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Tomato sauce - musings

"The kind of sauce that starts with the simplest ingredients—some canned tomatoes, a few aromatics, some olive oil, and maybe some basil—and alchemically transforms them into something so good that families can be built around it." J. Kenji López-Alt

It's my younger son's birthday in a few days time and so I am desperately trying to think of birthday presents. He is impossible - like his father. Possibly like most men. Anyway his wife suggested an Italian hamper kind of thing as part of the offering, and she also mentioned tomato sauce. So I have been making a small book of tomato sauce recipes. This one shown here is probably the cream of the crop, although I suspect that none of us are going to give it a go because it takes all day.

It's from the always very thorough and almost scientific J. Kenji López-Alt on the Serious Eats website, and he calls it The best Italian-American tomato sauce. Having said, however, that nobody would try it, maybe I would. Because although it takes an awful long time to cook it's actually not that complicated. It just takes time. In the oven - not on the cooktop. I would also highly recommend a read of it if you are at all interested in why one should do one thing, choose one thing, include one thing rather than another. Just to give you a taste:

"Squishing tomatoes through your fingers not only delivers the best texture for a chunky sauce, but it's also fantastically therapeutic. A rough chunky texture like this will cook down into a sauce that still has plenty of body while being fine-textured enough to coat a strand of spaghetti or a good meatball." J. Kenji López-Alt

Yes - the tomatoes - DPO San Marzano of course - are squished through your fingers, not chopped.

This particular recipe also confirmed that there is a whole school of cooking called Italian-American cuisine that includes such fundamental things as spaghetti and meatballs. Another time perhaps.

But back to tomato sauce. The whole exercise made me realise that there are a whole lot of sauces that are not quite tomato sauce, but are sort of. So, because I'm still feeling lazy, I'm just going to list a few of them. I'm assuming that you all know how to have a go at 'ordinary' tomato sauce. If you can call tomato sauce ordinary that is.

However, if you're not feeling quite up to the academic J. Kenji López-Alt you can have a look at Felicity Cloake and her perfect tomato sauce. Same approach but simpler, and she does a brief analysis of some of the more famous versions as well.

So what are the other tomato sauces that I was talking about:

Tomato sauce in a bottle aka tomato ketchup

Yes the stuff that Australians put on everything, but particularly sausage rolls and meat pies. It actually has its place - although not necessarily with the sausage rolls and meat pies and you can find lots of recipes for making your own online. I think I've written about it in detail before, so I won't go on about it here. From memory I'm thinking it's probably at least connected to the Anglo-Indian strain of cooking.

And by the way there is a new cookbook out called Desi Kitchen by Sarah Woods which is an exploration of Indian food as cooked in England. Modern Anglo-Indian food I guess. I might buy that if I see it somewhere.

Fresh tomato sauce

Salsa fresca I suppose. But not tomato salsa - which I shall come to. No this is a pasta sauce, indeed a tomato pasta sauce, but an uncooked one, which is why it's called 'fresh'. Being fresh it's made with fresh tomatoes not tinned ones - which actually seems to be the preferred major ingredient for the classic Salsa al pomodoro. This version is from Taste of Home but there are countless other ones on the net. As many as there are for 'ordinary' tomato sauce. For summer.


We all know that marinara sauce has nothing to do with seafood - although there are connections to sailors - well fishermen. Some say it's a simple sauce they made for their fish on the boats, others that their wives cooked it up for them at home. Nevertheless I have a real problem with this one. There really doesn't seem to be a reliable definition of the difference from your standard tomato sauce. Some said it's lighter, but if you look at all the pictures they all look the same. Just know that marinara sauce should be a tomato sauce not a seafood one.


This one is from Naples and is tomato sauce spiced up with olives, chillies, capers and anchovies. The version shown here is Delia's. It's called puttanesca after the Italian for a prostitute. Delia features it in her Summer Cooking book as an ideal vegetarian meal. which it is. As she says:

"Presumably the sauce has adopted this name because it's hot, strong and gutsy"


"Authentic bucatini all'amatriciana is made with chewy bucatini pasta (a type of thicker, hollow spaghetti), tossed with a rich sauce made from tomatoes, caramelized onion, dried chile pepper, and plenty of deeply savory cured guanciale."

So says the Food and Wine website, and this is the version from Italian Food Boss. Guanciale is a bit difficult to get hold of though, so use pancetta instead.


Again I turn to Serious Eats although this time it's Daniel Gritzer who tells you how, beginning with:

"You have two main decisions, when making arrabbiata. The first is what kind of tomato sauce you want to use, and the other is how spicy you want to make it."

Well that supposedly simple statement opens up a whole world of possibilities. Simple is not necessarily simple. Arrabiata means angry. So I shall say no more. Angry in this instance meaning hot.


"Pizzaiola sauce is so called because it features the typical pizza ingredients – olive oil, garlic, oregano and tomatoes" BBC Good Food

It's also a sauce most commonly associated with steak although as Gennaro Contaldo, below, says - you can use if for almost everything. Tomato sauce with everything really.


Tomatoes, of course, came from the Americas, so I'll conclude with a tomato salsa. And I'm sure there as many versions of a tomato salsa as there are tomato sauces. I mean I haven't even looked at tomato sauces from the rest of the world. In some ways I suppose a Mexican kind of salsa could be compared with the fresh Italian sauce although it's used differently. As an accompaniment usually rather than as something you mix into something else. This one is Classic tomato salsa from Jamie Oliver who is not Italian, but who obviously has a massive love for all things Italian, and has written two specifically Italian cookbooks. Both worth having on your shelf.


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