It was actually Grandma Rose – not my grandfather – who taught me how to make tomato sauce. I usually tell people I use her recipe, but I’ve changed it to the point that even she wouldn’t recognize it now. The changes are for the better though. And while I’ve kept the recipe a closely guarded secret, that seems silly to me now. My children are not as in love with food as am I, and one of the things I love best about food is sharing it with others.
So, here it is, my tomato meat sauce recipe – complete with all the inside how-to tips and random musings.
- fresh basil
- fresh thyme
- fresh oregano
- fresh parsley
- 9 cloves garlic
- kosher salt
- black pepper (ground)
- 1 large sweet onion
- garden ripe tomatoes
- 1 lb. ground mild Italian (pork) sausage
- 1 lb. ground beef
- olive oil
- 2/3 cup good-quality red wine
But wait … you didn’t say how much I need for each of these ingredients!
That’s right. I didn’t. Because, honestly? I don’t know. I eyeball it. I taste. I taste again. I add a little more. When you’re cooking (as opposed to baking, which is more science-y and exact), measurements and quantities are more of a guide than a rule. So, in the instructions below, I give you good estimates for how much to use, but you can adjust as needed depending on your personal taste, the quality of your tomatoes and herbs and the desired thickness of your sauce.
Mise en Place
Before you do anything else, assemble all of your ingredients and get them into the state you need them. That way, when the steps start moving fast, you are ready and more likely to get good results (or at least not serve your meal to firemen).
Mise en place (things in place) refers to the gathering, washing, peeling, measuring, chopping, sifting, etc of ingredients before you start cooking.
Let’s start with the tomatoes. I use at least 12 and sometimes as many as 16 tomatoes. I prefer tomatoes that are right on the border of overripe. Stay away from Roma and Beefsteak tomatoes. Some folks swear Romas make the best sauce, but I think they make the sauce too sweet. Beefsteaks are a sturdy tomato for slicing into salads or onto burgers, but that quality makes them less than ideal when you want to cook them down into a pulpy goodness, and I think cooking robs them of their flavor.
If you can find them, San Marzano tomatoes make the most flavorful sauce. Otherwise, I favor Italian heirloom tomatoes. Most grocery store tomatoes are crappy hot-house varieties, so if you have access to a farmer’s market (or plants in your backyard), you can’t beat that.
Wash your tomatoes, remove any stems (and those unbelievably annoying stickers that grocery stores use) and place the tomatoes in a large stock pot. DO NOT ADD ANYTHING. I mean it. Nothing. No water. No salt. Nothing. Whole tomatoes in the pot, skins and all. Place the pot over low heat and set a timer for 60 minutes.
Now, let’s work on the herbs.
First, a general tip: I encourage you to use fresh herbs whenever possible to pump up the nutritive value of what you’re cooking. If this is new to you, don’t freak out about the quantities. It takes a lot more fresh herbs to achieve a desired flavor than it takes dried herbs, because the drying process concentrates the flavor. That said, though, cooks who find themselves frustrated by a lack of flavor from fresh herbs are victims of bad plants. When buying herbs, smell them first. The herbs should smell immediately and distinctly like what you’re buying. If you pick up a bunch of, say, parsley and it doesn’t smell like anything to you (or it smells like freshly mowed grass but not peppery), don’t buy it.
I use about 12 sprigs of fresh thyme. (A sprig is a single stem). Thyme has a lemony flavor and smell that complements the acidity of the tomatoes.
We want only the leaves here, not the stems. The easiest way I know to remove the leaves is to grab the top of the stem and slide your thumb and forefinger on your opposite hand down the stem (against the direction of leaf growth). The leaves should come right off. If you leave behind small pieces of stem from the top of each sprig, that’s fine. The top of the stem is pretty soft and can be chopped up with the leaves. Be sure to discard the harder pieces of stem as they don’t soften when cooked. (I find people generally oppose finding sticks in their food.)
