension to the sauce. The Japanese call this “Umami”, a sixth sense on the tongue. Achieving a deeper, more savory aspect to the sauce immediately takes it from amateur to professional because of the method used.
If you want to make tomato sauce like a chef, follow this procedure. I didn’t call it a recipe because you can use any ingredients you’d like. It’s the method that gives you freedom of choice to change onions to hot peppers or ground beef to sausage. The recipe doesn’t allow this artistic expression.
First, prepare tomato concasse by removing the core and making an X on the bottom of all the fruit you’ll use for the sauce. They should be poached in simmering water until the skin starts to split and recede. Upon seeing this, immediately remove them from the hot water and stop the cooking by plunging in ice water. The object is to remove the skin while NOT cooking the flesh underneath.
Second, choose a fat to begin sauté. Olive oil is usually the best choice but as I stated above, bacon fat, ground beef, or sausage are also excellent choices for a non-vegetarian sauce.
Third, sauté onions, carrot and celery in that order. Always choose the toughest ingredient to sauté first, as it will be in the pan the longest and needs to tenderize. First onions, then carrot, then celery to begin the foundation of flavors in your sauce.
This combination of starchy vegetables will eventually become the thickening agent. Tomato sauce is thickened by pureed vegetables, tomato paste and the process of reduction as moisture evaporates during a long simmering process.
Then, you might decide to use red wine or a broth to deglaze the pan, just like a normal sauté procedure. Reduce this liquid until it is almost all gone, evaporated and absorbed by the ingredients.
Lastly, add the blanched tomatoes, either in a smooth puree or roughly chopped for a chunkier sauce. Don’t worry that your sauce looks too dry; all the ingredients will continue to release moisture that will combine flavors into many levels and dimensions that can’t be achieved by just simmering one ingredient on its own.
After adding your favorite seasonings, usually basil and oregano, it’s a matter of patience. This sauce will be mostly thickened through reduction; the evaporation of moisture so that it sticks to food, has an appealing consistency and doesn’t leave a watery puddle on the bottom of the plate.
I challenge you to make tomato sauce like Grandma, and then make it like the chefs in my culinary college class. Compare the two. You’ll find that a concentration on the method over the ingredients will result in a tomato sauce that has more depth, more flavor, and compliments more foods than just pasta. You can still love your Grandma, but you’ll love my tomato sauce more than hers, I’m sure.
See the video on how to make tomato sauce.