One of the easiest and smartest ways to enjoy tomatoes is to cook up a simple sauce. Many of us have a favorite sauce recipe and there are many good paths to great sauce. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, a batch of tomato sauce misses the mark. It’s not awful, but it could be better. Try one or more of these ways to boost and correct a tomato sauce.
Remember: If you freeze some of your now spot-on sauce, be sure to taste it again after it thaws. Freezing tends to dull flavors, so it will likely need a little more corrective action before it’s used.
If the sauce holds promise, but is too thin and watery, simmer it gently until it reduces, which concentrates the flavors. Sometimes all a sauce needs is a little more time to pull itself together.
We know that the best sauce is made from meaty tomatoes with few watery seed pockets. However, if your tomatoes turn out to be less flavorful than you’d hoped and expected, add a spoonful or so of tomato paste to fill in the blanks.
Although it’s prudent to not salt aggressively at the start before the sauce has reduced and concentrated at all, always taste for salt at the end. Having said that, use a light touch if you know that your sauce will receive more cooking later or serve as an ingredient in another recipe, such as a meaty spaghetti sauce, because the other ingredients might add their own saltiness and seasoning to the finished dish.
A little sugar can make the rest of the flavors shine a little brighter, akin to adding vanilla to a chocolate cake. The goal is to amplify the natural sweetness of the tomatoes, not to turn the sauce sugary, so start with a pinch and work up if needed.
Flat or bland sauce likely needs a hit of something acidic to lift and enhance its flavors, such as a small splash of high-quality flavorful vinegar, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, or a few drops of not-too-fiery hot sauce. The goal is to taste the effect of the acid, not the acid itself, so add it judiciously and taste as you go. Many home cooks misperceive the need for acidity in a dish as a need for salt, so if you’ve already added more salt and the sauce is still flat, then a lack of acidity is the likely culprit.
If your tomato sauce is too acidic and verging on bitter, turn to baking soda, not sugar. Yes, sugar might make the sauce taste better, but good old baking soda is an alkaline that will help balance the excess acid. A little pinch should do the trick.
Some wan tomato sauces need a hit of the savory flavor we call umami, which you can get from a little bit of Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, or liquid aminos. You could also use soy sauce, so long as you’re sure it won’t make your sauce too salty.