About Marinara Sauce

Yesterday was all about peach pie and today is all about marinara sauce. The peach pie turned out ok as a first attempt - I challenged myself to make the peach pie without following a recipe, equipped just with vague notions of complimentary flavors. I ended up using too many peaches, over-cooking the peaches, and spending far too much time on a peach caramel sauce that completely disappeared into the background of the pie. So I've rethought the pie and will pick up more fresh peaches when the bf and I go grocery shopping later today.

Building the grocery list is what led me to marinara sauce - tomatoes will only be in season for a few more weeks and I really want to freeze off huge batches of homemade marinara for the upcoming winter rather than relying on jarred tomato sauces. In truth, making marinara sauce from scratch feels more like love than opening a jar of sauce. It's not just that I've taken the time to make the sauce and personally selected every fresh ingredient cooked down into a luscious red sauce - it's feels like love for the environment. When I make the sauce, there's no manufacturing of jars or lids or plastic seals or paper labels or hot glue. Granted, my refusal to buy a jar of marinara sauce isn't going to impact the bottling manufacturer in the slightest, but I like to think even the whisper of a change can eventually build into gale-force winds.

Besides, environmental concerns aside, everyone should know how to make a good marinara sauce, even if it's just for super special occasions when a jar of really good marinara feels like saying "I love you" with a shrink-wrapped Whitman's Sampler box.

Yet a good marinara, made from scratch with all fresh ingredients, is surprisingly illusive. Type "marinara sauce recipe" into Google and what comes back in a smattering of words like "fast", "easy", "simple", and "basic", followed with all kinds of decidedly NOT fresh ingredients like canned tomatoes, tomato paste, pre-prepared spaghetti sauce, dried herbs, and the ever-popular 1/2 cup of red wine. To be fair, the only essential ingredients in marinara are tomatos, onions and garlic - everything else is just personal preference. But I want thick, delicious tomatoey goodness with zesty yet balanced background flavors that compliment yet never overpower the tomato. I want a simple recipe with a limited number of fresh ingredients. And I want it to freeze and thaw perfectly.

Ever since I started cooking, way back in grade school as part of my home school education, I've been making various tomato sauces that approximate a marinara, but are never quite right. I've concluded that I typically over-complicate the sauce with a pinch of this and spoonful of that. Sometimes it's too much garlic, sometimes too much basil. Sometimes the onions are crunchy. Other times the sauce is too thick (or too oily). Most of the time, it tastes less like tomato and more like a hodge-podge of herbs and onion.

So I'm researching and testing for the next few weeks while I still can scoop up flavorful tomatoes at the grocery store. Once I have a recipe I can successfully duplicate, I'll share. In the interim, if you're in a generous state of mind and feel up to sharing marinara secrets, send them my way. Below is a compilation of not-so-secret "family secrets" shared quite brazenly through Google:
  • Marinara sauce originated as a meatless sauce used widely on sailing ships starting in the 16th century after the New World tomato was introduced to Europe. The sauce was popular aboard among sailors or mariners due to the lack of meat (which would spoil) and ease of preparation
  • Caramelize onions: Most popular suggestion and it makes a lot of sense as the sweetness of the caramelized onions would add depth of flavor to the sauce while balancing the acidity of the tomato
  • Deglaze saute pan with wine and reduce: Adding red wine was quite popular, although a few recipes did not specific wine color; however, "deglazing" the pan with wine seems redundant when you're adding tomatoes as the acid from the tomatoes will deglaze the pan quite thoroughly. This tip would really then be about adding complexity of flavor from the reduced wine. More traditional (and perhaps closer to authentic) marinara sauces do not include wine
  • Tablespoon of tomato paste: Another very popular suggestion to add richer tomato flavor to the sauce. However, traditional recipes don't use the paste and no sailer had cans or tubes of concentrated tomato puree waiting to be added to their sauce
  • Addition of basil: Basil was the most popular herb added to marinara recipes. However, a  handful of traditional recipes did not include basil. Personally, tomatos and basil seem to have been created for each other, so I tend to lean towards a sauce that includes basil
  • Addition of dried oregano: Dried oregano was the second more popular herb and I only saw one recipe which included fresh oregano instead of dried. While some recipes used both basil and oregano, a good number (especially more traditional recipes) used one one of the two herbs. This makes sense to me - both herbs together could muddle the flavor of the sauce as the two flavors fight for dominance against the tomato background
  • Addition of sugar: A few recipes add a teaspoon of sugar to the sauce to "cut" the acidity of the tomato. Brown sugar seems to have recently become popular as it apparently does a better job with the tomato. However, none of the traditional recipes add sugar and I suspect this would be more authentic because historically sugar would have been expensive and a good cook would have compensated with good caramelization of the onion
  • Addition of carrot: Only a few recipes used carrot but claim the sweetness of the carrot helps balance of the acidity of the tomato while also absorbing some of the cooking liquid for a thicker, more robust sauce. While I doubt adding carrot is authentic to marinara sauce, the reasoning makes sense to me
  • Addition of celery: Again, only a couple recipes added celery and I suspect this is a personal preference around flavor and texture of the sauce
  • Addition of butter: This was the most intriguing ingredient used in a few very popular marinara sauces and while I doubt sailers were adding dollops of butter to their marinara sauces, the result is apparently a smooth a velvety sauce unmatched by sauces made with olive oil
  • Onion - halved vs minced: Another intriguing take on marinara that was popularized by Marcela Hazan - rather than dicing or mincing the onion, you simply halve the onion and toss it into the sauce. Once the sauce is finished, you fish out the onion and throw it away. Reviewers positively rave over this technique, yet I somehow feel the lack of caramelized onions in the sauce would be unforgivable
  • Addition of parsley: A few recipes added fresh parsley as the only herb and some added parsley along with other herbs. Traditional recipes tend to leave out the parsley and stick to basil or oregano. Again, I probably wouldn't mix basil, oregano and parsley together in one sauce
  • Addition of thyme: Mario Batali has two versions of marinara sauce that use fresh thyme - however, I did not stumble over any other recipes using thyme and while it's a very Italian spice and compliments tomatos nicely, it strikes me as an odd ingredient for marinara
  • Addition of bay leaves: I found a few recipes using bay leaves, including Giada de Laurentis's marinara sauce. Growing up, my family always threw in a bay leaf when making tomato sauces, so I'm inclined to give this a try. As to it's authenticity - dried bay leaves would keep quite nicely on a ship and do back a flavorful punch
  • Addition of bell peppers: Only a couple recipes called for bell peppers and I suspect this is a personal flavor/texture preference. It may also be to add sweetness to the sauce, as most recipes add the onion and peppers to the saute pan at the same time, allowing both onion and pepper to caramelize

That's it so far. Now, I really must finish my grocery list - so far I only have peaches and tomatoes jotted down and I've already spent 3 hours working on this blog!