100 Techniques

Technique #11: Make Great Tomato Sauce without Hours of Simmering

Solve the sauce simmering time versus tomato flavor dilemma.

Published Oct. 21, 2023.

This is Technique #11 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Tomato sauce has an inherent dilemma: Long-simmered sauces have complex flavor, but simmering over a long period of time cooks out the very thing that makes a ripe tomato so special—its bright, sweet taste. Yet if you don’t cook the tomatoes long enough to evaporate excess liquid, the sauce won’t have enough body to cling to pasta and its flavor won’t be intense.

With that in mind, we developed a technique that works with both fresh and canned tomatoes and results in richly flavored tomato sauces that actually taste like fresh summer tomatoes yet have the right body to coat pasta perfectly.

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Goodbye, Excess Liquid

The first step, whether using fresh or canned, is to drain the tomatoes. (But don’t throw that liquid out!)

Fresh tomatoes contain an abundance of liquid, and a can of tomatoes contains more juice than solids; draining simply jump-starts the flavor concentration process since the tomatoes will break down and create a thickened sauce much faster when not swimming in liquid from the start. (If you like, you can further deepen the flavors by caramelizing some of the tomato solids in the pan before adding the other ingredients.)

Because tomatoes contain volatile flavor compounds that are lost when cooked for an extended period, reserving liquid (plus some uncooked tomatoes when using canned) to add near the end of cooking reintroduces a bright, fresh note to the cooked sauce.

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Using Fresh Tomatoes vs. Canned

A sauce made with ripe summer fruit has a vibrant, aromatic flavor and light texture that needs only a bit of garlic, olive oil, and fresh basil. Unlike many recipes using fresh tomatoes that call for tediously blanching and peeling, we use the whole tomato (except for the core and seeds).

But canned whole tomatoes, which are reliably sweet year-round and have a flavor that’s closer to fresh than that of any other canned tomato product, also make great sauces, with a more concentrated flavor and more robust body than sauces made from fresh tomatoes. Whole peeled canned tomatoes are perfect in marinara sauce, a super-versatile sauce that includes garlic, onion, and herbs.

Test Cook Steve Dunn demonstrates this technique in his recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce.

Step by Step: How to Make a Faster Tomato Sauce

Here are the key steps to build a fresh-tasting sauce with either fresh or canned tomatoes.

Step 1: Drain

Drain tomatoes in strainer over bowl, squeezing out seeds and jelly and reserving juice. If using fresh tomatoes, press on seeds to extract liquid. Set aside juice (plus some tomatoes if using canned) to add to sauce at end of cooking.

Step 2: Build a Base

To build flavorful sauce base, sauté aromatics such as garlic, onion, and dried herbs in oil.

Step 3: Add Tomatoes

Add drained tomatoes (pureed first if using fresh) and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and reduced (time will vary depending on type of tomatoes) and tomatoes start to caramelize, if desired.

Step 4: Add Brightness

Near end of cooking time, stir in reserved juice and/or tomatoes to add a bright flavor burst, as well as fresh herbs to finish.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use the steps of building an concentrating flavors into a quicker tomato sauce with any of these recipes.


Fresh Tomato Sauce

Tomato flavor is fleeting—which is why we examined every part of the fruit and our cooking method until we'd engineered a sauce that was bright, sweet, and aromatic.
Get the Recipe

Pasta with Classic Marinara

This smooth, tomato-forward sauce (made with canned rather than fresh tomatoes) is truly an Italian American invention.
Get the Recipe

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