Many years ago I knew someone who married into the quintessential close-knit New York Italian family. She told me that she knew she’d truly been accepted into the family when her husband’s grandmother taught her how to make the family recipe for tomato gravy (which is, I’m told, what real Italians call tomato sauce). One long winter weekend at her place, she taught me the recipe and the technique. She and I drifted apart over the years and eventually went our separate ways, but the recipe and technique for this incredible sauce have stuck with me ever since.
The thing about this red sauce is that it’s dead simple. It really is. It’s made with a minimum of seasonings and ingredients – tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and basil. Because it’s so simple, it acts as a stepping off point for any variation you want to make or application you want to use it in. Eat it just as it is, tasting of fresh tomatoes and garlic or:
- cook it down to thicken, add oregano and make pizza sauce
- add a ladle or two of this sauce to browned meat/sausage and make a bolognese
- use it as a base to braise short ribs
- poach or bake eggs in it
- add horseradish sauce to it for an Italian twist on cocktail sauce
- braise stuffed cabbage rolls in it
- simmer some diced veggies in it (mushrooms, zucchini … ) and spoon it over spaghetti squash
- use it in your lasagna and parmagiana recipes
- add it to minestrone soup
- use it as a starter base for Manhattan style clam chowder
- use it in ratatouille
- braise meatballs in it or use it to make meatball subs
- add a little more liquid and some milk or cream and make tomato soup
Nowadays I make this sauce at least once a month, and two or three times a year I make an enormous triple batch to divide up and freeze. It really is one of my go-to freezer items when I’m feeling tired or lazy and don’t want to put a lot of effort into cooking.
Making this sauce is as much about technique as it is about ingredients, but don’t skimp on cheap ingredients either. Because there are so few, it’s important that what you use be good quality so the flavor shines through.
Finally, before I get to the nitty gritty of the recipe, if you don’t pay attention to any other part of this post, take this part to heart: A good tomato gravy / red sauce is about taste and feel. Don’t get hung up on measurements or freaking out about exactly 2 cups or exactly 1 tbsp. Some people like more garlic. Some people don’t feel it’s authentic tomato sauce without oregano. Maybe you only have 4 carrots. Maybe you have tomato puree, but not tomato paste. Maybe you want to add a few red pepper flakes and make it spicy.
All of that is OK. Don’t become a slave to the recipe. Make it once as written and then play with it. Stick with the basic techniques and make it your own. This is what cooking is about.
Basic Italian Red Sauce
Make sure you have a good quality 3-4 quart, heavy bottomed pot. Anything cheap and lightweight will have hotspots and will scorch the sauce.
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped carrots
3 15oz cans of diced tomatoes
1 6oz can of tomato paste
2 cups of water
1 tsp dried basil or 5ish leaves of fresh basil minced
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
1-2 tsp salt (optional)
Put the chopped onion and olive oil into the pot and cook slowly over low heat. The onions should become translucent and limp with absolutely NO browning. This is really important; if you find little browned bits, pick them out. If you’re getting a lot of browned bits, turn down the heat. Browned bits will add bitterness to the sauce, and will also mess with the texture of the final product (no one wants crunchy tomato sauce!). This step can take up to 40 mins. Don’t rush it.
When the onions are completely cooked through and tender, add the garlic, chopped carrots, diced tomatoes (juice and all), tomato paste, and water.
Bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat and cook (uncovered) until it’s reduced by about 1/3. This could take anywhere from 90 mins to 3 hours. Don’t rush it and don’t raise the heat too much. You don’t want to scorch the bottom.
When the sauce has reduced down and it nicely thick, use an immersion blender or a regular blender or food processor in batches, puree the sauce. Blend it as thick or as chunky as you like, but make sure there aren’t any big chunks of carrot or onion in the sauce.
To the puree, add your basil, sugar, and salt (optional). More sugar or salt can be added to taste, but start with the minimum. The quality and sweetness of the tomatoes often guides the amount of sweet and salt you need to add.
If you’re just going to use it plain or freeze it, let it simmer for 30-45 minutes, giving it an occasional stir with a wooden spoon. This lets the flavors completely blend. Serve it as is or cool it and freeze it for later.
If you’re going to make a meat sauce, or a vegetable sauce, add mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, or whatever veggies you want. Or add browned beef or sausage. Then simmer for 30-45 mins.
This recipe makes 6 cups of sauce. A serving (depending on your appetite) is about 1/2 cup of sauce, so the recipe as written makes 12 servings.
Nutritional information per 1/2 cup:
Cals: 65 | Protein: 4g | Fat: 1.3g | Carbs: 11.9g | Sugar: 6.6g | Fiber: 2.4g | Sodium: 533mg
Makes 6 cups