Classic tomato sauce aka sugo.
There is no reason any non-native Italian shouldn’t be able to make an authentic, reliable, tasty, easy go-to pasta sauce. I advise you to just shrug off the casual snobbery / subtly xenophobic tendency that fellow Italians have, where they are deeply suspicious of any other nationality making anything from their classic culinary repertoire.
This classic red sauce will cause disagreements in every household and by my estimation is probably the primary source of initial rifts between daughters-and-mothers-in-law as there are as many recipes for it and opinions on it as there are families in Italy. Often but not exclusively, each family hands their recipe down from mother to daughter (and of course sometimes son, look at Bottura, Carluccio, Contaldo, Locatelli et al) in this way for generations. it’s not a secret recipe usually, it’s just a basic survival skill in all families an a very polarizing one at that. Some don’t diverge from a minimalist, purist version (tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt and maybe (oooh!) a single basil leaf) – my friend Ute calls it “sugo finto” in her house (which means “fake sauce” and recommends this particularly with fresh, seasonal summery tomatoes – I will provide her exact recipe soon… others will only approve of a soffritto base and then the addition of tomato. To give you another example of a totally valid yet surprising departure from the majority of recipes – from a bona fide, card-carrying Sicilian friend of mine, Elena who is a paediatrician living in the UK called her mother in a panic when pregnant in order to get the exact recipe for her sugo such were her cravings. She used to make her own (just one of her mother’s variations) but the nostalgia component was insurmountable as she craved a particular recipe which had no soffritto or oil at all involved in the cooking. Controversially Elena’s mother’s recipe involved boiling the tomato and carrot and celery and onion without the initial frying off, just the combining and boiling of all the ingredients and the addition of fresh, raw extra virgin olive oil just before serving.
For this reason it is nigh on impossible to satisfy everyone with whichever method one plumps for. If I relate any of these divergent recipes to certain Italian friends, they find it hard to mask their disdain, as if my mudblood parentage makes anything falling from my lips or made by my hand in some way questionable. In fact I am probably a more reliable mouthpiece for a representative recipe as my mother was a fabulous cook who learned watching my aunts, and the most talented cooks amongst her Italian friends, as did I, so we have the breadth of data, experimentation and experience rather than the stricture of contempt on our side.
The primary concern for me is the tomato you use. I have bought organic “boutique” tomato sauce, I’ve used fresh tomatoes and faffed with de-skinning them in boiling water, I have dabbled with tinned tomatoes of all varieties and brands and have even had pallets of bottled-to-order tomatoes shipped directly to us in London all the way from my beloved Abruzzo… But finally I asked my best friend Ute, the one whose wonderfully generous and talented family owns the restaurant called La Bilancia, (my most nostalgic eating experience when I am back home), which tomato they used and she said this (my translation):
“You know that we grow our own in the orchard/ kitchen garden but to be honest the harvest varies so greatly – and it is so labour intensive to wash, de-skin and bottle them – that I often find myself buying Mutti tomato passata if I want a reliable stopgap when cooking for us at home “off-duty”. These tomatoes have great flavour, intensity and are never too watery. They are reliably consistent year on year.”
I have had terrible results ordering them from Amazon (two failed orders that apparently “went missing”) before which I had occasionally I splashed out chez Nife is Life, the Italian product specialist, but I find the 700g bottles ludicrously expensive on there. Better yet I find Giacobazzi’s deli in NW3, care of Hubbub the food-boutique aggregator not a bad price, but most recently I have placed an order with a wine and fine food supplier I found in Yorkshire that delivers, called Roberts and Speight that has the best price of all. I truly hope they will not let me down. Update, Mutti failed to send the delivery so maybe there is some issue with the UK supply. (I’ll update in due course).
I cannot stress enough that the tomato used and the cooking time of the sauce are what will make a MASSIVE difference to the sauce you produce. (For more basics on the actual boiling and cooking of the pasta itself click here)
Typical Sugo ‘Fails’
My main red flags or “fails” when I am asked by novice-cooks how to improve their pasta sauce, are as follows:
- Poor quality base ingredients: poorly flavoured / acidic / watery tomato (I have yet to find a great one on Ocado for example)
- Too abbreviated a cooking time. One pitfall is that novices don’t allow the ingredients to marry together well enough so the pasta sauce often tastes like freshly boiled tomato, bland and steamy, more ratatouille-like, too watery and one-dimensional, insufficiently “bound” together. (Having said that when wonderful Italian Summer tomatoes are in season there is a fresh or “semi-raw” version that is divine. Otherwise the sugo should “split” and separate into a watery top layer and a tomato-juice style base layer. It should all be more cohesive, not to the point of jammy and “tomato concentrate” but still rich and stirrable in texture. Another good indication of readiness is that the oil used to cook it will mostly combine rather than separate and sit excessively above the tomato.
- Do not use dried herbs. I would rather use NO herbs than dried. They only give the sauce a musty, amateurish retro quality that is impossible to overcome. We want “authentic home cooked, in Italy, by mamma” not “mass-produced, Spaghetti House, circa 1990”. If you do want to use herbs (and I do recommend you do), make it basil and, occasionally, you could swap it for a leaf or two of fresh oregano.
- Insufficient and incorrect seasoning – plenty of salt and easy on the ground pepper (the latter is another one of those strange anglicisms for which I cannot find the root cause). You will barely ever see someone strolling from table to table with a giant pepper grinder in a legitimate Italian restaurant. Yes we do use fresh black pepper but very specifically and not to my knowledge do most household recipes call for it in sugo. If you like to add it – that’s fine, but make sure it is freshly ground and in moderation unless you still wish to go down the Spaghetti House route.
- Do not drown your pasta in the fabulous sauce you have made. No Italians do. It is very inauthentic and undermines the end result. In fact, one of my aunties only lightly coats her spaghetti with red which to me is a shame (and they often don’t even serve it with Parmesan!) but in general, a soupy consistency is only to be found in bad, fake-Italian restaurants. If there is a bit of sugo left in the bottom of our plates, it is culturally acceptable to mop it up with a crust of bread which, we call “fare la scarpetta” (make like a shoe) – perhaps because the bread is all bunched up and flexible and imperfect and can be used to sweep things aside.
I tend to make one huge pan of sugo per week as we eat it as a family a couple of times and I also use it to send the kids to school with their pasta in hot pots for lunch. Sometimes I make it less dense and use it for accompanying meatballs (if I can't be bothered to go whole hog and make a serious Ragù) and also I use it to mix with raw tomato to use atop pizza when I make it at home. I also use this sugo on brown rice which is unorthodox but very healthy and versatile. From time to time I might also add a couple of tablespoons to soups or broths to give them an extra dimension and a hit of seasoned acidity.
If stored in a jar or airtight container it will keep a week but it tastes its best for 2-4 days - arguably its best on day 2. I don't reheat it when serving the kids as it allows me to serve them their pasta straight away without them moaning it is too hot.
For adults I like to cook it with chillies from the outset, like we do in the Abruzzo, but that requires doing two lots so when I can't face it, I simply "amp-up" the tame version by improvising with fresh chopped chilli after serving, or I make a mini soffritto in a small pan with garlic, olive oil and chopped chillies, and then I warm through the required amount of sauce with it before serving.
There are two versions of this sauce. One is strictly simple and great if you have literally no prep time (this recipe). The other is the soffritto version (I will provide a separate recipe for soffritto and the soffritto sugo version) but until then: the soffritto would be your first step (carrot, celery, onion fried in oil) then you would follow this recipe from the stage the garlic is added (as it browns faster than the other soffritto ingredients) and then the introduction of the passata etc. The rest of the recipe holds true.
