The Best Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce

The Food Lab

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The Best Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce

Great ingredients and a long stay in a low oven are the keys to the best Italian-American Red Sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

This rich and hearty red sauce tastes like it's been cooked for hours, because it has. The secret to its deep, naturally sweet, complex flavors is to cook the sauce in the oven, allowing the surface to brown while the sauce slowly concentrates. The resultant sauce is great on pasta, with meatballs, on your chicken parm, or scooped right out of the pan with a spoon on its own.

Why this recipe works:

  • Great sauce starts with great ingredients. Use the best whole peeled canned tomatoes you can find, preferably San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes.
  • A mixture of butter and olive oil gives the sauce extra richness while mellowing out the stronger flavors.
  • A whole onion and a carrot added to the sauce while it simmers adds natural sweetness without overwhelming it with extra flavors or being cloying.
  • Cooking the sauce in the oven not only helps it reduce more evenly (with less stirring required), but it also adds complexity by caramelizing the top surface.
  • Fish sauce, if you'd like to use it, adds rich, intensely savory flavor (and no, it won't make the sauce taste fishy).
  • Saving some of the tomatoes for the end and stirring them in gives the sauce a layer of freshness.

Note: Use the best tomatoes you can find. D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy are readily available and a guarantee of quality, though any high quality domestic or imported canned tomato will work. Make sure that the San Marzano tomatoes you look for are labeled "D.O.P.," not just "San Marzano-Style".

  • Yield:Makes about 2 quarts
  • Active time: 20 minutes
  • Total time:6 hours
  • Rated:

Ingredients

  • 4 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, preferably imported D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes (see note above)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing.
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into large chunks
  • 1 medium onion, split in half
  • 1 large stem fresh basil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley or basil leaves (or a mix of the two)

Directions

  1. 1.

    Adjust oven rack to lower position and preheat oven to 300°F. Place tomatoes in a large bowl. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes by squeezing them in your fingers until pieces no larger than 1/2-inch remain. Transfer 3 cups of crushed tomatoes to a sealed container and reserve in the refrigerator until step 4.

  2. 2.

    Heat olive oil and butter over medium heat in a large Dutch oven until butter is melted. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until softened and fragrant but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add pepper flakes and oregano and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, carrot, onion, and basil, and stir to combine. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over high heat.

  3. 3.

    Cover Dutch oven with lid slightly ajar and transfer to oven. Cook, stirring once every 1 to 2 hours, until reduced by about half and darkened to a deep red, 5 to 6 hours (reduce oven temperature if the sauce is bubbling too rapidly or the browned bits begin to turn too dark).

  4. 4.

    Remove from oven. Using tongs, discard onion halves, carrots, and basil stems. Add reserved tomatoes to sauce and stir to combine. Add fish sauce, if using. Season generously with salt and pepper and stir in minced herbs along with additional olive oil as desired. Serve immediately, or allow to cool at room temperature, transfer to airtight containers, and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Sauce can also be frozen in sealed containers for up to 6 months. To reheat, warm very gently in a saucepan with 1/2 cup water, stirring until it all melts and heats through.