If there’s one surefire way to impress your guests, it’s to make your own tomato sauce from scratch. There’s something really satisfying in knowing that your guests are chowing down on something that you made from fresh ingredients!
But whenever I do want to make homemade tomato sauce, there’s one thing that I struggle with: how to thicken up tomato sauce! Whenever I make tomato sauce at home from scratch, I encounter this problem because tomatoes have a high moisture content and cooking tomatoes releases all that moisture into the sauce. This is frustrating enough that there are times when I just give up and buy a jar of tomato sauce.
Of course, I’m not knocking those who use the store-bought stuff. Whenever I’ve got a hectic schedule, nothing beats the convenience of opening a ready-made jar of tomato sauce and adding some spices and wine to produce a perfectly acceptable sauce.
However, there are times when “perfectly acceptable” just isn’t enough, especially when you’re talking about special occasions. Whenever those roll around, you can bet that I’ll be slaving away to make my own tomato sauce from scratch whether it’s for pasta, pizza, or something like an eggplant parmesan.
Do you have a special occasion coming up? Great, because I’m about to teach you how to make rich, delicious, and thick homemade tomato sauce.
The Curious Case of “American” Tomato Sauce
Here’s something that you might have noticed with American tomato sauces: there is no “one” recipe that you can use! It’s pretty easy to make Italian, French, or English tomato sauces because there are classic recipes for each, but American tomato sauces differ from one region to another. The recipes will even differ between households! From my personal experience, I found that American tomato sauces differ in the same way that barbecue sauces do: some are tangy, some are sweet, and some are thick and chunky. Some sauces might have a stock base while others have wine. It all depends on personal preference!
While this makes for a delicious and varied experience if you’re trying different recipes of tomato sauces around the USA, it can also be a bit frustrating if you’re trying to find a standard one to use if you want a certain consistency.
At least we can all agree that no one wants a watery, bland-tasting sauce, right? We want a rich, thick sauce that we can smother on a pizza, pasta, or whatever dish we have on the dinner table.
Now the question is, how do you get that thick, rich consistency?
The Easiest Way to Thicken a Tomato Sauce
If you don’t have the time to worry about how to thicken homemade tomato sauce, the easiest way to thicken your sauce is by adding tomato paste. Store-bought tomato pastes are basically thick flavor additives that will add a lot of tomato solids into your sauce without adding too much additional liquid, thus allowing you to thicken up your sauce quickly and easily.
However, there is one drawback to using tomato sauce. Store-bought sauces generally come with their own spices, seasonings, and thickening agents. These additional ingredients can alter the taste of your dish so you might get the consistency that you want but you might end up with a dish that tastes completely different!
It would be helpful to test a brand of tomato paste that you have not used before on a smaller batch so that you will have an idea of what the final dish will taste like and if you can tweak the dish.
What If I Don’t Want to Use Tomato Paste?
If you don’t want to use tomato paste, there are two ways that you can thicken up your homemade tomato sauce that will not affect the flavor: add a starchy ingredient or reduce the amount of liquid in the sauce.
There are several sources of starch that you can use to thicken a tomato sauce, such as:
1. Pasta Water
After cooking pasta, you might notice that the water you used has gone cloudy. This is the starch that was drawn out of the pasta! The leftover pasta water is an amazing thickening agent that you can add to your tomato sauce to help thicken it up. Before draining your pasta, scoop out one cup of the pasta water and set it aside to add to your tomato sauce.
Cornstarch is easy to use, and you only need a small amount to thicken up a batch of tomato sauce. For each cup of tomato sauce, you only need one T. of cornstarch.
While you can add in the cornstarch directly into the tomato sauce, it’s easier to incorporate if you make it into a slurry before adding. To make a slurry, combine equal amounts of cold water to cornstarch and mix well until you produce a smooth paste. Make sure to cook the cornstarch thoroughly so that you don’t get any raw cornstarch taste or texture in your tomato sauce.
For experienced cooks, using a roux is a great way to thicken up tomato sauces especially for use in pizza. A roux is a combination of flour and fat (usually butter) that’s been mixed and cooked off until it no longer tastes like flour.
The fat in a roux helps create a creamy and rich texture in your tomato sauce.
4. Mashed potatoes
If you have any leftover mashed potatoes, you can use them to thicken up your tomato sauce! The starch in the mashed potatoes will thicken up the sauce significantly, and you will end up with a thick and creamy, albeit sweeter, tomato sauce.
Reducing the Liquid
When you reduce the liquid in your tomato sauce, you not only remove much of the excess water, you’ll also intensify the flavors of the sauce. You can leave the tomato sauce to simmer over low heat for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning.
You can speed up the process by using a large saucepan, or even a sauté pan or frying pan. The larger surface area will help heat up the tomato sauce faster and more evenly.
If you’re making traditional marinara sauce, you don’t need to thicken the sauce, but many “American” tomato sauces have a thick, chunky texture that can only be achieved by reducing the liquid.
You can also consider reducing the liquid from the tomatoes themselves! Before cooking down the tomatoes in your sauce, you can throw them on the grill with some olive oil and spices. This helps remove the water and intensify the tomato flavor, while adding flavor from whatever spices you use.
Which Way is the Best?
Just like with American tomato sauces, there is no “one” best way to thicken up a tomato sauce. It will depend on the consistency you want, the flavor profile you are trying to achieve, and the dish that you will use the tomato sauce on.
Most people find that a combination of the methods works well for them. First, they add a small amount of their preferred starch. Next, add a small amount of tomato paste to amp up the tomato flavor and spices. Finally, simmering the tomato sauce and allowing it to reduce to get that final desired consistency.
The key is to keep tasting your tomato sauce as you go, especially if you’re adding starchy ingredients. While you won’t taste the starchy ingredients in small amounts, you might mistakenly add too much and affect the flavor of the dish.
If you add too much starch, you can add more tomatoes, spices, or herbs to help reset the flavors of your homemade tomato sauce.
That’s it! Do you have any tips or ideas on how to thicken homemade tomato sauce that we might have missed? Make sure to let us know in the comments!