Some notes on marinara sauce

by | Jul 5, 2023 | Blog, Cooking Tips and Tricks | 0 comments

Some of you may know that I grew up in New Jersey with a family of Italian American heritage. With this background something that you learn, or at least have an understanding of, is marinara sauce. I never had someone to pass a recipe down to me, but I can tell you that over the years of trial and error, research and development, I’ve learned a few things. 

Where I’m from, everyone’s family has their marinara sauce with some sort of secret ingredient, passed down from generation to generation in secret. Let me start by saying this is ridiculous. Marinara sauce is, in many ways, the essence of Italian cooking. Take a few simple ingredients and don’t mess with them too much. Allow them to shine and be their own voice in the melody. Tomato, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Basil. That’s it. That’s the recipe. If you’re adding anything else (besides general salt and pepper) you’ve made a mistake. With that in mind, here are a few important notes to remember:

1. If you’re using canned crushed tomatoes, also use tomato paste and fry it in the olive oil. There’s nothing wrong with using canned tomatoes. These products are made from peak season tomatoes that will taste better than buying a fresh tomato off season in December in Seattle. The problem is that often they will develop a bit of a metallic flavor, or can just be a little weak in general. So how do we combat this? Well, tomato paste is a concentrated umami and tomato bomb. If you fry it, you’re adding even more dimension and sweetness, which will generally combat not only the metallic taste, but also fill the holes in the notes that might be missing from a full flavored sauce. 

2. Please….please, to keep my grandma Rose from spinning in her grave in Brooklyn, dress your pasta. There are few things that make me sadder than seeing naked pasta, on a plate or platter, with sauce thrown on top of it. It reminds me of 1950’s American cookbook pictures. I think it’s come around again with social media and the trend of style over substance. Yes, the contrast of golden pasta with a bright red sauce nestled on top looks prettier…but your pasta will be sub optimal. Please dress your pasta. Pasta drinks liquid, even after it’s out of the water. If you don’t add some sort of liquid or fat it will dry out. If you’ve ever had leftover pasta noodles that didn’t have enough sauce sit in your fridge you’ll notice that it becomes a big sticky clumpy mess that you can never really revive. But if you remember our lesson on using pasta water in your sauce you’ll also remember that this is an opportunity. When you’ve removed the pasta from the water you have a chance to add more flavor. By saucing your thirsty pasta you are letting it cling, and almost infuse the pasta with flavor.

3. There’s no reason to simmer your marinara for hours. This, is a huge misconception. Sunday gravy? Yes, simmer for hours with braciole and sausages so that the meat breaks down and deepens the flavor. Marinara, eh. You can let it simmer all day, but with the right technique you can be done in a half hour. 

HIP volunteer Anita portions out pasta marinara for the Shelter Meals program

Written by David Salerno

Originally from the Northeast, David (he/him) has been in Seattle since 2016. He studied classic culinary arts at the French Culinary Institute in NYC and currently works as the Senior Meal Program Coordinator at HIP. He can completely nerd out over culinary anthropology and can talk about food and food science for hours with anyone who is willing to listen. When not in the kitchen, you can find him playing hockey or running in different neighborhoods of Seattle.

July 5, 2023

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