Top Secret Pasta Sauce – If I Tell You, I Might Have To K… You

Sunday is sauce day in a typical Italian family’s house. My grandmother followed that tradition for many years. It was expected that we had Sunday dinner with pasta and freshly made sauce. You didn’t want to mess with Italian tradition or my grandmother. 

The family sauce recipe is closely guarded amongst Italians. Most will not share their sauce recipe, or if they do, they will leave out an ingredient or two so that it isn’t duplicated exactly. This recipe wasn’t handed down from the family archives, mainly because my grandmother and aunties never made their sauce the same way twice. Sometimes they added meat to the tomatoes from whatever roast, chops, or sausage was left over from the week’s dinners. Sometimes they used a different combination of seasonings, or white instead of red wine, or, or, or… It was always a mystery what was in the sauce each week, but it always tasted similar, and fabulous!

The sauce in this recipe takes two days. Now before you roll your eyes and quit reading, I would encourage you to read the entire post. It’s more of put ingredients together and simmer for 8 hours, rest for 12 and then finish off with another 4 hours of simmer. While I haven’t tried it, you could probably adapt this recipe to a crockpot for less hassle. Although I don’t think of making pasta sauce a hassle, it is a labor of love that runs in my veins – literally!

San Marzano tomatoes picked from our backyard garden.

Cut and ready for cooking. So the debate is to skin or not to skin the tomatoes. I’ve done this three different ways.

  1. I’ll take the skins off when I run the sauce through a mesh after a few hours of cooking. It’s easier that way for me. It’s still messy, but the peels clump together and are easy to dispose of (makes good compost material). 
  2. I’ve also done the boiling water method of removing tomato skins where you cut an X in the bottom of the tomato, drop it in boiling water, and retrieve it about a minute later. The skin usually peels right off, but your hands are burned from the hot water/tomatoes, and it is a messy procedure. I feel like I lose some of the tomato essences in the boiling water when the skin disengages.
  3. Sometimes I’ve left the peels in the sauce. That’s right, I do not always skin the tomatoes when I run the sauce through a blender. The peels basically disappear because they are broken up into the rest of the thick, rich sauce. I think they add flavor and nutrients to the sauce. 

So use whatever method works for you. I vary my methods depending on the day and amount of tomatoes I’m processing.

When I make this recipe with canned tomatoes or with my homegrown, it usually results in about 10 pint jars to can besides a nice portion to eat with pasta for dinner that night. 

The recipe below is listed two ways: one with all canned tomatoes and one using fresh tomatoes. And sometimes I use a combination of both fresh and canned – just depends on what I have available at the time I want to make sauce. 

Truth be told, I usually only make sauce in the summer when I have an abundance of tomatoes from the garden. Since one recipe makes about 10 pints, I only need to make about 3-4 batches to supply the cupboard for about a year. During the summer, especially in August when the harvest is bursting with tomatoes, the canning equipment rarely gets put away.

Then about mid-way through winter I pull it all back out to make a batch or two from canned tomatoes, just because. Well, because it makes the house smell amazing… because it keeps me busy on a cold winter day… because it brings back memories of childhood when my grandmother and aunties would all be in the kitchen prepping Sunday dinner for hours and hours. I often wonder if making sauce was just an excuse to drink wine in the middle of the day. 😉


Sauce recipe using canned tomatoes:

Ingredients

  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole, peeled tomatoes with basil, San Marzano preferred
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans chopped or diced tomatoes
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste, San Marzano preferred
  • 2 (24-ounce) boxes strained tomatoes
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups beef broth (homemade or store brand)
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons dried marjoram
  • 2 teaspoons dried savory or sage
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more as needed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Instructions

