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How To Build Your Own Perfect Personalized Red Sauce

Spaghetti sauce, or as some people say, red sauce has one massive problem. It’s called decision fatigue. Everyone’s sauce is different in little ways, so it can be hard to know what’s required and what’s optional.

If you spend any time with my family around the holidays, you'll notice we argue about food a lot. Red sauce is one topic that always gets a lot of airtime. We're sure to argue over who makes it the best, and I don't think this is specific to our family. The truth is that none of us make a better sauce than each other, they're just based on preference. This is the beauty in sauce, and I want to invite you in on this tradition.

This is much more than a recipe, it's a how to on how to create your own red sauce.

The truth about spaghetti sauce is that there are really only 3 required ingredients. Tomatoes, olive oil, pasta. That’s it. The pasta doesn’t even have to be spaghetti, we almost never use it, and you better believe I still call it spaghetti sauce. You could literally cook canned tomatoes in olive oil with a little salt and then toss it in some pasta, that would be simple and delicious.

Step 1: Select Your Sauce

The first decision that you’ll need to decide is do I want a longer cooked deeper sauce, or a short cooked fresher sauce. As the cook time increases, the tomato's freshness will decrease, but it will be replaced with a dark rich flavor note. Both are amazing, and once you decide that, everything else becomes easier.

Step 2: Pick a Tomato

There are a ton of amazing different options here. whole canned are great because they taste delicious and give a good amount of texture to the sauce, but my mom likes blended tomato sauce for the smoothness. If you want bites of tomato, go for diced as the chunks stay together in a long cook. If you use puree, you’re gonna want to season the sauce more than you would using a can of “sauce” as the puree is just blended tomatoes while the sauce is already seasoned. I end up using crushed a lot as well, as they’re textured but not too hefty. During tomato season, using fresh ones is really delicious if you don't cook the sauce for a long time. The skins don't break down like canned ones do, so you have to be careful about cooking them too long. If you're going to use fresh ones, pick ones that are in season and cook them gently until they can just barely come together into a sauce. Tomato paste adds a lot of tomatoey flavor, but you can't just add it raw into sauce. You need to cook it first to remove the metallic taste. It's a fun thing to play around with, as you can’t really go wrong any way you pick.

Step 3: Pick Your Veggies

Garlic will always be a requirement for me, no matter what type of sauce I’m making. It punches up the brighter sauces and mellows out in the long cooked sauces. Onions are another thing I almost always include, but my mother never did; she didn’t like how sweet they can get. Carrots can help bring some sweetness, some people place them whole into a sauce to help balance the acidity. For me, I like to grate them to get the sweetness as well as a little bit of body. Celery also adds body and vegetal sweetness, but could be an opt in thing if you don’t like it. The combo of onion, carrot, and celery cooked in olive oil is called an Italian sofrito and it’s the base of a ton of dishes. Mushrooms can be really delicious if you're into them. Peppers are pretty classic for sauces like a cacciatore, but you don't see them often in standard marinara. Cut your veggies pretty fine if you want them to break down into a cohesive sauce, and leave them larger if you want them to have a chunky bite. Same goes for the garlic, a mince will pretty much dissolve while slices stay larger as it cooks.

Step 4: Pick Your Meats

Meats are a pretty fun topic, as they’ve got the same wide range that the tomatoes do. You could do a completely meatless sauce, that’s always delicious. The options are crazy though if you opt for them - there’s guanciale, pancetta or bacon (think of an Arrabbiata), ground beef, pork or veal (think classic American meat sauce), whole cuts of beef or pork (Sunday gravy style) or sausage in ground or link form. No matter which one you pick, browning is going to be important to flavoring the sauce. Use olive oil and give the meat enough time in the pan. If it's ground meat, the water needs to cook out before the meat can really begin to brown. If you use a large piece of meat like a chuck, cut it into large chunks and brown those in batches. The whole cuts will need a long cook to break down into tender shred-able pieces.

