How to Freestyle Tomato Sauce

January 25, 2018

There’s only one tomato sauce recipe that I’ve ever truly, madly, deeply followed. It has three ingredients—sort of four—and you probably already know it: Marcella Hazan’s, with onion and butter (and salt). But, I’ve made oodles of others—sans recipe—just a wooden spoon in one hand, glass of wine in the other.

How? Think of it like kitchen improv (or that night you get home from work an hour later than usual and you're hungry and you don't have dinner planned). Tomato sauce is the chameleon of the sauce world, a real weeknight mensch. It can be pared down or dressed up, creamy or punchy, soupy or jammy, incorporating whatever you have on hand or need to use up. Here are my go-to blueprints, plus how to redraw, scribble on, or even tear them up—all while drinking a glass of red (or two).

Keep It Simple

Theory #1: A little goes a long way. Marcella's sauce is an exercise in minimalism: canned tomatoes, a halved onion, more butter than you'd expect. And don't be shy on the salt. The overarching rule: Never include more ingredients than you can count on your hand. This is for those weeknights when you just can't even. How to adapt:

  • Swap out the onion. A brilliant idea from our contributor, Emily Connor, who swapped in anise-scented fennel. Try that. Or: shallot; red onion; even smashed garlic cloves.
  • Swap out the fat. Try olive oil, rendered bacon fat, or schmaltz. Even cultured butter or goat cheese for tangy richness.

Fishy, Salty, and Spicy, Oh My!

Theory #2: A lot goes a long way. The opposite approach. Instead of staying minimal, go all in. The good news: This doesn't take that much longer. Classic puttanesca calls for garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and crushed red pepper flakes. Each of these can be riffed to infinity and beyond. Punchy sauces are ideal for pasta, of course. But I also love pouring them all over vegetables: big, plump beans; roasted cauliflower steaks; buttery spaghetti squash. How to play:

  • Change up the garlic. Instead of mincing, roughly chop. Or shave on a mandoline into ribbons. Or roast a whole head and use a big spoonful of the caramelized pulp.
  • Swap out the anchovies. There are other (tinned) fish in the sea. Sardines. Salmon. And good ol’ tuna, preferably packed in oil. Fun fact: Jamie Oliver loves making a tuna-flaked, tomato-sauced pasta for his wife, Jools—apparently it's one of her weekend favorites.
  • Swap out—or supplement—the capers and olives. Anything salty and/or briney goes. Chopped caper berries. Pickled mustard seeds. Any type of olives, or a mix—oil-cured black, castelvetrano, kalamata.
  • Swap out the crushed red pepper flakes. Use a fresh red chili instead, sliced into thin coins. Or, a canned chipotle, minced. Or a dollop of harissa.

Get Sloshed

Theory #3: Adjective goals: boozy, creamy. Alcohol adds brightness and amplifies tomato sauce's flavors. And fatty dairy rounds it all out. The classic combo is vodka and cream, but don't stop there:

  • Swap out—or supplement—the vodka. Start small here and build up. Vodka's key feature is its lack of flavor, so don't do a 1:1 substitute with a big-personality liquor like bourbon. (Or, you know, do and let me know how it goes?) Try substituting half the vodka for your favorite red wine.
  • Swap out—or supplement—the cream. Substitute half the cream for crème fraîche. Or go the cheesy route, substituting some or all of the cream with ricotta, chopped burrata, taleggio, or shredded, young gouda.

Ready, Set, Bake

Theory #4: Concentration is key. Tomatoes are umami-rich, which means the more you reduce them, the more intense that flavor becomes. (This is why sun-dried tomatoes are a salad's best friend. And why tomato paste is such a workhorse.) You can take advantage of this in three ways:

  • Simmer on the stove, stirring every so often, for however much time you have. This requires the most attention from you, so do this on a night when being in the kitchen for a while feels luxurious, not burdensome. My favorite application: arrabbiata.
  • Roast in the oven. Ina's vodka sauce (above) does just that. A real overachiever (that's why it's Genius!). This is a fuss-free, hands-off way to significantly amplify flavor and create a thick, jammy consistency.
  • Bake casserole-style. Take a cue from baked ziti or lasagna. This is the time to get crazy with shapes (yes, crazy!). Try cavatappi, farfalle, or pipette. Just make sure to really undercook the pasta before it goes in the oven—figure a few minutes cook time, depending on the shape. You want it biteable but still chalky inside.

Where's the Beef?

Theory #5: The new meat and potatoes: meat and tomatoes. There's more to meat sauce than bolognese. As the butter in Marcella's masterpiece shows, tomatoes love fat—their acidity needs it. Meat supplies that, while also bulking up the sauce with hearty protein. Your options:

  • Ground. Start with raw beef or pork, chicken or turkey, even loose sausage. Add a layer of olive oil to your pot and get it hot and shimmery. Add the meat, spread into an even layer, and leave it the heck alone until the bottom is very brown and crispy. Scrape up and toss around. Proceed as usual. Try ground beef to start a pot of marinara.
  • Cured. Bacon, pancetta, or guanciale (cured pork cheeks). Mince. Roughly chop. Even cube, if you can snag a slab cut. Proceed as above—browning the meat as the first step, then going from there.
  • Links. Sweet or spicy Italian sausage are classic tomato sauce territory. But try garlicky andouille, Spanish chorizo, or cheesy chicken sausage. Slice thickly and brown well, just like above.
  • Balls. When and how to cook meatballs—with respect to tomato sauce—is quite the controversy, so let me just say: We're all winners here. Brown the meatballs in a pan and transfer to the tomato sauce. Bake the meatballs in the oven and add to the tomato sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the tomato sauce. Great, great, great.
  • Leftovers. Braised pork shoulder. Crispy carnitas. Roast chicken. Grilled swordfish. Shred or chop, as needed. Stir in toward the end.

Which tomato sauce camp do you frequent the most? Let us know in the comments below!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

George H. January 25, 2018
How about freestyle English?