Sweet, Herbaceous, and bright in flavor…
Tomatoes stirred up the taste buds of Europe after they were brought over from Central America during the 16th Century. The 1692-1694 two volume cookbook Lo Scalco alla Moderna by chef Antonio Latini presents the first mention of tomato sauce in the form of a mixture that best resembles salsa―a sauce very much inspired by the Aztec’s tomato and chili dressings.
Another example of tomato sauce outside of Mesoamerica was in a recipe written in a six volume 1790 cookbook by Roman chef Francesco Leonardi. The series was called L’Apicio Moderno, and the volumes still exist today as an incredible document of 18th Century cooking…. For the price of over $4,600 (goddam!)
As with most foods, marinara sauce was created after decades of cultural diffusion. Probably named after marinaio (sailor in Italian), it gained popularity in Naples and Sicily as an easy, quick sauce the sailors could cook and consume.
Marinara sauce was created after decades of cultural diffusion…
Other Italian tomato sauces, on the contrary, have additional layers of flavor that may contain celery, carrots, and parsley, and cook for much longer than 20 minutes. Add finely chopped meat, and you have Bolognese Sauce. Add large whole pieces or chunks of meat and you have Neapolitan Ragù. Anchovies, capers, and olives create Puttanesca Sauce. Adding dried red chili peppers will give you Arrabbiata Sauce.
Marinara is beautifully simple, typically cheaper to make, and you can get a good sauce with a fraction of the cooking time.
While I was going through my “Fresh is Best” and “Seasonal Only” phase, I kept making tomato sauces using every fresh tomato under the sun, only to miss that characteristic sweetness, bite, and bright tomato flavor that I seemed to only get at pizzerias and restaurants.
When I finally sat my bougie butt down, I found out that the tomatoes I really needed were San Marzano tomatoes. These sweet babies swept me away with their fresh taste, smooth texture, and natural sweetness―they aren’t sour and don’t need to be sweetened with sugar.
These sweet babies swept me away with their fresh taste, smooth texture, and natural sweetness…
Technically, you can use whatever tomatoes you love; most chefs swear by the San Marzano train. But, like sourdough and parmesan cheese, authentic San Marzano tomatoes can be elusive, often under misleading brand names and the guise of “San Marzano Style”.
When shopping for San Marzano tomatoes, look for a label that says Protected Designation of Origin Dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino. And since that’s a mouthful, you can also look for the DOP symbol and a Consorzio symbol. The tomatoes only come in tins as peeled whole or in fillets. Cans that show “San Marzano” tomatoes as a puree, organic, sauce, chopped, or diced are not true San Marzano tomatoes.
These specifications were created in order to distinguish the tomatoes from any other variety. You can take the San Marzano seeds and grow them elsewhere in the world, but the unique flavor and look of the original tomato has to do with the Valle del Sarno volcanic soil that the tomatoes grow in.
A good brand to use is Sclafani San Marzano DOP Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes. The price is definitely steep, so a cheaper (but not DOP certified) brand is Cento San Marzano, which is a product of Italy (so it does have good flavor), but not officially labeled despite its packaging.
Packages that claim “San Marzano Style” are usually whole peeled plum tomatoes grown in California. They are not necessarily bad and you can still use them, but the flavor will not be the same.
The recipe below is currently my favorite way to make marinara sauce. It has an incredible shelf life, so I like to double the recipe and use it over the course of two weeks as a sauce for pasta, lasagna, omelets, sandwiches, and especially pizza! It has the bright flavor I couldn’t get with the fresh tomatoes nor the prepackaged tomato sauces at the supermarket.
The San Marzano tomatoes have a full spectrum of flavors on their own, so the sauce can simply be seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and onions. The white wine, vinegar, and olive oil just add a little acid to bring out the flavors a bit more.
San Marzano tomatoes have a full spectrum of flavors on their own, so the sauce can be simply seasoned…
If you can swing it, use good quality extra virgin olive oil, which should smell fresh, herbaceous, leafy, and sweet. If you want to be “Extra”, look for a DOP certification on the bottle or see if it has been made in Australia or Chile. Both countries have strict standards for olive oil, so you are guaranteed a good product.
As an added bonus, you can make this sauce vegan simply by leaving out the white wine and use distilled vinegar instead.
- 28 oz (793g) San Marzano Tomatoes or your favorite variety
- ½ Sweet Onion chopped
- 6-8 Garlic Cloves chopped
- 3 TBSP (45g) Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 TBSP White Wine or Distilled Vinegar
- 1 Bay Leaf torn
- 1 Bunch Oregano, Rosemary, and Thyme Leaves chopped or 1 TBSP dried Italian Herbs
- Salt and Pepper to taste
In a large sauce pot, gently heat 2 tbsp of olive oil and sauté the sweet onions and garlic on low to medium heat until translucent. This should take 5 to 10 minutes.
Place the canned San Marzano tomatoes in a large clean bowl. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes until a somewhat creamy sauce forms. Pour the crushed tomatoes into your pot of onions and garlic.
Add the bay leaf, white wine or vinegar and olive oil, and stir all of the ingredients until fully combined. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes on low to medium heat.
Stir in the chopped herbs and let the sauce simmer for another 10 minutes. When finished, take off the heat and stir in the salt and pepper to taste.
Let the sauce cool off of the heat for 5 minutes, then place in the freezer to cool to room temperature. This can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
When the sauce is cool, puree it in a blender until smooth. Use on pasta, pizza, or any dish you desire.
The sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 14 days.
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Elizabeth David, Italian Food (1954, 1999), p 319, and John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, 2008, p. 162.