Tomato-based pasta sauce can either be incredibly simple or very involved. Whether you're making Marcella Hazan's three-ingredient sauce or a loaded-up bolognese, it's all about creating that perfect balance of flavours. Tasting, tweaking and tasting again is key, as is having a little lineup of extras you can toss in to bring that special something.
Photo: Jason Leung (Unsplash)
I am bad and lazy at cooking, so I sometimes end up making a dinner of, like, avocado slices thrown on toast with some cheese on top. This makes me feel like a 20-year-old stoner. So I love simple recipes that still taste like grown-up food. Like this pasta sauce recipe by Marcella Hazan. You need three ingredients, and you're going to throw one out.
Here are my favourite things to add to tomato sauce when it needs a little rounding out, whether I'm starting from scratch or jazzing up a store-bought jar:
If you're missing umami
Add some anchovy paste, fish sauce or Parmesan cheese. (You can also add a Parm rind, but try to add it early on.) All three of these bring that savoury flavour your mouth craves. Tomato paste can also be added, but you need to brown in first. Already have a pot full of sauce? No problem, sauté a tablespoon in a separate pan, adding fresh herbs or a little onion if you like. Then, once it's brick red, deglaze the pan with 1/4-1/2 cup of wine (depending on how much wine is in your sauce already), let a bit of the alcohol burn off, and pour it in your sauce.
If it's feeling a little one-note
Toss in some fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme or parsley. Also, never underestimate heat; red chilli flakes provide a bit of flavour diversity and help cut through fatty flavours. Plus they just make it look the part.
If the tomato flavour isn't shining
Add a pinch of sugar. I realise this is a very controversial thing to say, but if your tomatoes simply aren't reducing down to their sweet, jammy glory, I think it's perfectly fine to "cheat" with a pinch or two of sucrose. Sugar also suppresses any bitter flavours that might be hanging out in the pot by way of burnt ingredients. If this sounds completely abhorrent to you, you can also roast any sub-par tomatoes under the broiler beforehand to caramelise their sugars before adding them to the pot.
If it's tasting heavy and dull
Pour in some wine. Ideally, wine should be added early on, but it can also be incorporated as a last-minute flavour booster. Both red and white can add robust fruity flavour, depth, and a hint of acid to your sauce. If you don't have any wine, or don't want to use it, balsamic or red wine vinegar can give you similar, though not identical results.
If it needs a bit of body
Butter and cream both work, but dairy can dull bright herbs and other flavours. A cup of pasta water - particularly if it's super-charged with semolina flour - can making your sauce thicker and creamier without any dairy.
Also, don't underestimate the power of finishing. A drizzle of good olive oil, a few flakes of really good salt, and even more fresh herbs can round out your pasta meal with a bit of last-minute balance.