Bottles are beautiful things. And I’m not saying that because I’m an alcoholic. Beyond enabling our hydration (via water) and dehydration (via imbibing), they work on many levels as metaphors. Take, for example, the bottleneck. In addition to referring to the physicality of that which distinguishes a bottle say, from a jar, a “bottleneck” offers a metaphor to describe how a process may slow down within a system. In the US, we demand that our lives move along quickly and efficiently. As a result, everything from a traffic bottleneck to a government regulatory bottleneck is viewed with irritance and disdain. For a person to be called a bottleneck themselves is among the high insults of the professional world.
We’ve lost something, however, in too often clinging to such thinking. Sometimes, slowing a thing down is important to understanding it more fully. And, by understanding it more fully, we might hope to make it better. Sometimes, perhaps, we may want to be thankful for our bottlenecks or create some of our own. As Edmund Burke once thoughtfully observed, there are times at which “our patience will achieve more than our force.”
As you may have guessed by now, cooking is one of those things where I would suggest we might actually desire a bottleneck, although certainly not in the day-to-day of the professional kitchen. Rather, a bottleneck is often a useful tool in understanding cooking itself. Before passing through that bottleneck, everything we wish to understand must first be dismantled and examined individually. Only after each item is rigorously understood on its own, should we reassemble it on the other side and then understand it as a whole.
In other words, the first step in understanding cooking is not being satisfied with overarching fancy explanations of cooking technique whose goals are so often focused on the whole or several parts working together, but rather concretely getting to the underlying mechanisms of what is actually occurring when we cook. As it turns out, each bit that passes through our bottleneck is quite simple to understand, so viewed this way there is an underlying simplicity to all the apparent complexity.
A Multi-Part Guide – How to get Marinara Sauce through the Neck of a Bottle
Marinara is one of the simplest yet, when done right, most versatile and delicious things you can eat. And, yet, most people seem to be making and eating terrible marinara. Good marinara is, after all, basically five ingredients: Tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, herbs and salt. Modifying this basic list—making the simple more complex—should be done thoughtfully and at a cook’s peril.
It’s the quality and precisely honed flavors of these five ingredients, and not the extent of the ingredient list, that make for an ideal sauce. The key to marinara is to take brilliant ingredients and modify them with due care and thoughtfulness only to better hone their flavor. As such, flavors have to be in exacting balance in order to beautifully complement one another. In marinara, the ultimate goal is to have your tomatoes only just cooked through, retaining their bright acidity and freshness. All the while, you want a deep, robust (but not overpowering) garlic flavor and a moderate amount of herbal flavor to help soften and nuance the sauce, without causing it to become overly vegetal. So maybe we know a fine marinara when we taste it, but the question remains how to achieve it ourselves in the kitchen. The key, I’d suggest, is individually and carefully running each of our five ingredients through the bottleneck.
In this first part, I’ll address the qualitative issues associated with tomatoes and olive oil, matters of quality and taste. In the second part, I’ll go full on science and address some of the issues associated with garlic, herbs and salt. In the third and final part, I’ll present my marinara recipe to you.
Tomatoes are the obvious star of your marinara yet many cooks seem to think about them the least. Conventional wisdom suggests that we should always use Italian San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius with its brilliant volcanic riverbed soils, gentle sunshine and crisp salinic breezes. The tomatoes themselves were said to have been brought directly from Peru in 1770 and could not have influenced Italian cuisine more. The mature fruits are thin, long and fleshy with a small seed cavity that can be easily scooped out. They tend to the sweet and less acidic taste with a slight bitterness. To Italian’s they are God’s own fruit and, as you might expect, they take their tomatoes very seriously. As a cook not living in Naples, however, it becomes difficult to procure the best fruit. One can rest assured that Italians are not canning and shipping to the Americas the most glorious examples of their prized commodity. We could pay dearly for imported tomatoes, have them shipped across the world and delight in product purchased by Italian workers for one percent of the price, or we could find local alternatives.
The first step in finding a tomato is the question of canned versus fresh. In this respect, there is no question: Canned tomatoes have time to mellow and soften, are ready to cook, and result in a far more even, velvety texture in a marinara. The next step is to consider which varietal of tomato. Here some subjectivity comes into play, based on your individual preferences for sweetness and acidity in your fruit. That said, you’ll have to ultimately choose some variety of plum tomato. In a pinch, I prefer to use Muir Glen whole peeled plum tomatoes (peeled to reduce acidity, which in this specific case, works best to my taste).
If you can find locally produced, canned and beautiful San Marzano tomatoes (or can produce them yourself), consider yourself lucky. They’re generally hard to find. Roma tomatoes, more commonly available in North America, Australia and Great Britain, are more acidic, less sweet and significantly milder than Italian cousins. Roma’s, to their credit are a hybrid created, in part, based on the San Marzano. The best Romas I’ve had the pleasure of eating, however, come exclusively from the cold air basin and thermal belt climate zones of California’s Central Valley. That said, as farmers often say, the best tomatoes grow where you live.
