Perfecting the Sauce: My Recipe for an Artesan Style Italian Pizza Sauce

We all want to serve a stunning gourmet pizza to our guests, but do you sometimes get the feeling you are iterating toward something you may never achieve.  The secret is in the sauce (and a number of other things).  In this post I’m attempting to move the reader up a level in their artisan pizza baking.  Let’s talk about sauce.

But first, let me help set the scene as it looks for me.  It is Summer 2013 – and I’ve acquired a couple of books on building pizza ovens.  Many of my friends and neighbours now know I’m committed to the pizza oven build in my yard.  I’ve read hundreds of pages of manuals, watched tens of videos on building pizza ovens, I’ve researched the local builders merchants for materials, and I’m nearly ready to begin – just decided on the site within the garden, and trying to work out how to comply with local “smokeless city” regulations.  As a meticulous former scientist, I’m going to have thought everything through before I being.  Perhaps building the oven should be another blog post. In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my pizza sauce, and as promised in November 2012 – here it is.

Firstly, I have a strong belief that the single most differentiating factor between most pizza sauces and the sauces we taste in good pizza restaurants is garlic.  How you deal with the garlic is key.  I reject garlic powder, any form of garlic oil or pre-prepared garlic in this process.  The second factor is the right good tomatoes: use San Marzano type (these are *sauce* tomatoes – see previous post) or the best Italian tomatoes you can buy.  Finally, I don’t use fresh tomatoes – only tinned.  One day I may switch, but as the current cost of getting fresh San Marzano tomatoes delivered to my house would also pay for a nice meal at a good restaurant, that’s one false economy too far for me.

There are four main ingredients in my pizza sauce, and an optional extra or three, if you are feeling like being a bit deviant.  I’m going to try to explain what the extras do, but I strongly suggest you don’t do anything but the simple version before so you understand what each extra can do for your sauce.  Another philosophical point: we are not cooking a sauce, we are putting the component parts together and using heat to help combine them: do not boil this sauce on the hob for 5 minutes, nevermind 40 minutes – and please don’t freeze it – make it from scratch at each deployment.

Chopped garlic

How thin to chop the garlic

First stage: chop some good garlic into thin slices – not so fine it is translucent, and don’t use elephant garlic, the kind you get from an ethnic minimarket, that peels easily.  I use two cloves per 400g or 440g (14oz) tin.  If like me, “chop thinly” is a meaningless instruction – I’ve taken a photograph of how thin I actually chop the garlic.  Sorry no scale!

The next job is to slightly cook the garlic in good olive oil.  As we’re going to largely disguise the flavour in a tomato sauce, we are now entitled to use low end extra virgin olive oil.  Cover the bottom of a small saucepan with olive oil, and use a steel saucepan (or other light coloured pan) because you are going to slightly cook the garlic very very carefully.  Add the sliced garlic to the saucepan, and submerge every slice in the oil.  Now put the pan on the lowest heat.

Slices of garlic cooking in olive oil

Slices of garlic cooking in olive oil

Immediately open the tin of tomatoes.  We are going to use this as a quencher, to quench the heat of the oil now starting to warm the garlic slices.  Watch the garlic slices very carefully, with the totality of your senses.  You are watching for colour changes in the garlic.  We want the garlic to change colour from its native state (see photograph above) to an opaque white, and to nearly get to the point of turning very light yellow – but we don’t want it to be light yellow.  The flavour we are aiming for in the sauce is of just cooked garlic.  Other mortals may wish to taste other flavours, and some people may wish to use completely uncooked garlic, others may cook the garlic until it is golden yellow.  For me these options are heresy.  So, at the point you think the garlic is white – dump in the tomatoes – the entire tin, and stir with a wooden spoon so that the average temperature in the vicinity of your precious garlic slices is once again ambient, and not hot oil temperature.  In tandem, the flame must go off.  Once the heat is quenched, and the flame is off on the cooker, a generous pinch of salt can be added.   By pinch, I mean a good big grab of salt flakes from some wonderful French artisan salt source – I like Sel de Guérande which you can sometimes get a Sainsbury’s or order direct.  You don’t use much salt in your cooking, and this is really an ingredient worth spalshing out on.  Sod table salt and the sodium hexacyanoferrate it contains –  it is used in tanning, ore flotation and as an arc stabilizer in welding – see HazMap, worse still expose it to UV light and table salt releases cyanide – table salt just isn’t a food product.  Get a good salt which contains naturally high potassium, as well as the sodium which might contribute to heart disease.

