Pizza Sauce Tips from Jeff Varasano Himself

I feel like I’ve published a good many options here for pizza dough, so in an effort to provide you with a more in-depth pizza resource, I will be beginning to bring you sauce tips and recipes as well as any new dough information I may find. Since Jeff Varansano pretty much got me started my pizza journey, I thought I would bring you a small selection from his novelish site on his pizza process dealing with sauce specifically.

Oh! And as an aside, I noticed that Jeff has a photo with Keith Giusto from Central Milling about 3/4 of the way down his page… I told you that Central Milling flour was some good stuff! Take a tip from Jeff and I and pick up some Central Milling flour already!

Please to enjoy, sauce and tomato tips from Jeff Varasano:

  • Always buy Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes and crush them yourself.
  • Be careful of marketing tricks like cans that say Italian ‘Style’ instead of Italian. Italian Style means nothing. It’s subjective. If I grew tomatoes in Chernobyl I could still claim they are Italian Style.
  • Similarly there’s a San Marzano ‘Brand’ which is grown in CA. I hate marketing gimmicks like that. The put the word ‘brand’ so small that you can barely read it.
  • Shake every can as you buy it. If it sounds watery, it is likely to be more bitter. Try to get cans which sound more viscous.  The sound will vary a bit by season. They try to pick and pack in just one season, but still there are seasonal differences even within the same brand.
  • If you have a local tomato supplier, try those too.
  • One time I bought a jar of tomatoes at a farmers market – no can. These were hand packed and they had no tin can taste. They were excellent but all the major suppliers use cans.  Be on the lookout for jars someday…
  • If you want to go crazy and make your own, try ‘ugly ripe’ heirloom tomatoes. The taste of these are amazing and I use these when I need whole tomatoes.
  • When I open a can I taste it. Every can is a little different. About 10% of the cans I just throw out because they are too bitter and I put too much effort in the dough to waste it on a $2 can of bad tomatoes.
  • DON’T make a sauce. That is, don’t pre-cook the tomatoes. The tomatoes will cook on the pizza.  If you cook a sauce first, it will cook again on the psizza, turning it brown and yucky.  No need to make a sauce.  Look at how overcooked many sauces are. The best places don’t do this. This is actually the one step  in this whole process that you can save yourself some time.
  • I strain the seeds. This is really optional. If you do choose to do it, follow these steps, which seem obvious now, but took me a long time to flesh out:
    • Pour the can out into a bowl
    • Cut the green/yellow stem ends off the tomatoes with your hands or a paring knife, then discard.
    • Squeeze out the seeds into the puree and then Dip the tomato into the puree. You can even cut the tomato open to get out any remaining seeds, by essentially rinsing them with the puree.  This will have all the seeds fall into the puree.
    • Put the flesh back in the can
    • At the end of this process you have a can of flesh and a bowl of watery puree and seeds. Strain this, pouring the puree back into the can.  In the strainer are then 90% of the seeds, all by themselves. Discard the seeds.
  • Now crush the tomatoes. This is one of those areas where I made a recent change for the better and it’s really helped a lot. I used to crush the tomatoes by hand. But it was always a bit chunky. Now I blend them with an  immersion mixer (“boat motor”). I cannot tell you exactly why this has made a huge improvement  in the TASTE of the tomatoes, but it has. I’ve done side by side taste tests. The tomatoes should be crushed but not pur ed. Go Easy. I have nothing against using a food processor or mill, but I will say that you should not crush by hand.
  • Tomato Rinsing: All cans have some bitterness. You need some bitterness and you don’t want to strip all of it out. But if the can is too bitter it’s not good. I have a procedure I call tomato rinsing to remove some of the bitterness. But you have to taste the can and determine for yourself if it needs it. The better brands on my list don’t.  Here’s the Tomato Rinsing procedure: Strain the tomatoes in a fine mesh strainer..  If the mesh is fine, the water will be mostly clear with very little tomato escaping. If the water escaping is very red, pour it back on top of the tomatoes and continue straining. Eventually the water will run almost completely clear.  Here’s the key. The water that comes out is completely bitter. Taste it.  What I do is pour fresh water on top of the strained tomatoes and strain them again. Taste this second batch of water.  It’s also bitter but less so. You are removing bitterness and acid without losing a drop of red tomato. Instead you are replacing this bitter water with fresh water. You can repeat this several times if you like, but once or twice is usually fine. The net result is that what is left over, which is all the red tomato solids, is sooooo sweet and yummy.
  • Here are some other things you can do to remove the bitterness. But don’t go crazy adding tons of spices and things. It’s mostly just tomatoes.
    • Add some grated Romano cheese directly into the tomatoes.  I use Locatelli Romano. Some have criticized this, but I like it.
    • A bit of sugar will also help 1/4 – 1 teaspoon.  Taste and see.
    • A pinch of salt
    • A pinch of dried oregano, crushed by hand to release the oils
    • If you are used to putting garlic in your sauce, try these steps once without it.
    • Taste and taste
  • So you are removing and then adding back water. In the end though you should have less water than you started with. The total weight is probably about 1/3 less than you started with. But the exact amount of water you remove depends on the overall temperature of the oven and the temperature differential in the oven.. There is not much time in a hot oven to evaporate the sauce, so the hotter the oven, the drier the sauce must be going in.  But if the top differential is high, the sauce will evaporate too quickly and needs to start wetter. You have to test. Surprisingly, if the sauce is too dry, it’s not as sweet. You don’t want it soupy but don’t overstrain either. This will take real practice with your oven. Sometimes after the first pie I add more water to my sauce. Again, this is another area where recent improvements have really transformed the sauce. I think that when the sauce is chunky (hand crushed) it’s harder to get the amount of water right.
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