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3x 700g bottles of the best tomato passata you can get your paws on. I check to see if it is very dense as it can vary from batch to batch, in which case I use two bottles and thin it down with water (I rinse out the bottles with a cup of water and drain into the cooking pan)
- salt to taste (I would think 1tsp or so, see how you go)
- a small clutch of basil leaves (1-4 according to your taste)
- Set your pan on to heat. I like to use a pan which is 30cm in diameter and 9cm deep as I make a whole load... You can halve the ingredients and use a regular 2-litre saucepan - ideal for a family of 2-3 or if you want to make it fresh twice a week.
- Add your olive oil to the pan
- Finely slice your garlic and add to the heating oil
- Before the garlic goes even the slightest bit brown (this will make it bitter and you will have to throw it all away and start again), shake the passata bottles up and empty them in to the pan.
- If the bottles are still very clumped with passata or if the tomato is quite thick and viscous, pour a cup of water in to the bottles and shake well, transfer to the next bottle and repeat and then add to the pan.
- Slam on the lid or stir quickly to avoid any spitting oil
- Let the pan come to a rapid boil and then immediately turn it down to the gentlest of simmers
- Let it all simmer away bubbling every now and again and stirring every 10 minutes or so (you may want to put a heat diffuser under the pan to avoid sticking and burning) for about an hour. If the tomato is delicious uncooked (taste before you use it) you might be able to get away with a 35-45 minutes simmering time but if you wish to have something full-bodied and rich, it is safest to let it keep going longer.
- About half way through, season with salt and half the basil leaves.
- When ready to serve, stir well and add fresh basil and a drizzle of fresh olive oil.
A note on Parmesan
This last point is more about the serving of the pasta and the ratio / necessity of Parmesan: Many households have Parmesan-avoiders in them, and although many (most) eat their past with, a surprisingly large contingent does not. In the warmer months I often don’t fancy Parmigiano grated on my pasta, I also think the quality of the sugo is somewhat masked by it therefore I’d advise you to get acquainted with the taste of the sugo vergine e semplice (unadorned) and add your Parmesan not as a rule but to taste. Please use fresh Parmesan grated by you and not the dehydrated puke resembling pre-grated dry powder you can abominably still find around. If you find grating a literal as well as metaphorical chafe, I suggest you use a microplane and do half a wedge at a time and store it in a totally airtight ziplock in the freezer. That way you get basically the same great fresh taste but less hassle.
Breaking the rules
Much like Picasso who was a skilled classical draughtsman before he dared to break the codes of art, get you recipe down before you experiment with jazzing it up as if the basics are wrong the results of something more risqué will be disappointing. I will provide a totally anarchic recipe here (coming soon) for a kiddy-friendly vitamin and mineral-boosted pasta sauce recipe which is no where near as authentic, but which works as the ultimate Trojan Horse for getting vegetables in to your children. For me nutritional value overrides snobbery, but it still had better be tasty!
A note on oil
It is totally your call and my recipe has gone with olive oil for the sake of classicism and simplicity, but if I am honest, I have been experimenting with alternatives. Apparently extra virgin olive oil is damaged when heated and loses many of its health benefits but in the main this is still the go-to choice for most Italian families as it is plentiful and culturally what has been done for ages. Italians are very healthy so maybe there is an argument to just keep on doing it that way, but I do like to see if I can improve things from a nutritional standpoint. Trends in food and science are ever-changing (agave! Low-fat diets! I am talking to you!) so I am sure I will have to revise this piece of the post at some stage. It does put me in a quandary as when I have made sugo with no frying at all involved, I find it lacks some oomph and fruitiness. It definitely leads me to understand the benefits of Elena’s mother’s recipe in terms of health. Having said that I have been investigating alternative oils and have successfully made sughi with both rice bran oil (which has a very high smoke point and virtually no taste of its own) or grapseed oil which has similar qualities and with coconut oil but the “cuisine” version which has had the tropical aroma removed. I find the latter very useful as coconut and any form of savoury Mediterranean cooking are not compatible.