There is nothing more satisfying than a huge bowl of spaghetti covered in a sauce at the end of a long day. And when we say sauce, in the case of spaghetti, we always refer to tomato sauce. A dish like spaghetti with tomato sauce is a quick and easy fix so commonly prepared, that it seems like it has been around since forever, right? Wrong.
Even though we think of this simple and delicious dish as a typical example of the Italian cuisine, historical data suggests that tomatoes became part of the Italian cuisine as late as the 17th century, after the Spaniards brought to Europe from the New Continent. The first recorded Italian tomato sauce recipe dates from 1692, in the cookbook ‘Lo scalco alla moderna’ by chef Antonio Latini. But despite this fact, it is believed that French were the first to use tomatoes in their creations, not the Italians!
The Story of Tomato Sauce
Tomato sauce, also called Neapolitan or Napoletana sauce, is a broad term which covers a wider variety of sauces using tomatoes as a base.
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The simplest tomato sauces are made of chopped fresh tomatoes, simmered in olive oil and seasoned with some salt. It is common practice to peel the tomatoes and remove their seeds so that there are no bitter notes in the sauce.
More elaborate tomato sauce recipes often call for one or a combination of the following ingredients added to the base:
- Liquid, usually water to keep the tomatoes from drying or, for more flavorful sauces, wine or stock.
- Onion and garlic are commonly sautéed in olive oil before the tomatoes are added. Modern tomato sauce varieties often include herbs like basil, parsley, and oregano, as well as black or red pepper.
- Meat is another common addition to tomato sauce. It appears ground or chopped, very often in the form of meatballs and, sometimes, sausages.
- Some ready-made varieties sold in the supermarkets in the States also include mushrooms or chopped red peppers.
Five Classic Italian Spaghetti Sauces
Marinara is probably the most popular variety of tomato sauce. Even though its name, which translates into “mariner’s” or “sailor’s” suggests a connection to seafood or fish, there is no such ingredient in this spaghetti sauce. The only certain fact is that it originated in Naples; other than that, the theories about its origin are vague. Some historical data state that it was invented by cooks aboard Neapolitan ships returning from the New Continent, whereas others claim that it was first prepared by the wives of Neapolitan sailors.
The homemade version of this spaghetti sauce usually contains tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs like basil and parsley. Some recipes may call for a bit of wine, olives, capers, and spices.
Spaghetti alla puttanesca literally translates into “spaghetti in the style of a prostitute” or simply “whore’s spaghetti”! The name is certainly intriguing; it simply provokes you to find out how this spaghetti sauce came to be.
The popular legend says that this recipe was prepared by prostitutes while waiting on their next customer. The more probable version of the story is the one originating from the 1950s. It involves a restaurant owner called Sandro Petti, who had to come up with a quick dish for late-night customers. They were so hungry they asked him to “facci una puttanata qualsiasi”, which would translate into “make any kind of garbage.” By accident, the meaning of ‘garbage’ and ‘prostitute’ is the same in Italian, so that’s how this spaghetti sauce got its name!
The standard ingredients for this tangy, salty, and spicy spaghetti sauce recipe are tomatoes, anchovies, capers, olives, olive oil, and garlic.
This meat-based sauce originating in Bologna is also known as ‘ragù sauce’ in Italy. The original is a slow-cooked sauce made with sautéed onion, carrot, and celery, as well as different types of minced or finely chopped beef, combined with smaller amounts of pork. This mixture is often complemented with red wine, while tomatoes are considered a supplementary ingredient. This tomato sauce variety is traditionally associated to tagliatelle and lasagna, so much so that Italian chefs consider it a blasphemy to combine ragù with spaghetti. The pasta and sauce are always mixed together in the pan to ensure uniform coverage.
Outside Italy, especially in the US, things are quite different – Bolognese sauce refers to a tomato sauce mixed with minced beef or pork, onion, garlic, and the inevitable basil. This rich and comforting sauce is often served on top or as a side dish to spaghetti. Unlike the original ragù, this variety has a much larger amount of sauce and is often topped with grated parmesan.
Alla Norma Spaghetti Sauce
Pasta alla Norma is a dish originating in Catania, Sicily. There are two possible explanations for its name – the first one claims that the sauce was named to honor the opera “Norma”, written by the Sicilian composed Vincenzo Bellini in the 19th century. The other version explains that the dish follows the norms and traditions of Sicilian cuisine, hence the name.
This spaghetti sauce recipe always includes sautéed or fried eggplant, a veggie widely used in Sicilian dishes, combined with tomatoes, ricotta cheese, and basil.
This orange-colored spaghetti sauce is an Italian-American invention originating from the 1970s. It is made with tomato sauce, heavy cream, vodka, and typical Italian herbs. The addition of vodka emphasizes the tomato flavors, but it also acts as a stabilizer for the sauce, which is the purpose of all alcoholic beverages used in cooking.
In case you are wondering whether this spaghetti sauce is safe for your kids, the answer is affirmative since most of the alcohol will evaporate during cooking.
Homemade Tomato Base for Spaghetti Sauce
As you might already be aware, the team behind MyGreatRecipes prefers the concept of fresh homemade dishes to store-bought ones. We believe that foods made from scratch not only taste better, but they are also healthier. That is why we recommend that you prepare a batch of your own homemade tomato sauce and store it in your pantry or freezer.
It is true that homemade tomato sauce requires some time and effort, but think that you’ll have a nutritious base for your spaghetti sauce recipes anytime, even in winter.
