Up Your Sauce Game

I never ate tomato sauce of any kind as a kid. The reason: Onions are disgusting… and poisonous to my body. They’re in everything, including tomato sauces. Just about any sauc-ianado will tell you onions are a key ingredient. I disagree. Because I cannot eat onions, I have spent the last two decades making my own sauce, and it’s pretty damn good.

I cooked my first sauce as a $7.25-an-hour cook back in Michigan during my college days. I worked for an Italian family who owned a pretty basic sports bar. The decor? Basic. The drinks? Basic. The burger? Basic. But the tomato sauce? It was solid.

The family owned several restaurants in the Detroit and Lansing areas. They shared a common recipe, which had a few secret tricks. I worked the early shift, and thus created the sauce. It was serviceable, but not great. Then the grandfather showed me a few of his family’s tricks, some of which I still use. I know they work, because the first day I made the sauce, people were buying cups of it to take home.

My recipe changes every time I make a tomato sauce because I like to experiment. Here’s a recipe that features a few tricks I picked up over the years, that may help give your sauce a little extra flavor.

Tomato Sauce & Meatballs


Tomato Sauce Ingredients:

  • 4 28oz cans/boxes of crushed and diced tomatoes
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 steak
  • 1 slice bacon
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 cups spinach, minced
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 cups mushrooms, halved or quartered
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil (can be substituted with dry basil), chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano (can be substituted with dry oregano), chopped
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste

Tomato Sauce Recipe

  1. Cook the bacon at medium heat. I used a stainless steel stock pot for this recipe. Sometimes I go with a cast iron dutch oven for a thicker, darker sauce like a ground lamb ragu.
  2. Once the bacon is cooked, remove it. Go ahead, eat it. You can also chop the bacon and leave it in the sauce. My wife doesn’t like the flavor it adds. You’ll find chopped pancetta is much better to leave in the sauce, but it’s also much more expensive.
  3. Crank the heat and cook your peppers for one minute. Remove them and turn the heat back to medium. I like to absorb some of the bacon flavor, but I don’t want my peppers getting soggy, so I limit their cooking time.
  4. Cook the garlic for one minute. I know Paulie in Goodfella’s likes his garlic sliced paper-thin, but in the absence of onion, I prefer chunkier garlic pieces. Also, some people like to add the basil and oregano here. I prefer to add dried herbs the moment after the tomato sauce hits the pot. If I’m using fresh herbs, I put them in with about a half hour left to cook.
  5. Pour the tomatoes into the pot. This time I used Pomi tomatoes; two diced, two crushed. I do like San Marzano tomatoes, but they can be expensive. In San Francisco I actually preferred Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, which were grown in Northern California — they are delicious and affordable. I finally found them in Portland at New Seasons, and will switch back to them for my next sauce, chili, or pasta e fagioli — whichever comes first.
  6. Stir in your minced spinach. This is something I do. I’m not sure anyone else does. I think the spinach gives the sauce an earthy flavor, much like grass-fed beef when compared to hay-fed beef. I mince the spinach so fine that it almost disappears in the sauce. No one wants a mouthful of slimy, unchopped spinach.
  7. Submerge the steak. This is one of those touches that I learned from the Italian family. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Red meat has a lot of flavor to share. It seeps into the sauce. I usually find the cheapest steak, but this time I went a little too cheap. My $3.25 cross rib steak didn’t seep as much as I wanted, but my sauce still benefited from its presence. The best part is eating the tender steak five hours after it hits the sauce.
  8. Stir in the tomato paste. I go back and forth on using tomato paste. There are definitely times I know my sauce needed its sweet kick, but that’s usually when I’m forced to use mediocre tomatoes.
  9. Cook for several hours, stirring occasionally. Time = flavor. I like to cook my sauce up to six hours. Of course, this all depends on how much time I have. This batch I just had three hours to spare and it turned out fantastic. While the sauce cooking, don’t be too anxious to stir. If it looks soupy at the top, you know the flavors are commingling exactly how you want. That said, make sure you don’t let them commingle too long, and burn the bottom of your sauce.
  10. With an hour left, stir in your chopped basil and oregano. I have no personal evidence that there is a proper time to add them. Let me know your method.
  11. With a half hour left, stir in the peppers and mushrooms. I like my peppers and shrooms to give the sauce a little pop of freshness. If you add them too early, they soften and shrink. Whatever you do, do not use canned mushrooms. Their pre-softened forms are missing that good, earthy flavor I like.
  12. With 15 minutes left, stir in the meatballs. I don’t add them too early, because I like to ensure they stay moist. See below for my meatball recipe.


Meatball Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp parsley, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
  • 1/2 cup panko or breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Meatball Recipe

  1. Heat the oven to 350.
  2. Combine the ground meats in a large bowl. I like this combination of beef and pork. Feel free to switch it up, or throw veal into the mix. Pork and veal add a lot of flavor.
  3. Mix in the garlic. I do this all by 0  [0hand, because washing the KitchenAid is such a pain.
  4. Form the meat into a bowl of its own. You want to make sure the ingredients get folded into the meat for a more thorough mix.
  5. Add the salt, pepper, parsley, and eggs. We don’t need much salt, because the cheese will already have some. I prefer not to beat or whip the eggs.
  6. Pour in the water.
  7. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the water. Then sprinkle the panko/breadcrumbs over the cheese. This is key. You want to add the cheese in between the water and breadcrumbs as a chaperone. Trust me, if those two get to dirty dancing, your meatballs will most likely come out dry.
  8. Mix the meat together into lemon-sized balls. Sometimes I go smaller to make them easier to distribute, but the larger ones tend to be juicier.
  9. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pan that can be used in an oven. Cook the meatballs until they’re browned all over. I prefer olive oil to vegetable oils because it’s healthier. That said, feel free to also use bacon here. We’re just browning the meatballs, not fully cooking them.
  10. Bake the meatballs for 25 minutes in the oven. Let them cool for at least five minutes before adding them to the sauce. If you don’t have a frying pan that can go into the oven, use a cookie sheet. I use a 15″ Lodge cast iron pan that I love.
  11. Serve the meatballs and sauce with spaghetti. My wife likes to eat it on zucchini that’s been pastafied through a Spiralizer. That works for me. Of course, I don’t let her ruin my sauce with her Trader Joe’s Red Lentil Sedanini. It tastes like soiled tree bark.

sauce12     sauce21

Try out this version of my sauce. Let me know what you think. My daughter seemed to love it.


And please, experiment. I do. This recipe does not feature some ingredients I like to play with, including olive oil, red wine, red pepper flakes, pancetta (as a starter), ground lamb, or whole Italian sausage (use it as a flavor booster like the steak). Let me know what tricks you have that I could incorporate into my sauce repertoire. Thanks for reading!

– Brendan Knapp


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