How to: The Quickest, Simplest, Tastiest Route to a Great Weeknight Tomato Sauce

best weeknight tomato sauce

Hey, ManMade. My name is Stephen Cusato (you can call me Steve), and I'm the host of Not Another Cooking Show. I'm excited to collaborate with the team to show you how to step your game up in the kitchen. And we're going to start with this specialty of mine right here: the easiest, most practical, most delicious way to make fresh tomato sauce in less than 30 minutes any night of the week.  This is my Weekday Sauce.  

My philosophy on tomato sauce is that is should be simple, but it should not be boring. When done right, it is essentially an emulsification of a garlic and basil-flavored oil, with the water and fiber of the tomatoes. These techniques are the foundation of what I grew up calling Italian tomato sauce. And this is the way to do it that works best for me. 

Ingredients for Tomato Sauce:

  • 1 can of San Marzano tomatoes, whole peeled (Make sure there is a designation of origin for the tomatoes on the can. The right ones will say where they come from.)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, halved lengthwise and sliced as thinly as possible
  • 1 bunch of basil, 1 to 1 1/2 cups packed
  • Plenty of parmesan cheese
  • 1 lb of spaghetti
  • Extra-virgin olive oil  
  • Salt

Equipment for Tomato Sauce:

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The Method:

First things first: get a big pot of water boiling. We're talking three-four quarts here. By the time its full-rolling, you will have timed everything properly so that you're ready to cook the pasta. 

Next, you're gonna want to puree the tomatoes in the food mill to create a nice smooth texture. If you like extra thick chunks of tomato in your sauce, then feel free to skip this step. But for me, its an essential part of the recipe and any tomato sauce in general, which you'll note is not called tomato chunks. It's worth the extra effort. 

Next we need to prep our garlic and remove any dirty bits from the basil. Make sure you try to slice the garlic as thinly as you can using a knife. Or a razor blade. Remember that scene in Goodfellas? No, garlic won't melt away totally, but yes, slicing it thinly makes a major difference. So take your time and do it well. 

Now, prep your station by bringing your smoothed tomatoes, the basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, and salt over to the stove where your water should almost be boiling. Grab a wide high rimmed pan, like a saute pan or 12″ skillet. (Anything but cast iron is fine.) You can cook it in a saucepan, but the idea here is that we are not slowly simmering this tomato sauce. Instead, we are cooking it fast and quick and trying to create as much flavor as we can in a short amount of time. And we want to do that by reducing the sauce in a wide bottom pan, using as much surface area as possible. 

Put a healthy amount of olive oil in a wide pan, enough to cover the bottom entirely. Like, at least 1/4 cup.  You may think it's a lot, but remember, it will emulsify. 

Add the garlic and half the basil to the cold pan, allowing them to warm up with the oil. This will do two things, cook the garlic gently to create a sweeter, milder garlic flavor, (also the reason we cut it as thin as possible) and prevent it from burning, as well as infusing the olive oil with all that basil and garlic flavor. Place over medium heat, and allow it to come to temp.

Once the oil is heated up, the basil should be browning a bit and the garlic should be softened, but not brown. Do not burn the garlic. There should be NO color on it at all. At this point you could keep the basil in, but I like to remove it and add more fresh basil later and then add the tomatoes to the pan.

best weeknight tomato sauce

Taste it before you add salt, then season it with a healthy two-finger pinch (tomatoes need salt) and then taste it again to see the difference it makes. Pump the high to medium high and cook the sauce for about 20 minutes or until thickened and emulsified with the oil. Use a wooden spoon to stir it, trying to help combine the oil and tomatoes. Keep an eye on it during this. There should be constant tiny bubbles at the top of the sauce but it shouldn't be splattering all over your stove. If its too high, lower the heat a bit. Just feel it out. 

After 20 minutes, the sauce and the oil should be thickened and combined for the most part. Now add some parmesan cheese. This will also help it all come together. The water should be boiling so add a big three finger pinches of salt to the water and then add the spaghetti. Stir it around and cook it for about half the time the box tells you to cook it for. 

Once the pasta is plyable and has soften but still has a line of white raw pasta through the middle when you bite through it, grab a pasta spoon or some tongs and transfer the pasta from the pasta water and into the tomato sauce. and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce itself. 

best weeknight tomato sauceWhat this does is give you control over the finished texture of the pasta and allows for the sauce and the pasta to “marry” with one another. The pasta will finish cooking and as it does, it will soak up the sauce and then coat the outside of it. So you don't need pasta swimming in sauce, if done right, the sauce wraps and holds itself around the noodles. And once Al Dente, or just before the raw white center of the pasta disappears, the pasta should be perfect. Add more parmesan, plate the pasta nicely (see video) and then top with more parm and plenty of fresh basil. 

Congrats, you're Italian now. 

For more simple, technique-based food ideas, follow Not Another Cooking Show on YouTube. You'll be seriously glad you did.