How I make pasta sauce more delicious


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Recently I’ve been honing my pasta sauce, and I’ve been told by what I consider to be discerning and picky people that it’s very good–richly flavorful and complex and doesn’t even need meat.  (That’s a good sign to me as a mostly-vegetarian; I think it’s easy to fall into grade-inflated vegetarian mindsets where you think things are sooOOoo good that are just, you know, fine.  Sadly this happens all the time with vegetarian restaurants, which so often leave me disappointed after I read their wonderful reviews.)  So I thought I’d share with you some of the tweaks I’ve made that I think contribute to that.

Two notes: this isn’t really a recipe.  I never use one anyway, and people have different preferences about their pasta sauce.  It’s just a list of things you can try doing to an existing recipe.

Second, I do not claim authenticity or even faithfulness to any particular type of pasta sauce.  I am just sharing what I think tastes good.

  1. Cook the onions a long time.  Like many techniques I love, this comes from Indian cookery.  “Real” marinara doesn’t even have onions, but you know what, I like onions.  I chop them fine, about one medium or large onion per ~quart batch of sauce.  I cook them in oil on medium heat for a bit until they start browning, then add a bit of water and turn the heat down, cooking them on low until they are very soft and, not dark brown like you’d make for a curry, but quite deeply golden and creamy, adding water as needed to keep them from burning.  This adds a bit of that lovely dark onion flavor, which is so savory and sweet and good.
  2. Add a little smoked paprika (and a lot of regular paprika).  Be very judicious; start with just a couple of dashes.  That background hint of smokiness shouldn’t even be perceptible as smokiness, but it adds a lot of depth.
  3. Sugar.  I know, sugar is evil, but literally just a teaspoon stirred in when you start to let the sauce simmer will work wonders.  Especially if you make use of the next tip.
  4. Balsamic vinegar and Sriracha.  After the onions have gotten just right, turn the heat up to medium low and add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a squirt of Sriracha (even if you don’t like spicy sauce!  A little bit will not make it spicy, don’t worry).  Stir until it’s Maillard-ed up and glazed looking, which should just be a minute or two, before adding the tomatoes/tomato pulp/tomato juice.  I actually add more vinegar while the sauce is simmering, which increases the brightness and richness of the sauce yet more.
  5. Soy sauce!  Yes, a little soy sauce will increase the umami without tasting like soy.  Don’t go overboard:  just start with a teaspoon stirred into the simmering sauce, let it simmer for a while, and taste again.
  6. Mushroom salt.  This is a specialty product that my housemate happened to have, but it’s simply wonderful if you can get it.  It doesn’t taste mushroomy whatsoever–and it’s a good thing, because if it did I wouldn’t eat it.  (I’m that unfortunate vegetarian who hates mushrooms, at least in unprocessed form.)  It thickens the sauce a bit too.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have tricks to embiggen the humble tomato sauce?