And, if you are not a big fan of canning and want to avoid all the fuss connected to sterilizing the jars and water baths, don’t fret – homemade tomato sauce can be frozen in plastic zip-lock bags!
Tomatoes. In general, any tomato type is good for your sauce. Go for cheaper varieties, preferably bought in bulk from a farm. It doesn’t hurt if the tomatoes are a bit overripe too since they will be blended anyway. For more info on selecting the best tomatoes for your recipes, read my blog post on tomato soup.
Acidifier. The other obligatory ingredient is an acidifier – lemon juice or white vinegar are most commonly used. Acidity is necessary for safe canning and preservation. Other seasonings are optional – you can add onion, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper, sugar, and herbs.
Blending. If you want a few chunks left in your sauce, give the tomatoes a few quick pulses in a blender or food processor. If you want larger chunks, dice the tomatoes using a knife or let them break down naturally during cooking. If you want the sauce completely smooth, pulse for a minute or so without pausing, before or after cooking.
Cooking. Tomatoes need to be cooked for at least half an hour in order to obtain a thick sauce, but make sure not to overcook. Monitor your sauce and taste from time to time. Remove when it has reached the desired flavor and consistency (it should take no more than 90 minutes).
Spaghetti Sauce with Canned Tomatoes
If you don’t feel like spending a whole afternoon preparing homemade tomato sauce or don’t have fresh tomatoes for a quick spaghetti sauce fix, you can always opt for canned ones. Canned tomatoes come in many shapes and sizes: whole, diced, crushed, pureed, plain, spiced…This can be overwhelming.
After testing all possible options, we have decided upon whole peeled tomatoes. They are the most convenient option because they can be easily diced, crushed, or pureed, using your hands, a knife, or a blender respectively, or just let them break down naturally during cooking. Another upside of this canned variety is that it absorbs the least of the chemicals added to the can in order to prevent the tomatoes from falling apart, which means they are the healthiest alternative as well.
Choose a plain, unseasoned canned variety. Your spaghetti sauce will taste much better if you add the seasonings yourself.
The Best Spaghetti for Your Spaghetti Sauce
Spaghetti sauce doesn’t make sense without spaghetti, of course. And since not all spaghetti is created equal, let’s go through varieties and cooking tips to make them outstanding both in taste and nutritive value!
How to Choose the Best Spaghetti
Making informed food choices is crucial for a healthy diet. So, think twice before grabbing the usual pack of white (semolina) processed spaghetti. This type of pasta undergoes a bleaching process that involves chlorine dioxide which removes most of the vitamins and minerals.
Try something different instead. The following types of spaghetti will be more beneficial for you in terms of nutrition, without affecting the taste of the dish whatsoever.
- Whole wheat spaghetti made of 100% whole grain is unbleached, which means that it keeps all the vitamins and minerals. In addition, it contains more protein and dietary fiber than the regular variety.
- Spelt spaghetti is an ideal alternative for those allergic to wheat.
- Quinoa spaghetti is gluten-free and very rich in protein, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron.
- Rice spaghetti might look and taste slightly unusual to a newbie consumer, but it has three important advantages: it is wheat-free, gluten-free, and cholesterol-free.
Tips and Tricks for Perfectly Cooked Spaghetti
How many times have you ended up with overcooked or undercooked pasta? Has it ever happened that you discover whole portions of spaghetti sticking together after it is too late? No worries, it happens even to the best of us. Here is what you need to know.
- Cook the spaghetti in a very large pan. If the pan is small and overcrowded, the spaghetti will stick together.
- Wait for the water to come to a rolling boil before adding the pasta.
- Be generous with salt so that your pasta is well flavored.
- Do not add any oil. Oil doesn’t prevent the spaghetti from sticking.
- The spaghetti should be ‘al dente’, which means that is should not be cooked through but rather have a little bite. The cooking is finished after adding the spaghetti sauce. Another alternative is to serve the pasta with hot sauce on top and let it absorb the juices for a minute before diving in!
- Save some of the pasta water when draining the spaghetti. You can use it if the pasta looks too dry after you’ve added the spaghetti sauce.
Homemade spaghetti requires a set of advanced cooking skills, patience, energy and time. It is a process that involves kneading, cutting, rolling, and drying… Even the bravest of us wouldn’t dare to take up the challenge. However, that’s not what we have in mind when we say ‘homemade spaghetti’.
Spaghetti squash and zoodles are two very popular pasta substitutes, especially in the vegan community. Low in fat & calories and packed with nutrients, these spaghetti is ready in no time.
To make spaghetti squash, cut a large squash in half and remove the seeds using a paring knife. Drizzle with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in the oven until tender, for about 40 minutes.
To make zoodles, wash a few zucchini in cold water just before cooking, peel them and cut them using a regular or julienne peeler, mandolin slicer, or a spiralizer. Sauté or bake the zoodles for a few minutes, but be careful – if you overcook them, they will be too mushy.
Other Spaghetti Sauces
Spaghetti covered in tomato sauce is delicious enough to be eaten every day without getting bored. However, Italians have invented so many delicious spaghetti sauce recipes, it would be a shame not to give them a try.
Here are a three very popular suggestions you can try:
Carbonara is made with cream, eggs, Parmesan and diced bacon. Some carbonara recipes also call for green peas, usually added before the sauce is poured over the hot pasta.
Alfredo contains heavy cream, butter, grated Parmesan and ground black pepper.
Pesto is a green sauce made with fresh basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil.