Brighten up your pasta with this zesty tomato sauce
Autumn is here in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means shorter days and cooler evenings. Time for comfort food, wouldn’t you say?
Fortunately, nothing is more comforting than a big plateful of pasta smothered in a rich tomato-based meat sauce. It’s a dish that kids and adults both like, and never tire of. Plus it’s fun to make.
With Columbus Day coming up in the US next Monday (October 13), we think it’s time to celebrate all things Italian. And what better way to do that than to cook up a big potful of meat sauce for pasta? Mamma mia, it’s good!
Recipe: Italian Meat Sauce for Pasta
It’s probably more accurate to call this dish Italian-American Meat Sauce—it contains a lot more meat than many “authentic” Italian sauces. It’s somewhat similar to Bolognese sauce (ragù alla bolognese), although that typically contains milk, carrots, and less tomato.
Exact measurements aren’t critical for this recipe. You can even add/subtract ingredients to suit your own taste. We’ve been making variations of this dish for decades, and continue to tinker with it. But the recipe presented here is the basic version we keep coming back to.
This dish takes some time to make: Prep time of least 30 minutes, plus cooking time of 2 to 3 hours (most of that unattended). So we usually make big batches of this sauce and freeze whatever we can’t immediately use. (This recipe yields about 3 quarts, so that means we freeze most of it). But it’s easy enough to make a smaller batch—see Notes for details.
- ~1½ pounds ground beef (chuck is what we prefer; see Notes)
- ~1½ pounds ground pork (or skip this ingredient and use all beef if you prefer)
- ~2 teaspoons Kosher salt for seasoning meat (or to taste; see Notes)
- ~2 cups onions, diced (2 or 3; yellow onions work well)
- 4 to 6 cloves garlic (to taste)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ~1 teaspoon additional Kosher salt for seasoning onions and garlic (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional; we sometimes omit this)
- 1 six-ounce can tomato paste
- 2 to 3 tablespoons dried oregano (to taste; may substitute marjoram if you prefer)
- ~3 tablespoons beef base (optional; see Notes)
- 2 to 3 cups dry red wine, such as chianti (optional; may substitute white wine if you prefer)
- 2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes
- 1 28-ounce can tomato purée (or just use 3 cans of plum tomatoes)
- 1 28-ounce can of water (or substitute beef broth if not using beef base)
- dried pasta of your choice—3 to 4 ounces dried pasta per serving (a ridged tubular pasta like rigatoni is our preference; see Notes)
- additional Kosher salt for seasoning pasta cooking water
- chopped fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley for garnish (optional)
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese as an accompaniment (optional)
- It speeds things up if you brown the meat in one pan, and sauté the onions in another. So begin by adding the meat to a very large frying pan (if you don’t have one large enough, you may need to do this in two batches). Place the pan on medium stovetop heat. Add salt to season the meat, then stir to incorporate the salt. It will take at least 10 minutes for the meat to brown; stir occasionally as it browns.
- Meanwhile, peel the onions and cut them into dice of about ½ inch. Peel the garlic, then mince it or slice finely.
- Heat a large cooking pot (at least 4 quarts; 5 or 6 quarts works better) on medium stovetop heat. When hot, add the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic, then season with salt to taste. Sauté until the onions are translucent but not browned (8 minutes or so).
- Once the onions are translucent, add the red pepper flakes (if using) and the tomato paste. Stir to combine, then cook for about 2 minutes.
- By now the meat should be browned. Using a slotted spoon (so you leave the grease behind), transfer the meat to the pot containing the onions and garlic. Add the oregano and beef base (if using) and stir to combine.
- Add the wine (if using; otherwise skip this step). Stir and cook until the wine has mostly evaporated. This will take 15 minutes or more (depending on how much wine you use). Keep an eye on the cooking pot and stir from time to time (if all the liquid evaporates, you risk scorching the bottom of the pot).
- At this point, you’ll add the plum tomatoes and tomato purée, if using, to the meat. When using whole tomatoes, we usually whirl them briefly in a blender or food processor to break them up a bit. Add the tomatoes and a can of water (or beef broth if not using beef base). Bring the meat sauce to a simmer, then reduce the stovetop heat so the sauce is just barely simmering. Partially cover the cooking pot, leaving a crack so the steam can escape. Simmer for 2 or 3 hours (longer is better). Stir the sauce every 20 to 30 minutes. If the sauce seems to be reducing too much, add some water. (And if you want a more liquidy sauce, by all means add additional water.)
