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.

Published May 30, 2018.

My Goals

  • Balanced tomato flavor
  • Bright freshness
  • Smooth consistency
Imagine: a fresh tomato sauce that actually tastes like a fresh tomato.

High-end, tech-minded chefs and bartenders cheat the normal laws of cooking by using a contraption called a rotary evaporator (or “rotovap”). The device, which costs upwards of $8,000, works by gently heating a liquid, such as tomato juice, in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum lets the juice boil at near room temperature, which lets volatile flavors get extracted from the liquid and concentrated.

It’s a tool that could revolutionize fresh tomato sauce, which has an inherent dilemma: Simmering cooks out the very thing that makes a ripe tomato so special—its bright, sweet, delicate flavor. On the other hand, if you don’t cook juicy tomatoes long enough to evaporate a good bit of their liquid, the sauce won’t have enough body to cling to pasta, and its flavor won’t be intense enough.

Imagine: a fresh tomato sauce that actually tastes like a fresh tomato. I didn’t have a rotovap. But I did have a garden chock-full of tomatoes, along with a test kitchen and a dream.

The Tomato Lab

I combed through a number of sauce recipes that called for fresh tomatoes (conventional round ones, not plum or cherry varieties), but I came away with more questions than I'd started with. Not only was there no consensus on which parts of the tomato should be included or eliminated (other than the core), but the cooking times ranged from just 20 minutes to as long as 2 hours. When I made some of the recipes, I wasn't surprised that the quick-cooked sauces retained much more fresh tomato flavor than those that simmered for longer. But there were also stark flavor differences among the lot—one-dimensional sweetness in some, balanced savoriness in others—that seemed to relate directly to which parts of the tomato I'd used.

That informed my next round of tests, in which I made batches of the same simple sauce (5 pounds of tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, and a little minced garlic) but varied which tomato components I used: For one batch I removed only the core, keeping the skin, the flesh, and the thick “jelly” and seeds; for another I cored the tomatoes and removed the skin; and for the third I cored the tomatoes and removed the skin, jelly, and seeds, using just the tomato flesh. I roughly chopped the tomatoes and simmered each batch for about 40 minutes, by which point the sauces had enough body to coat pasta.

By preparing sauces with different components of the tomato, we were able to identify how each part affects flavor.

There was no question that using the whole tomato, sans the core, contributed to a more complex flavor in the sauce and that eliminating any single component could throw off the balance. Most notably, the batch that contained no skins or jelly was so sweet and one-dimensional that tasters likened it to tomato “candy.” Leaving in the jelly and seeds yielded a sauce with better sweet-savory balance, and using the skins improved it even further.

Recipe Testing: Calibrating Balanced Tomato Flavor

Did you know that the most concentrated source of fresh tomato flavor is in the fruit’s skin? Neither did we, until we tasted batches of our Fresh Tomato Sauce made with varying parts of the fruit: skin, flesh, jelly, and seeds. (In each batch, we first discarded the core.) Our goal was to determine which elements of a tomato we should keep and which we should discard for a sauce that tasted sweet, bright, and aromatic.

The upshot: The sauce that contained skin, flesh, and jelly delivered the most balanced flavor. (The seeds didn’t contribute any noticeable flavor, but their texture was distracting, so we strained them out.) Here’s a breakdown of the dominant flavor and aroma compounds in each component.

A drawback to including the seeds and skins was that they marred the sauce’s consistency. Also, many sources claim that tomato seeds impart bitterness, so I figured I’d make a seedless batch to find out. Seeding the tomatoes would be simple: After halving the tomatoes, I gently squeezed the jelly into a fine‑mesh strainer that I’d set over a bowl, discarding the seeds and capturing the flavor‑packed liquid to add to the sauce. Then I chopped the tomato flesh and, to break down the skins, pureed the pieces with their liquid in a blender until the mixture was smooth.

That yielded about 10 cups of tomato puree, which tasted sweet, savory, bright, and delicately aromatic. (Including the skins also made the recipe ultrasimple because there was no need to blanch, shock, and peel the tomatoes as many recipes require.) Notably, the seedless puree tasted no different from the previous batch, proving that the seeds hadn’t contributed any significant flavor, bitter or otherwise. But achieving that flavor balance brought me only partway to my goal. I needed to reduce the puree by about half to achieve a sauce-like consistency, but many of the aromatic flavor compounds in the fruit that made the puree taste fresh and balanced are volatile, meaning they evaporate at a relatively low temperature. That’s why simmering the sauce all but kills fresh tomato flavor.

Freshen Up

When making sauces or stews with ingredients that contain volatile flavors, such as wine, we often reserve a small portion to add at the end of cooking to reintroduce any flavors that were lost. So for my next test, I reserved 1 cup of the strained jelly to add back to the sauce. Happily, I found that it restored much of the tomatoes’ bright sweetness. The only hitch was that the jelly thinned the sauce too much, so I made another batch in which I reduced the sauce to 4 cups instead of 5 cups to compensate for the liquid I’d be adding back. The result: a balanced sauce with just the right amount of body.

Save Some Fresh Flavor for Later

Raw ripe tomatoes are loaded with flavor and aroma compounds that make them taste sweet, bright, and aromatic. But many of those compounds are volatile when heated, which is why cooking the fruit to a sauce-like consistency destroys its fresh flavor. To make a sauce that was thick enough to coat pasta but retained as much fresh tomato flavor as possible, we reserved some of the raw tomato jelly that we’d strained of its seeds and added it to the sauce at the end of cooking, along with fresh basil and some extra-virgin olive oil.

All I had left to do was polish the flavors, and I did so with a light touch to keep the tomato notes at the forefront. I sautéed dried oregano and red pepper flakes along with the garlic, and to reinforce the freshness, I added a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a cup of shredded basil to the cooked sauce with the reserved tomato jelly.

The result boasted all the nuances of a ripe summer tomato—delicate sweetness, fragrant aroma, vibrant but balanced acidity—with just enough body to cling to pasta. (No rotovap necessary!) This is the sauce I’ll be making every summer, and since the recipe makes a generous amount and can easily be doubled, I’ll be stashing a supply in the freezer to enjoy in the dead of winter when I need to remind myself what a ripe tomato tastes like.

Keys to Success

Balanced tomato flavor

Using the entire tomato (minus the core) delivers sweet, savory, aromatic flavor with vibrant acidity.

Bright freshness

Adding some reserved raw tomato jelly, along with olive oil and shredded basil, to the cooked sauce reintroduces fresh flavor, and keeping the aromatics (garlic, pepper flakes, and oregano) to a minimum ensures that tomato flavor is at the forefront.

Smooth consistency

Straining out the seeds and pureeing the tomatoes produces a smooth consistency with no distracting bits of leathery tomato skin.


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.
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