The easiest way for a restaurant to leave me disappointed is an “ok” red sauce. In fact, it’s how I judge any Italian place when I go out to eat. If they can’t offer me a good sauce, there’s little chance I will ever go back. When it comes to classics like lasagna, chicken parmesan, ravioli, spaghetti, or even pizza, the sauce is what can make or break the dish.
The worst part of it is red sauce is not that hard to make.
So today my challenge to you is making your own red sauce at home. Once you see how easy it is, it might change your perspective on what you’ve tried around town. Not only that, but you will never want to buy jarred sauce ever again. Here’s how I do it:
What you’ll need to get started.
These are the basic components to any red sauce that I make:
- Roma tomatoes
- Sweet onion
- Black pepper and salt
- Olive oil
Once you have these ingredients, the rest of the sauce is left up to your interpretation based on what you want to do with it. Every red sauce should have its own intention. Sure there are a few simple versions that can be used for multiple dishes, but even small changes can make a big difference in flavor. So let’s see how this works.
First, chop your onion and garlic.
For a smaller batch, you will only need half of the onion and a couple of garlic cloves.
Next, you’ll want to get your sauce pan ready.
Pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and turn the burner on to medium heat. It may take a few minutes for the oil to heat up to the proper temperature. It should be hot enough to create an audible “sizzle” when you drop your onions in.
Add your onions and garlic.
Once your onions are in the pan, stir on medium heat until they start to turn clear. Then reduce the temperature by about half and add your garlic. You don’t want them to go in at the same time or the garlic will burn.
Slice and add the tomatoes
Use a serrated knife to cut off the tops of the tomatoes. The serrated edge will make a cleaner cut through the tomato’s soft skin. That way you don’t risk losing any of the juices inside.
Next, you’re going to crush the tomatoes directly into the pan. Use one hand to crush while the other hand extracts the core of the tomato. Realistically, the core won’t hurt your sauce in terms of flavor. But since it isn’t as soft as the rest of the tomato, it won’t cook down the same and will leave chunks.
Stir everything together and add your salt and pepper to finish the foundation.
Now you are left with a world of opportunities. Once you’ve established the base for your red sauce, you can play around with different combinations of ingredients to give it a unique flavor. These ingredients can be anything like wine, broth, vinegar, cheese, vegetables, fruit, meat, spices, herbs, etc.
The only thing to keep in mind is that you want balance.
Add ingredients a little at a time and taste test often. You can always add more here and there. But once it’s in, you can’t take it back out. And sometimes it’s nearly impossible to recover. Trust your palate, but also think about what each ingredient tastes like. What is it going to add to your sauce? Is it going to take away from something else?
These are important questions to ask yourself before throwing a bunch of random flavors in the pot and hoping it will make sense later. (That’s what I used to do!)
You will find out pretty fast that most of the time it doesn’t work out.
So today I’m going to show you just a simple sauce that I use for pasta.
My basic red sauce.
- Chicken broth (~2/3 cup)
- Red wine vinegar (~1 tbs)
- Dried oregano and basil
- Red pepper flakes
Side Note: Of course, using fresh basil will enhance the flavor of your sauce, just like fresh garlic compared to granulated garlic. But basil can be expensive or not always available. Sometimes you just compromise because of cost and availability and that’s fine. Having said that, I always use dried oregano since it is much spicier than fresh oregano. Also, if you don’t want your sauce to have a kick, ignore the red pepper flakes and the agave.
All of the ingredients can be added at this point except for the tomato paste.
Make sure you stir thoroughly so that everything is evenly distributed. Cover and let simmer for a few minutes before adding the tomato paste. You may have to adjust your heat down a little since covering it will cause the sauce to get hotter faster.
If you want it to be a little less chunky, use a potato masher to compress the bulkier ingredients in the sauce.
Now add the tomato paste.
It will take some time to fully incorporate the tomato paste. But as you will see, the paste is what gives it a nice, thick texture. Not to mention a beautiful red color. Once you are done stirring in the tomato paste, your sauce is nearly complete.
The last step is to taste test and add any ingredients if necessary.
I like my red sauce a bit spicy, so I usually put in a little more red pepper flakes since the tomato paste tends to make it really sweet.
As a word of caution: Be careful not to over-salt the sauce. The chicken broth has a lot of sodium as it is, and “salty” is one of those hard-to-recover-from flavors. Otherwise, leave it up to your own taste preferences to adjust the sauce to your liking. It is all about balance, but it is also about what you want as well. Make it your own!
Now that your sauce is ready, serve it up over your favorite pasta.
Well, there you have it. Delicious, homemade red sauce. In future episodes of The Sauce Series, I will use the basic structure of red sauce you saw above and show you how to customize it to complement other amazing dishes.
If you are trying this out for yourself at home, I encourage you to post your red sauce pictures to That Guy In The Apron’s Facebook page. Share your experience!