- After about an hour or so of simmering, taste the sauce and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- When ready to serve, prepare the pasta according to package directions (salting the water adds flavor—use about a tablespoon per 4 quarts of water). Cook the pasta until it’s almost al dente, then remove a cup of the pasta water (just dip it out with a measuring cup—exact quantity not important) and reserve it. Drain the cooked pasta into a colander, then add the pasta back to its empty cooking pot. Place the pasta pot over very low heat and spoon in as much sauce as you like (probably ½ cup to 1 cup per serving, depending on how saucy you like your pasta). If the pasta sauce is too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta cooking water to achieve the consistency you like. Continue cooking the pasta in sauce over low heat until the pasta is al dente. This takes maybe a minute—stir often so the pasta sauce doesn’t burn.
- Garnish the pasta and sauce with chopped fresh basil or parsley if you like, and serve. Place a bowl of freshly grated Parmesan on the table so people can add cheese if they like.
- If you want to make a smaller batch of this sauce, it’s easy to do. The basic ratio is 1 pound of meat to one 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Reduce the onion, garlic, and other ingredients proportionally. So for a pound of meat and one 28-ounce can of tomatoes, use maybe ¾ cup onion, a couple cloves of garlic, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, a couple tablespoons of tomato paste (for small quantities, tubes of tomato paste work well), a scant cup of wine, plus 2 or 3 teaspoons of oregano.
- We like to use equal parts ground beef and ground pork in this dish. But you may prefer more beef and less pork (perhaps a ratio of 2 pounds beef to 1 pound pork). Or even all beef.
- Which cut of beef to use for this dish? We think ground chuck has the most flavor, so that’s what we prefer.
- When you add salt to the meat and onions as they cook, you’re also seasoning them. Usually this means you’ll need less salt overall.
- Kosher salt is less “salty” than the regular table variety (because it’s more voluminous). So if you’re using regular table salt, use about half the amount called for in this recipe.
- When making this sauce, we generally use a mix of canned whole Italian plum tomatoes and tomato purée to get the flavor and texture we like. But you can use all whole tomatoes—or all tomato purée. Whole tomatoes break down as they cook, but not completely; so we briefly whirl them in the blender or food processor before adding them to the meat (Step 7). Alternatively, after the sauce is cooked, we use a stick blender to break up any big chunks of tomato.
- This recipe calls for beef base, which is essentially condensed beef stock in a paste form. We prefer the Better Than Bouillon brand (most supermarkets carry it), but there are other good brands too. (BTW, we aren’t compensated for mentioning this—or any other—brand; it’s what we like and buy with our own money.)
- By adding beef base to the meat (Step 5) and then cooking it with wine, you help enhance the flavor of the meat. But if you don’t want to use beef base, just substitute beef stock for water in Step 7.
- Some cooks like to add a bit of sugar to pasta sauce right at the end to sweeten it up (and reduce its acidity). We don’t consider this necessary, but feel free to do so if you find it improves the flavor.
- Alternatively, you could dice up a couple of carrots and add them to the onions in Step 3. Carrots are naturally sweet, and that may provide all the sweetness you need.
- We find that pasta with a “hefty” shape works best for this dish. A ribbed tubular pasta like rigatoni or ziti is ideal.
- As noted above, this recipe makes too much sauce to use at one time (unless you’re feeding a big crowd). So we freeze extra sauce in two-cup containers, which provide a perfect serving size for 2 people (we usually figure on 4 ounces of dried pasta per serving—so 8 ounces total for two; and we like our pasta saucy, so we use about a cup of sauce per serving).
“Wow, it’s been ages since we’ve had this meat sauce,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, digging into her plate of pasta.
“Way too long,” I agreed. “We’ve been making so many other great pasta dishes.”
“Yeah, like your Pasta with Quick Tomato and Bacon Sauce,” said Mrs K R. “That’s one of my favorites.”
“And Cacio e Pepe,” I said. “That’s become a go-to dish for us.”
“Your Pasta Puttanesca is delicious too,” said Mrs K R. “And your Penne alla Vodka is outstanding.”
“Don’t forget the Pasta Caprese we did in August,” I said. “Another tasty dish.”
“And there’s more!” said Mrs K R. “But I’m too hungry to list them all.”
“Me too,” I said. “Less talk, more eating.”
Happy Columbus Day!
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