Whether you choose Romas, San Marzano, another plum varietal or a blend of varietals, there are important details to consider when choosing canned tomatoes. They must be fleshy and juicy but not mealy, smooth and lush and not grainy and dull. I also have often observed a consistency problem with ripeness in many fancy, high end US brands, so make sure you keep this in mind when trying new sources for tomatoes. Your tomatoes need to be canned at the peak of freshness and fully ripened, end to end (a tomato often ripens last nearest the vine). Romas are often not sweet enough for an ideal marinara, so blending Romas with sweeter tomato varietals like Brandywines can also work wonderfully. At the end of the day, though, think deeply about your choice of tomato, experimenting different brands and varietals or a combination of more than one, because they’re the most important part of your sauce.
Now that we’ve considered which tomato to use, it’s time to consider how we use it. The ultimate texture and appearance of the marinara depends on how you break up your tomato. Italians tend to universally crush whole tomatoes down as well as they can. This tends to result in a silky smooth, fairly consistent and homogenous sauce. That said, there is something to say about preferring a chunkier, more rustic feeling sauce, one that will pair better with heartier pasta. In such a case, it may make more sense to depart from tradition, however slightly, to a large (about a third of an inch) diced tomato. Most canned tomato brands I’ve come across offer this option (including Muir Glen). It’s worth noting, though, that chunkier marinara using diced tomatoes is harder to make and pairs poorly with finer pastas whereas well crushed tomato marinara pairs well enough with just about any pasta.
With your differential in tomato varietal or varietals, fineness with which you crush (or dice) your tomatoes, you will also notice a nontrivial difference in cooking times. As a rule of thumb, you’ll probably never cook your tomatoes for less than 20 minutes but never more than 40 minutes. In this range, tomatoes will retain all their qualities of freshness.
Given that our sauce contains only five ingredients, we need to pay close attention to everything that goes into our dish, even the oil. This is counterintuitive to many outside of Europe, but paying close attention to your olive oil, like wine, is a potentially game changing move. Like wine, olive oil is the runoff product captured from pressed fruit. Also like wine, there are many cultivars of olive, varied growing regions and differing production methods that ultimately lead to highly distinctive oils. Thankfully, however, olive oil is best consumed fresh (unlike wine) and need not spend lengthy amounts of time fermenting or aging. It’s for this reason that you can score an exceptional bottle of olive oil for less than half the cost of a similarly exceptional bottle of wine. In this case, we need not break the bank for good taste.
Rather than going into considerable detail concerning all of the hang ups and issues with olive oil, I’ll instead focus on what you need to know to select an excellent olive oil for your marinara. Two necessary preconditions for your oil are that it must be “extra virgin” and “cold pressed.” Extra virgin refers to oil of the highest quality of virgin production. Virgin production means oil that has only been extracted with the use of a press without the aid of heating or chemical extraction. Cold press may only refer to oil that has not been heated over a certain temperature, usually 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Although these two are necessary for good oil, they are not the only indication of quality.
There are 33 notable, olive virgin oil producing countries in the world. Of that, the top three account for roughly two thirds of global production and the top nine account for 95 percent. I’d like to consider the big three (Spain, Italy and Greece) plus two notable smaller producing countries (United States and France). Although there is a rich diversity of artisanal producers in each region, in general, each country has a more or less distinctive, archetypal style of oil which grounds it. Spain and France, with their fruity and nutty tasting oils derived from mature olives are best suited to seafood, tender green salads and other delicately flavored foods. California, with its mild fruit flavor and butteriness is well suited to mayonnaise, desserts or popcorn. Greek producers generally harvest green, unripened olives for their oils, resulting in a bold, slightly bitter and pungent oil. The bitterness of Greek oil makes it robust enough to stand up to strongly flavored foods like aged cheese or dishes heavy in spice, but fairly poorly suited to marinara. The bitterness, I find, clashes with the delicate acid and sweetness balance of the tomatoes. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that I would endorse Italian olive oil for its assertive balance of richness, fruit, green grass and pepper. By my view, a good Italian olive oil has everything you want and nothing you don’t for all your marinara needs. Italian varietals of frantoiano (generally from Tuscany) and coratina (grown all over Italy, but usually best from Puglia) are, in particular, my favorites for marinara.
One of the greatest problems with purchasing Italian olive oil is false labeling, however. Although it’s difficult to know for sure, much research has found that a substantial amount of oil labeled as Italian actually originates from olives grown in Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco. The best way to obtain oil from olives actually grown in Italy is to purchase single origin oils from small family producers, which is to say, avoid grocery store oil. My favorite Tuscan oil, which is a blend of mostly frantoiano, is Salustri’s organic extra virgin.
Continue to part two, Chemical Reaction and Extraction.
Have a question? Ask me anything!