About 12 sprigs of thyme
Once you’ve removed the leaves, chop them by gently running a sharp knife through them. Here’s the consistency you want:
Strip the leaves from the sprigs, then run knife through to chop
I use about 18 sprigs of oregano. Some people say that oregano and thyme taste the “same.” That’s not my experience. To me, thyme is distinctly lemony where oregano is more earthy and rich.
We want only the leaves again, so same process here as with the thyme to remove leaves from stems.
This is about 18 sprigs of fresh oregano
Now, chop it up. You’ll have to run the knife through more times with oregano than with thyme, because oregano’s leaves are much larger.
Strip leaves from sprigs and run knife through to chop to this consistency
Now to the parsley. Usually, I use Italian flat-leaf parsley, because it has a strong peppery flavor that I like. Curled-leaf parsley (the stuff that garnishes your plate at not-so-fancy restaurants) has a much milder flavor. But, the day I went to the farmer’s market, this bunch of curled-leaf parsley smelled amazing.
It’s hard for me to tell you how much this is other than it’s a small bunch. If you buy parsley in the grocery store, it’s not usually a small bunch – this is maybe 1/4 to 1/2 that amount. I cut off the thickest part of the stalks up to where the leaves begin.
a small bunch of parsley with stalks cut away
Chop it up. You’ll want to chop this well, because the stalks are thick as they continue up through the leaves.
rough chop and remove any remaining large stalks
This is a (very) large sweet onion. You can use any white or yellow onion you like, although I stay away from Vidalia onions because they infuse the sauce with a sweetness that isn’t quite right. I don’t recommend red or purple onions; they just don’t have the right flavor profile.
Disclosure: I was going to take pictures of the fancy way I chop onions, but this little bastard made me bawl. My eyes were on FIRE about 2 seconds after I made the first slice. I’ll save it for a day when I remember to wear goggles and my husband can hold the camera. Long story short, chop that bad boy up. Quick.
Yep. The whole thing. *sniff sniff*
This is probably about 1.5 cups chopped
More or less 9 cloves.
Peel and clean 9 cloves of garlic. I feel the need to make sure you know the difference between a bulb and a clove of garlic. Because, I know someone (who I shall not name because I love this person, and I sometimes have to share a bed with her on girls’ weekends) who confused the two and made a dish of scampi that I think we might’ve been able to smell in her kitchen ten years later. So – a bulb of garlic is the whole thing. A clove is one of the sections underneath the bulb’s papery, white skin.
Now, grab your bottle of olive oil. Not that “light flavored” stuff. That’s for salad dressing. You want a full-flavored olive oil. Then, open a bottle of red wine. A BOTTLE. NOT A BOX. The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink, but I know my friends too well, and that rule doesn’t work.
Here, I used 2/3 cup of Merlot. (Note: if you cannot or would prefer not to use wine, you can substitute a high-quality balsamic vinegar, but reduce the amount by about half.)
Now, grab your kosher salt and your ground black pepper. Unpackage the sausage and the ground beef. Get everything near your cooking surface. It’s time to add some heat!
The finished miss en place. Added here: pork sausage, salt, black pepper, red wine and olive oil.
If you don’t have mad knife skills (or a decent set of sharp knives), your tomatoes are probably done now. Magically, there will be at least an inch of water in the pot where once was none. Also, the tomatoes have cracked and fall apart easily when lifted. If your tomatoes aren’t to this point yet, let them continue to simmer and check them every 15 minutes or so.`
12 tomatoes stewed to perfection. Stick a fork in them. They are done.
Take the tomatoes off the heat and put aside. Grab your biggest skillet (mine is a 10-inch French skillet that I adore with unreasonable affection). Coat the bottom of the skillet with olive oil. If I had to guess how much I used, I’d say at least two tablespoons. Probably three.
Set the heat to medium-high.
About 4 turns of olive oil in a 10-inch french skillet over medium-high heat
Add the onions and spread them around to coat with the olive oil and evenly distribute heat. You’re going to cook the onions until they are translucent. DO NOT BURN THEM. Burnt onions are delicious in, say, home-fried potatoes. But, they are the opposite of delicious in tomato sauce or soup. Instead, they add an intensely acrid flavor that will ruin your dish.
