Red sauce basics to next-level flavor
My good friend Eric Marshall is the founder and owner of Tulsa’s first and largest brewery, Marshall Brewing. He’s a master brewer who studied in Munich, and I think the world of him. He took a chance and put everything on the line for his craft, much like me –– and much like most of us in this industry. He’s still in the mix everyday making his product the best it can be. I asked him what annoyed him the most about the craft movement. He answered quickly: “All the people who talk about brewing their own beer and start with a Double Imperial IPA with infused cranberries (but) don’t know how to properly ferment a basic lager.”
I thought about it myself. I’m not above getting peeved by things in our industry. I’m all for getting eccentric with pizza toppings, but it seems sometimes that operators start with the name of the pizza and work backwards to the actual recipe. It’s like thinking of a title for a movie people will want to see with little to no regard for the script.
I have a rule. When I go to a new pizzeria, I try their most basic cheese pizza. If that’s not on point, I don’t really trust moving on to their next level offerings. A proper pizza has to have a great crust and high-quality cheese –– but what gets much less attention is the sauce. The sauce is the difference between ok and fantastic. When I first opened Andolini’s, my sauce was extremely basic. I didn’t respect how integral it is making a pizza all it could be. I now look to the sauce to determine how seriously another pizzeria takes their pizza, and by default, their business.
Let’s get into the details of getting this fundamental ingredient made right:
The beauty of this industry is in its variety. Do what you like and sell that passion. If you want to do things differently, go for it. With that said, know the industry standards before you put your spin on it. Your typical pizza sauce will be:
- From a can –– not fresh tomatoes, but from fresh-packed tomatoes in a can.
- Uncooked –– It’s not a pasta sauce, so it’s not slow simmered for 12 hours. It is cooked when it goes into the oven for the first time with the rest of your ingredients.
- Not colD. Sauce works best when it’s not cold but room temp.
- Is at least 12 hours old. When a can is freshly opened and a sauce has just been made, the acidity is at its strongest. Your best bet is to prepare it and give it a night for the acidity to calm down.
Your sauce comes from a can, but which one? Even from a can, a proper red sauce starts with great tomatoes. If you are going for the sweetness of Italy’s San Marzanos be warned: there are only so many San Marzano tomatoes in the world and somehow the number of bushels produced each year out numbers the amount available. The answer to that quandary is to do your research on the company from which you buy. Know the farm and company you order from so you know what you sell your customer is not a lie.
If your tomatoes are not from Italy, California is a very popular option. One walk through Pizza Expo will show you a litany of choices. I suggest meeting and tasting them all, also knowing what you’re looking for. The tomato companies who come to Pizza Expo are reputable. Differentiators or selling points for the companies are:
- How fast the tomato is packed?
- Are there any additives at all?
- Is there any specific lining or seals of freshness that are important to you?
Along with that, know what sauce you want. Are you going for thick and chunky or for thin and easy to spread? New York style is less chunky typically, but you can always buck that trend and use whole unpeeled tomatoes in your sauce. Again, it needs to be what you want it to be.
I use six cans of crushed tomatoes with one can of tomato paste. I am for sure not the first guy to do that. With that said, which tomato you buy, and what you do from there, can take the same recipe and make it vastly different.
I add oregano, garlic, oil, Romano and basil. Some people add sugar and other spices like nutmeg or any number of different ingredients. I don’t think a properly sweet tomato needs cane sugar in addition to its natural sweetness; however, when you’re in the kitchen, take guidance and then forge your own path.
Even though I just divulged what I add to my own sauce, how much and what kind of each ingredient will drastically affect the final product. Consider:
- Oregano. Will you use dried domestic or something from Italy? Try it each way and make your choice.
- Oil. You can use EVOO or something cheaper, but you get what you pay for.
- Garlic. I say dice the peeled garlic on site and add as much as you think your customers will enjoy. That assumes you like garlic.
- Romano (or other cheese). Again, will you choose a version from Italy or a domestic counterpart? I opt for Pecorino after the bake and Wisconsin Romano in the sauce. How much depends on the final flavor you are seeking out.
- Basil. A bag of basil isn’t cheap, but the aroma of fresh basil versus dried is incomparable. I choose diced basil every time and my customers notice.
Bear in mind, the flavor will be much different once your sauce is baked. Make small batches until you reach the point you are not just comfortable with but proud of. Then taste-test it against multiple brands and with variations of the toppings to see how it marries up. Above all else, seek unbiased opinions from people who respect you enough to tell you the truth if you’re the type to fall in love with your product. If you are overly critical of yourself and can never land on anything, get to a point where you are proud of it and unbiased tasters agree and call stop there. Then advertise and push the flavor of the sauce because at that point –– after all that research and development –– you’ll know it’s great.
MIKE BAUSCH is the owner of Andolini’s Pizzeria in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a frequent speaker at the International Pizza Expo family of trade shows.