  1. Heat the tomatoes: Place the whole and chopped tomatoes into a large sauce pot (9- or 10-quarts), reserving all the empty cans. Add the tomato paste and strained tomatoes, place over high heat, and stir well.
  2. Add the wine: Add the wine to one of the empty cans and swirl gently to get the stuck bits off the sides and bottom. Pour the wine into the next empty can and repeat, pouring the wine from can to can, but using only a small amount in the tomato paste cans, ending with the empty tomato boxes. Add the wine to the pot and stir.
  3. Add the stock: Stir in the stock. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
  4. Add the seasonings: Stir the garlic into the sauce. Mix the basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and sage together in a small bowl. Sprinkle in about 1/3 of the herb mixture into the pot, rubbing it between your fingers while you drop it in to release their essential oils. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper and stir to combine.
  5. Cook for 8 hours: Partially cover the pot. Cook for 8 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be reduced by about one-fourth, the large tomatoes will be broken up, and the sauce will have thickened and darkened a bit.
  6. Season the sauce again and chill: After the sauce has cooked 8 hours, add another 1/3 of the dried herbs, rubbing the mixture between your palms over the pot. Add the red pepper (if using) and stir to combine. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the sauce to cool (about 30 minutes). Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours.
  7. Add seasoning and cook for 4 hours: After sauce has cooled all night or up to 12 hours, add the remaining third of the herbs, again rubbing them in your palms over the pot. Add the sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and stir to combine. Partially cover the pot and cook for 4 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be thick, and a very deep burnished warm rusty red. It will be reduced from the initial amount by about 1/3 to 1/2 at the end of 16 hours of cooking.
  8. Finish the sauce: When the sauce is finished cooking, stir in the olive oil. Taste and add up to 1 teaspoon more salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or 1 teaspoon of sugar, one at a time, tasting between each addition.

Yield: 9-10 pints


Sauce recipe using fresh tomatoes:

Ingredients

  • 10 pounds of tomatoes (San Marzano preferred or Romas) I use a combination of San Marzano and cherry tomatoes, sometimes I add Romas, just depends on garden yield at the time I’m processing them. 
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste, San Marzano preferred
  • 1 cup wine (I use red or white wine, depends on the tomatoes and the boldness I want to achieve in the sauce)
  • 4 cups beef broth (homemade or store brand) I sometimes add a cube of my homemade vegetable bullion 
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more as needed (I rarely use sugar with homegrown tomatoes)
  • 3 tablespoons  olive oil

Instructions

  1. Prep tomatoes: Wash tomatoes thoroughly. Rough chop tomatoes (leaving skins on or remove skins before chopping if you prefer).
  2. Heat the tomatoes: Place the tomatoes and tomato paste into a large stock pot (9- or 10-quart). 
  3. Add the wine. Add the wine to the pot and stir.
  4. Add the stock: Stir in the stock. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
  5. Add the seasonings: Stir in the garlic. Mix the basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and savory or sage together in a small bowl. Sprinkle in about 1/3 of the herb mixture into the pot, rubbing it between your fingers while you drop it in to release their essential oils. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper and stir to combine.
  6. Cook for 8 hours: Partially cover the pot. Cook for 8 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be reduced by about one-fourth, the tomatoes will be broken up, and the sauce will have thickened and darkened a bit.
  7. Deskin tomatoes: At this point in the cooking process, you can remove the tomato skins if desired. Ladle out sauce into a food mill or heavy strainer and stir or crank until the skins on the tomatoes have been turned to pulp and the sauce has dripped out the strainer to a pot below.
  8. Season the sauce again and chill: Add another 1/3 of the herbs, rubbing the mixture between your palms over the pot. Add the red pepper if using and stir to combine. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool (about 30 minutes). Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours.
  9. Add seasoning and cook for 4 hours: After sauce has cooled all night or up to 12 hours, add the remaining third of the herbs. Add the sugar (if using) and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and stir to combine. Partially cover the pot and cook for 4 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be thick, and a very deep burnished rusty red. It will be reduced from the initial amount by about 1/3 to 1/2 at the end of 16 hours of cooking.
  10. Finish the sauce: When the sauce is finished cooking, stir in the olive oil. Taste and add up to 1 teaspoon more salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, one at a time, tasting between each addition.
Yield: 9-10 pints

Even if you’re not Italian, I’ll bet you can’t wait for Sunday to make some of this delicious sauce. Well, you’ll actually have to start on Saturday. 🙂

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