Step 5: Pick a Liquid

These are supplemental to the tomato flavor we decided on earlier. If you want it to be clean and tomato forward, use water or a lighter broth/ stock. If you want a meaty, rich sauce, you can use a stock like beef or veal. Red wine will add a ton of dark, fruity depth, but you can't build a sauce on only wine. You'll need it alongside another liquid so the sauce doesn't taste overpowering. Same story with white wine, some people prefer that, but I would opt for red. It works better with the tomato flavor.

For a traditional Bolognese, tomato would be left out in favor of a combination of stock and milk. This creates a velvety meat sauce, but one lacking any brightness from the tomato. The fun in creating your own sauce means you really don't have to adhere to any traditions if you don't want to.

Step 6: Pick a Seasoning

Salt, pepper, and oregano will always get you something delicious, no matter what you are making. Do you want it spicy, great add chili flake to your liking. Dried spices like onion powder and garlic powder add a lot of umami and work really well in long sauces. When I'm feeling lazy, I throw a handful of dried herbs (in the form of Italian herb seasoning) and call it a day. If you use these, just be sure to check if salt is on the label and adjust your salt levels accordingly.

Fresh herbs like basil help perfume the dish, but don’t stand out as well in a long cooked sauce. If you're making a longer cooked sauce, use whole pieces of herbs that can easily be removed (even better if you can tie them together with twine so you can take them all out at once). You’d notice it a lot more in a fresher sauce when it’s added near the end. You can simply chiffonade the basil and add it once your sauce is off the heat for a really punchy basil flavor.

Step 7: The Funk

These are those “secret ingredients” that I’ll sometimes add that make people go “huh, what is in this?” This could be soy sauce, msg, cajun seasoning, sugar, harissa, fish sauce, vinegar. Theses are just fun extra credit if you’re looking for something different. A good rule of thumb is to not mix and match with these, or you can end up with a sauce that is a lil too funky. Don't overdo these and you'll be in a great spot.

Step 8: Pick Your Pasta

This is 100% up to your own preference, just aim for a pasta shape that can stand up to the sauce you're making. Small shapes like macaroni or orzo aren't the best picks for a red sauce because they just get lost. The two options we use most often are Pappardelle and Rigatoni. Both are delicious with any form of red sauce, so you're safe keeping them on hand. Always salt your pasta water heavily, because if you don't, the final plate will be under-seasoned. I recommend cooking your pasta to the lowest time the box recommends and then tasting a piece. If it's not done yet, you can leave it in for another minute. Don't worry about adding olive oil to the cooking water; it doesn't help with sticking at all. If you need to keep your pasta from sticking, toss it in a little of your sauce once it's been drained. Keep a cup around to retain some of your pasta water just in case you need it later to help toss your pasta with the sauce.

The Cook

  • Use a large pot or a dutch oven for your sauce; these hold heat well over long periods of time. This means you don't have to adjust your stove much while the sauce cooks.

  • Brown your meat in olive oil and then remove it from the pan. Use your veggies to pull up any brown bits in the pan left from the meat. Add more oil as needed but don't brown the veggies too much. Softened is good for these.

  • Cook your tomato paste into the pan if you plan on using it. If you opt for wine, use this as a deglazing liquid and then cook off the alcohol before adding anything else. If not, add in any tomato product/ liquid you choose.

  • Add back your meat and season the pot. Bring this to a simmer and cook either covered or uncovered. Covered will reduce less, while uncovered will reduce more. I tend to do both over the course of a cook. I'll start covered and then switch to uncovered while I adjust the final texture.

  • Cook your pasta, drain it, and then toss it with a little sauce. For extra credit, toss it with cheese and olive oil along with the sauce for a glossy finish.

  • Enjoy!



Hey, I'm Cameron, and I'm glad you're here. I post new recipes every week, all intended to build your confidence in the kitchen, each one with video tutorials to help. Craving something specific? Drop me a note in my contact form! 

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