Published May 1, 2009.
Is it possible to transform canned tomatoes into a bright, fresh-tasting sauce?
In a perfect world, you’d simply reach for a few garden-ripe tomatoes to make a quick tomato sauce, but that isn’t a realistic option for most of the year. Canned tomatoes surpass the bland, rock-hard offerings in the produce aisle, but they have disadvantages: First, the canning process cooks off many of the key aromatic compounds that food scientists have identified as contributors to full, fruity tomato taste. Second, the addition of citric acid as a preservative throws off the key balance of sweetness and acidity.
To create a complex, brightly flavored sauce, one that tastes first and foremost of tomatoes, in the time it takes to boil pasta.
Choosing the right can of tomatoes was a critical first step. Crushed tomatoes were the best choice because they would save us the step of pureeing. Certain brands (such as Tuttorosso or Muir Glen, winners of our taste tests) of crushed tomatoes are also minimally processed. These two producers heat their tomatoes at a lower temperature than other brands to preserve an enzyme called lipoxygenase. This enzyme oxidizes two of the pigments found in ripe tomatoes (lycopene and beta-carotene) creating new aromatic compounds that make the canned tomatoes literally taste fresh. Adding a bit of sugar and a couple cloves of minced garlic to the canned tomatoes boosted flavor, as did some dried oregano, which we sautéed to eliminate dryness before adding it. We also shredded a small amount of onion on a box grater before sautéing for two reasons: Besides helping the onion cook faster, grating releases fructose, which causes onions to become sweet. We started to sauté the onion in olive oil, but then turned to butter, which also caramelizes in the presence of heat, creating new flavor compounds that enhanced, rather than detracted from the tomatoes. When the onions were lightly browned, we added the minced garlic, sugar, and crushed tomatoes, then simmered the sauce for just 10 minutes. To make up for the lost fragrance of fresh tomatoes, we added two highly aromatic ingredients: chopped fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Swirled in just before serving, these ingredients perfumed the sauce with bright, grassy notes.list of recipes