5 Ways to Upgrade Tomato Sauce

March 09, 2015


Tomato sauce is one of those sauces most everyone makes.

And there are simple ways to upgrade tomato sauce without a lot of extra effort.  Here are my favorite ways to do so.

How I make my tomato sauce

Every tomato sauce starts with two 28oz cans of whole tomatoes.  I buy good quality tomatoes, like the Muir Glen or San Marzanos.  I prefer whole tomatoes that I then whiz in the blender or with the immersion blender.  But crushed tomatoes will work if you’re feeling lazy. I drain the juice of one can and keep the juice of the other.  This is a preference – if there is too much juice, your tomato sauce will have to cook longer to thicken.  If you prefer a thin sauce, use all the juice.  If you prefer a thick sauce, use none (though this will yield less sauce.)

At its most basic incarnation, I add a good layer of olive oil to the saucepan (1/4 cup) and 2 cloves of sliced garlic, which I brown.  I then add the tomatoes with a pinch of chili flakes and let it do its thing for at least 30 minutes.  Sometimes I cook 1/2 onion for 10 minutes – it depends how much time I have. Your sauce can cook on the stovetop or in a 325 oven.  The oven tends to intensify flavors, a very good thing.  You can cook it up to 2 hours on low if you’d like intensify the flavors.  Or leave it to burble 3-4 hours in your slow cooker.

If you like a chunkier sauce, keep some chunks when blending your tomatoes.

5 Ways to upgrade basic tomato sauce

1. Use 1/2 cup of olive oil, 1/2 onion, and 1/2 cup of tomato paste to 8 cups of tomatoes.  I got this trick from the first Thomas Keller cookbook.  The trick is to cook the onion long and slow (10 minutes) add the tomato paste and cook a few more minutes, then the tomatoes.  This tomato sauce is definitely next level delicious.

2. Cook 1/3 cup onion, 1/3 cup celery, 1/3 cup carrot (small dice) in 1/4 cup olive oil for 10 minutes.  Deglaze with a cup of wine, and add 2 cans tomatoes.

3. Use 3-4 cloves sliced garlic, brown in 1/3 cup olive oil and add your 2 cans tomatoes with a stick of celery.

4. Add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of white or red wine to your cooked aromatics (onions or garlic) and let reduce by half, then add your tomatoes.  I prefer the delicate taste of white wine in here, but red wine works if you like a more robust sauce.

5. Roast the tomatoes before cooking.  Place your drained whole tomatoes on a cookie sheet with a little olive oil, and maybe a jalapeno pepper or two.  Broil until you start to see some char (dark spots) on the tomatoes.  Blend the tomatoes and peppers and proceed to make sauce as usual.

Some other fun tips:

  • Butter is your friend.  Using a little butter at the beginning to cook your veggies and a couple of tablespoons at the end adds a softness and depth of flavor to your sauce
  • Add a 1/2 to 1 cup of fresh chopped basil when the sauce is done
  • Add 2 tsp fresh chopped oregano at the beginning of cooking, or 1-2 tsp dried.  When using dried, I like to add a pinch of sugar to balance out the bitter from the dried herbs.
  • To make the sauce creamier, add a couple of tablespoons creme fraiche or heavy cream near the end of cooking. Sour cream can work in a pinch.
  • Chopped black olives and capers to taste with a healthy pinch of chilies makes a quick easy puttanesca
  • You can use a pinch of sugar to balance if your tomato sauce tastes too acidic.  Butter helps with this too
  • Add a pinch of cinnamon along with some red chili flakes to add a boost of unexpected flavor
  • Cheese works well in tomato sauce – add parmesan, asiago, romano near the end of cooking.  Or for a twist, add a couple tablespoons gorgonzola cheese.
  • Tomato paste intensifies the flavor of your sauce.  Add a couple of tablespoons once your aromatics are cooked and saute 1-2 minutes before adding 2 cans of tomatoes
  • For pizza sauce, add dried oregano and thyme (1-3 tsp oregano, 1 tsp thyme)
  • Blend 1-2 chipotles in adobo for a spicy Mexican version

Ways to use tomato sauce

  • Poach fish: Add 1 tbsp chili powder, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp cumin the basic tomato sauce and cooked chunks of salmon or other fish for 5-6 minutes on low.  This is delicious with 2-3 cups cubed cooked sweet potatoes and kale or spinach (inside the sauce.)
  • On pizza – use naan or pita bread to make mini pizzas in a pinch.  Adding dried oregano and thyme and some fresh basil to the sauce = delicious.  I also love to add pizza sauce to polenta for polenta pizzas as well.
  • On zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash (and this is when it helps to boost the flavor of the sauce – it’s a simple dish, so make it special!)
  • Cook tofu: especially in a roasted tomato/jalapeno sauce, or with the chipotles – cut up medium cubes and bake in the sauce at 350 for 45 minutes.  Add spinach for color and serve on rice.  There is something about tofu in tomato sauce that really works.
  • Braise chicken: Especially in the tomato sauce with the onions/carrot/celery/wine.  Sear 4-5 chicken pieces, add a bay leaf and sprig of thyme (optional) and bake in the tomato sauce at 325 for 1 hour or so, until the chicken starts to fall apart.

How do you make your tomato sauce?  Any tips to add to this list?! 

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