Why It Works
- Cooking the tomatoes with their seeds improves the purée's flavor; the seeds and skins are strained out after.
When it comes to tomato sauce, we here at Serious Eats have you covered,* but I noticed recently that we hadn't yet offered recipes for the two simple purées known as coulis (in French) and passata (in Italian). They are about as simple as tomato sauce gets—essentially just a purée made from fresh or barely-cooked tomatoes, which you can then go on to use as you wish.
*There's my laborious but insanely good sauce made from fresh tomatoes. And then there's Kenji's oven-roasted red sauce, which is just as much work and just as wonderful. To help save you some time, I also created a much simpler marinara that's a heck of a lot less work, but still sterling.
Most of the year I generally prefer to use either bottled passata or purée canned whole tomatoes myself, since canned tomatoes are riper when picked than your average fresh supermarket tomato. The only challenge is that canned tomatoes taste very cooked, and sometimes you want a fresher tomato flavor. Other times, you have an overabundance of great fresh tomatoes and want to make the most of them (think end of summer at the farmers' market).
Looking at existing recipes, I found many ways to make this family of sauces. Some people peel and seed the tomatoes, dice them, then cook them just enough to remove excess water, then purée them. Others prefer to skip the peeling and seeding steps, instead opting to cook them—seeds, skins, and all—and strain them after. And then there are the folks who seed and peel the tomatoes, salt them to remove excess moisture through osmosis, and then finally purée the salted tomatoes while they're still raw.
Of course, you'll also find tomato coulis that are more complicated, with aromatic vegetables or splashes of vinegar and pinches of sugar. I decided not to go down this road, since that ventures more into true sauce territory. Think of a tomato coulis or passata as you would a meat stock: Once you have a good basic method for making it, it becomes the base for many other dishes and sauces down the line.
I played around with many of the most common methods—peeling, seeding, cooking, puréeing, and salting—until I'd ended up with versions of both a cooked tomato passata and a raw tomato coulis that I liked.
For a lightly cooked purée, I strongly prefer leaving the skins and seeds on during cooking and straining them out afterwards. Tomato seeds and, more specifically, the jelly they're suspended in, have a lot of flavor, so it makes sense that including all of that during the cooking step would lead to a purée with better, more rounded flavor. Thankfully, it's also easier to make this way.
To make it, I dice tomatoes, then toss them in a pot and set it over moderate heat, stirring frequently. The tomatoes quickly begin dumping out their water as they heat up.
I simmer the tomatoes until most of the excess liquid has cooked off, then transfer them to a strainer or food mill.
We don't have a food mill in the Serious Eats test kitchen (mental note: add a food mill to our equipment shopping list), so for this batch I strained the tomatoes manually, pushing them through a mesh strainer with a wooden spoon. A scraping motion is more effective for getting the flesh to pass through than just pushing down.
If you have a food mill or an electric tomato strainer, it'll make this process even easier.
The resulting purée may be a little coarse, depending on the fineness of your strainer. You can either leave it like that if you don't mind a little texture, or you can pass it through an even finer strainer to get a smoother result.
Whether you’ve opted for the quick cook method here, or a raw coulis, you can use either purée as you wish. The passata can be incorporated into any cooked dish or used to make a full-fledged sauce by combining it with aromatics like onion, garlic, and herbs. Both types freeze really well, they're the kind of thing you can make in large batches in the summer and then defrost long after tomato season is over.
And with that, I think we really do have every major tomato sauce need covered.
3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes (about 15 large plum tomatoes), diced
In a large saucepan, heat tomatoes over medium-high heat, stirring, until tomatoes begin to release their liquid. Bring to a simmer, then lower heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until much of the excess liquid has cooked off but the tomatoes aren't totally dry, about 15 minutes.
Transfer tomatoes and any juices to a vegetable strainer, a fine-mesh strainer, or a food mill set with the finest strainer. Strain the tomatoes of seeds and skin, pushing all the pulp and juices through; if straining by hand, use a wooden spoon and a scraping motion to pass the tomato flesh through into a bowl below. For an even smoother texture, pass the coulis once more through an even finer strainer.
Season with salt. Use the tomato purée in any recipe calling for a tomato purée, or freeze for up to 6 months.
Food mill, vegetable strainer, or fine-mesh strainer
Make-Ahead and Storage
The purée can be frozen up to six months.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||1%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 9g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 31mg||155%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|