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What Is Tomato Sauce?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 16, 2024
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In most countries, tomato sauce is a cooking sauce that is often a base for other sauces. The simplest tomato sauce is an uncooked, cold sauce, such as the Italian checca sauce. Other sauces are cooked, including the Italian arrabbiata sauce or marinara sauce. Generally, cooks prefer meaty, flavorful tomatoes, such as plum tomatoes, because juicier tomatoes tend to make watery sauces. Grocers sell tomato sauce in cans or jars, and home cooks often bottle tomato sauces or seal it in jars.

The tomato is actually a fruit, although many people consider it a vegetable. It is a New World native, so European and Asian cooks did not incorporate tomato into their cuisine until after the 1600s. One of the first countries to use tomato sauce was Italy, especially in southern Italy, where it remains a very popular pasta dressing.

There are several ways to make tomato sauce. The Italian sauce checca is an uncooked sauce similar to salsa. The cook finely dices tomatoes and mixes them with other ingredients, including olive oil and flavorings, such as basil. Another method is to use tomato paste and thin it with water. The most common method is to cook peeled, chopped tomatoes until they reach the desired consistency.

One of the most popular tomato sauces is ketchup, or catsup, which is a very popular condiment in some countries. Other popular sauces are pasta toppers, such as arrabbiata sauce that is similar to the ancient South American tomato sauces. Arrabbiata means "angry" in Italian, and this sauce is spicy because of the addition of dried chili pepper flakes during the cooking process. Tomato sauces are basic cooking sauces, and cooks often add their own combination of flavorings to liven up the sauces.

Sailors created marinara sauces because early ships lacked refrigeration. The tomato's high acid content kept the sauce fresh. The practice of not refrigerating low-acid tomato sauces is risky because bacteria begin to breed within minutes after a food reaches room temperature. Most tomato-based condiments, such as ketchup and steak sauces, have added acid to keep them fresh and add flavor.

A notable difference between tomato sauce and ketchup is that ketchup is a condiment, and sauces usually are integral parts of recipes. Although the sauces are tomato-based, sometimes cooks add other vegetables, such as zucchini, onions and carrots. In different regions, people call them gravies. In some places, including southern Africa and Great Britain, tomato sauces are ketchup-like condiments.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By bagley79 — On Aug 19, 2011

You have to allow some time and expect to do some chopping of vegetables, but the effort is always worth it to make a hearty, homemade tomato sauce.

Whenever I make a batch, I always make way more than I need so I can freeze the leftovers to use in other meals.

If I know I am going to be using ground beef in my pasta recipe, I will substitute any water in the recipe for tomato sauce with beef broth. This really makes the tomato sauce have a hearty flavor.

I serve this sauce with spaghetti and lasagna dishes and always get a lot of compliments.

By LisaLou — On Aug 18, 2011

Most nights I don't have much time to get a meal on the table, so whenever I have a pasta dish, I will use a store bought tomato pasta sauce. For the most part, my family is used to this and is what we use most of the time.

My dad can't eat regular tomatoes or pasta sauce because of the high acid content. He does not have any problem with the orange tomatoes though - only the dark red ones.

Home grown orange tomatoes taste much better than any kind of store bought tomatoes, but I still prefer the red ones over any other color.

One year I made a tomato sauce from some of the orange tomatoes he had planted. Once you let the sauce simmer down and add the right amount of flavoring, the sauce tasted much better than what I buy in the jar.

My dad was happy to enjoy a good pasta dish that he had not been able to eat in a long time.

By John57 — On Aug 17, 2011

One year when I had a bumper crop of tomatoes and ran out of people to give them to, I decided I would make my own homemade tomato sauce.

A friend of mine told me that she would put the tomatoes in a blender and then freeze this mixture in plastic bags. Once frozen, the bags laid nicely in the freezer and you could stack up quite a few of them without taking up too much space.

When I was ready to use this for sauce, I would place the paste in a crock pot on the lowest setting for several hours. I would also add whatever spices and seasonings such as garlic, oregano and onions during this time.

This is an easy way to make your own tomato sauce, and the flavor of the fresh tomatoes really comes through.

By tanner182 — On Aug 16, 2011

@zeak4hands - I have a lot of allergies to additives too, so I make my own tomato sauce.

Blend up a carrot, 64 ounces of crushed tomato, a melted stick of butter, a couple stalks of celery, a clove or two of garlic and finally, salt and pepper.

Blend it until it's smooth and then shimmer it on low for an hour. It comes out tasting like the store bought stuff only without all of those additives!

I use it on pasta, garlic bread and the base for a lot of my soups. Tomato is definitely one of my favorite flavors for dinner.

By zeak4hands — On Aug 16, 2011

I can't eat normal store bought tomato sauce -- it always has something I'm allergic to in it. I've been doing with out it but I really miss it.

I love tomatoes but I've never been able to make my own tomato sauce. It comes out watery and tasteless. I not sure what I'm supposed to use as tomato sauce ingredients, but I think I'm missing something.

Does anyone know how to make tomato sauce that has a lot of flavor to it? I wanted to use it on garlic bread and pizza.

By latte31 — On Aug 16, 2011

I wanted to add that I love cooking with fresh tomato sauce but unfortunately my husband can’t have anything with tomato sauce at night because it gives him acid reflux so I can only make tomato sauce for lunch with my pasta dishes on the weekends.

I also have to be careful with pizza too for the same reason. I try to make more tomato cream based sauces instead because it is not nearly as acidic and it tastes great too.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 15, 2011

@alisha-- I had never heard of that before, but that's great because I eat a lot of ketchup and tomato sauce.

Do you know if regular tomato sauces and ketchup work though? Wouldn't it have to be organic and without preservatives to be beneficial?

I'm sure regular tomato sauces still have benefits because it has the vitamins of the tomatoes. But I feel like having sauces with too much preservatives might do more harm than good. I guess making fresh tomato sauce at home from scratch is the best and most healthy option.

Did the article you read mention anything about that?

By discographer — On Aug 14, 2011

I have never been much of a fan of tomatoes or anything made with them. But I read an article recently that talked about the benefits of tomatoes.

It said that having tomatoes and tomato sauces with oily, fried, barbecued foods actually works to undo the damage done by these foods and helps prevent cancer.

I know that barbecue is carcinogenic, especially if parts of the meat are burned. This is also true for foods that are cooked in hot oil and previously used oil. I know that I should avoid these foods, but it's hard to avoid a hamburger and french fries.

I'm so happy to know that we can at least prevent some of the damage by adding some tomatoes and ketchup to our hamburger. I'm getting used to having tomatoes now too.

By ddljohn — On Aug 14, 2011

My family has roots in the Mediterranean region and I don't know if this is the reason, but we use tomato sauce in almost every dish that we make.

It is a must-have ingredient for all vegetable dishes, and is also used often when making rice, dolmas and meats.

One of the best ways to use tomato sauce is to use it instead of water when making rice. This is actually possible for all sorts of dishes where water is required. Tomato sauce adds such a nice flavor and the food never comes out bland.

We eat a lot of ketchup too, as a topping on pasta and as a sauce for fried foods.

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