Add the onions and cook until translucent. About 5 min.
While the onions are cooking, let’s go back to the tomatoes. We need to smash them into a tomato-y pulp. The best tool for this is an immersion blender. If you don’t own one of these, you need to get one. Game. changer.
In the meantime, though, you can use a blender. Just be careful as you transfer the tomatoes and liquid, because HOT. Hothothothothot. Or, if you are okay with or prefer a chunky tomato sauce, you can smash these up with a potato masher. Using the “manual” method, though, will mean you will have some pieces of skin and obvious seeds in your sauce. If kids are involved, that can be a deal-breaker. Ask me how I know.
Once the tomatoes are emulsified into smooth liquid, you will want to add tomato paste to thicken the consistency of the sauce. How much you add depends on how thick you want your sauce. I like mine thicker than soup – closer to stew. That usually takes one tube of paste. If your tomatoes released a lot of water, it may take more. I’ve never used more than two tubes. Yet.
I prefer tomato paste that comes in the tube, because it’s much easier to get out of the container!
Now, add the wine (or vinegar). Feel free to test it to make sure it’s the right flavor. Are you sure? Maybe one more test?
Some of the sauce. Some for me. Some of the sau … Nope. Me again.
Now blend that all in. Go back to your onions. Add the garlic. Mix it around and let it cook another two minutes or so – until you can really smell the garlic. (Man, I am hungry.)
Add the garlic to the onions and cook another two minutes or so to release aroma
Add the ground sausage. Ground Italian sausage is freaking delicious, but it is super fatty. So, it doesn’t crumble without a lot of effort. You will have to mash it around in the pan to get it “crumbly” as it cooks. What I mean here is that you have to beat the holy crap out of it with a wooden spoon. (Italian mothers everywhere are nodding up and down right now.)
Beat your meat. NO. NOT THAT YOU SICKO.
As the sausage cooks and you break it apart with the spoon, it will look like this:
When the sausage is nearly cooked through, add the ground beef. I strongly recommend using 80% lean ground beef. This isn’t a health-food dish (see the three tablespoons of olive oil, supra). This is Sunday dinner. You want beef that will release fat when cooked, because fat = flavor. Yummy, yummy goodness.
This is 1.25 pounds of 80% lean ground beef
Cut the ground beef into the sausage, onions and garlic. Continue cooking until you don’t see any obvious pink spots. Be sure to break down any larger chunks.
Once the meat is cooked, add it – and EVERYTHING ELSE in the pan – to the sauce. Yeah, that’s right. The fat, too. Don’t you dare drain it into an empty soup can. I mean it.
Scratch and sniff.
Next, add all of the herbs (thyme, oregano, parsley). Stir to blend.
Then, add your salt and pepper. This is a four-finger pinch of ground black pepper and two five-finger pinches of salt. Stir and let it cook over low heat for about ten minutes before you taste it.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Ready for the first taste test? Here’s a tip: don’t taste food that’s super hot. Beside it being painful to burn your tongue, the heat prevents your taste buds from working properly. Remove a small spoonful of sauce from pan and wait until it cools just to warm, then taste. Add more salt or pepper as you need.
My sauce was very tangy on first taste. Although I’m partial to acidic flavors, it needed a little help to mellow. So, I put in about two teaspoons of sugar.
Finally, I added about 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. My goal here is NOT to make the sauce hot-spicy. (If you want arrabiata sauce, go to town with those pepper flakes!) Instead, the flakes add a mild spice that cuts the sugar to prevent over-sweetness.
Now, let the sauce continue to cook over low heat for at least an hour. After that, serve over whatever pasta or vegetables you like. You can also use it for lasagna, stuffed shells or baked ziti. This is enough sauce to make a 9×13 lasagna with a little to spare.
Ideally, leave the sauce in the refrigerator and use the next day. The flavor intensifies with time.
Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about a week and in the freezer for up to three months, depending on the air-tightness of the container you use to store it.