I think that many things have been said about this tomato sauce that it feels almost redundant to jump in at this point. Enough praises have been sung*.
But as I was thinking about this sauce and why it’s so great, and why it’s just so great to make your own tomato sauce for dinner rather than reach for a jar of it, it got me thinking about the technique of making a proper tomato sauce. The tomato sauce is a simple, humble thing, and yet it too has a few rules that need to be followed in order to wind up with a sauce that will take your breath away each and every time. The most important one is to cook your tomato sauce uncovered.
Marcella Hazan, whose tomato sauce with onion and butter surely gets its start in the “Recipe Hall of Fame”**, wastes no time and gets right to the point: “Pasta sauces may cook slowly or rapidly, they make take 4 minutes or 4 hours, but the always cook by evaporation, which concentrates and clearly defines their flavor. Never cook a sauce in a covered pan, or it will emerge with a bland, steamed, weakly formulated taste.” Short. Sweet. To the point. Message received.
Second, if using canned tomatoes, use quality ones – otherwise your sauce borders on being either overly acidic or (for a sauce) overly sweet. I prefer to use Muir Glen whole tomatoes – I find that their salt-to-sugar-to-acid balance suits my palate the best.
The third, and final rule is more of a personal observation and less of a rule. Since the evaporation of moisture and the concentration of flavor is what you’re after, a wider (rather than a narrower) pot is the way to go. I’ve had a lot of success using a large skillet to cook down my sauce to a consistency that I like. For larger batches, I go with a wide stockpot, but for smaller ones, a large skillet works better. Besides, it’s the perfect way to finish off drained pasta (which I undercook by about 1 minute). Just throw the cooked pasta into the skillet with the sauce, toss to bind the sauce to the pasta, add a few spoonfuls of the reserved pasta water (reserved right before draining the pasta) if the pasta-sauce combo seems a bit dry, and divide among the bowls. Someone once told me that what should be left in your bowl after you finished your pasta is just enough sauce to wipe with a piece of bread. Any more and either you’ve added too much sauce, or the sauce is too liquid.
Since this particular sauce takes a little under an hour to make, I’m going to suggest that you make a triple batch of it, and freeze whatever you don’t eat that evening. Keep in mind, that a larger mass of tomatoes and butter, requires a longer time to cook the sauce. I’d say that you should set aside anywhere between 1 1/2 and 2 hours to make your large batch of the sauce. When you’re faced with a busy week, all you need to do is warm up the sauce, toss it with pasta, dinner is ready. And while the pasta water boils and the sauce is simmering, you can throw together a simple salad.
You might balk at the sheer amount of butter this sauce uses, but this is a tomato sauce with some heft. This is meant to be a meal, and the highlight of it too, and if you really think about it, you wind up eating only about one tablespoon of butter with each bowl of pasta, which isn’t quite so bad. Instead of a light, summery sauce, you get something with some body to it. And after making this sauce for over five years, it still blows my mind that so few ingredients render something so complex and satisfying in the end.
In the post where I walked you through on how to prepare fresh tomatoes for sauce, I processed 6 pounds of tomatoes. According to the proportions below, that gives me 3 batches, roughly. It’s a good feeling knowing that if craziness unfolds, and cooking dinner is out of the question, I can, at the very least, warm up some tomato sauce and boil some water for the pasta. Surely, if I’m sipping a glass of wine in the process to aid me in my dinner impossible mission, such things are possible?
**Shouldn’t there be a “Recipe Hall of Fame”?
* As I said before, enough praises have been sung to this sauce: here, here, here, here, here, and here. And I’m certain that I’m missing lots of folks who’ve all extolled virtues of this humble-sounding yet utterly luxurious sauce.
Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking
Everything I could have possibly written for a headnote, has already been written above. The only two thing, and I mention one of them below, is this: do not, whatever you do (unless you are my friend Jane) throw away the onion after it is cooked. It is by far one of the most delicious things to eat, a great accompaniment to your pasta, or a decadent topping over generously buttered bread.
The other is that if you work with the tomatoes you, yourself, have prepared for a tomato sauce, your results are going to be that much more delicious. No canned tomato will ever rival a fresh tomato just fixed for a sauce.
2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, prepared as described here or 1 (28-ounce; 800 grams) can quality whole tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen), torn with your hands into small pieces with the tomato liquid
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
Salt, to taste
1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta (I prefer buccatini here)
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Place either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat separates from the tomatoes and floats free. From time to time, stir with a wooden spoon, mashing any large pieces of tomato in the pan. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Hazan instructs you to discard the onion before eating, but I like to fish it out and serve it at our dinner on the side. Andrew and I fight for it: the onion mellows out, worn down by the acid in the tomato and the fat of the butter, and turns into something decadent and luxurious. Who knew a humble onion could have such beginnings?