A picture of a masher about mash some tomatoes in a sautee pan

Mashing tomatoes to make a pizza sauce

At this point I used an old potato masher to crush the tomatoes (and smash the garlic) into a sauce.  This also seems to help mix the oil into the tomatoes evenly.  I’ve included a photograph to illustrate how things look, and to give you an idea of what my trusty 1970’s potato masher looks like.

So, now let’s get deviant.  My three evil additions are oregano, red wine vinegar, and paprika.

Firstly, I generally use dried oregano even though I have fresh in the raised bed a few metres from the kitchen, but I’m using dried oregano bought in Greece.  It seems to be more pungent that the stuff being peddled by UK supermarkets.  My preferences when using oregano is to sprinkle a good pinch on the pizza as the final ingredient before cooking.

A dash of red wine vinegar in the sauce will add a little interest, acidity and might like to be balanced by a pinch of sugar.  Finally, a couple of teaspoons of (recently acquired) paprika will add an intenseness, sweetness and colour which is usually a plus, but I wouldn’t use it every time.  An experiment in deviance might be to use Pimentón de La Vera, a paprika derived from a slightly hot and smoky pepper, which will likely work beautifully with artisan prepared chorizo.

That’s all for now folks, in the next post about pizza, I’ll give you a tip about another use for garlic in the preparation of a fine artisan pizza – so stay posted and follow this blog!

Good luck with your sauce – post comments about how you got on…

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About jonnyr9

I'm an enthusiastic amateur "scientific" cook and baker, and former scientist, and I like to bring scientific thinking to my cooking: thinking about what might be happening at a chemical or biological level during food preparation (including its growth, and preservation), and applying exact methods of mass and volume to core recipes, before varying them. I use an accurate weighing scale (to 0.1g). I like growing my own herbs, constructing my own raised beds, and constructing my own wood-fired pizza oven. I bring a certain level of OCD to the kitchen, and therefore my baking includes sourdough, and my pizza-making includes "reference" to the protected specifications for true pizza. If I can source "the right" ingredients for a dish, I will at almost any length (within reason) - before I find an equivalent in-country supplier. Therefore - if you've never eaten Lancashire cheese bought at Bury market near Manchester - you've never eaten Lancashire cheese. I'm going to try to include links to the same products I use in my blog, so my readers don't end up using sub-standard alternatives - "experimental replication" is key to scientific cooking. I was born in the North of England, but I live in the South, though I would prefer to live on an island in the Ionian Sea.
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2 Responses to Perfecting the Sauce: My Recipe for an Artesan Style Italian Pizza Sauce

  1. Leila Rivé says:

    Hi Jon, makes me feel like pizza !! Now this is interesting, I have ALWAYS cooked my sauce till it evaporates considerably (for thickness and smoothness), cutting out the tomatoes before pouring them into the pan. But then I have never tried San Marzano (now I believe this is heretical to you ;). I’ll give it a try with the potato masher, I promise !
    PS : as for garlic, there is a common belief here, that you should remove garlic germs beforehand, for happier digestibility ! Love, and thanks for this appetising post. Leila

    Like

  2. Leila Rivé says:

    Following your post – Tried the (garden sourced) oregano version yesterday (your way as far as I can go), poured into emptied halves of steam cooked round courgettes as a main dish – a relish for all the family 😉
    I liked the specifications about the colour of garlic, and you definitely have converted me to the potato smasher !!!

    Like

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