- Characteristics of a commercial pasta sauce like ragu
- 1. Tomato Paste Base
- 2. Dried Herbs and Spices
- 3. Sugar Content
- 4. Thickness
- Takeaways For Our Homemade Sauce
- Notes on this pasta sauce recipe
- 1. Added Tomato Paste
- 2. Pressure Canning
- 3. Modifications
- Real Talk: How Close Is This To Ragu?
- Printable Recipe: Homemade Pasta Sauce For People Who Like Ragu
In my role as a guest Expert Council member on The Survival Podcast, I received the following question from Matthew:
Can you please recommend a recipe for homemade spaghetti sauce without oregano? I love to grow tomatoes and I love homemade spaghetti sauce. My problem is my wife is very picky about spaghetti sauce. She will only eat Ragu from the store.
My wife absolutely despises oregano and really doesn’t like basil. So therein lies my dilemma. If you could please give me a recipe that omits oregano and is low on the basil I’d appreciate it because I haven’t found one in the past 5 years.
Okay, although I am personally not a fan of commercial sauces like Ragu compared to homemade pasta sauces, I do love a challenge! So I was happy to take a stab at developing a homemade pasta sauce that would appeal to folks who prefer that commercial sauce flavor.
Characteristics of a commercial pasta sauce like ragu
First things first: what makes a sauce like Ragu different from your typical homemade, seasoned tomato sauce? I picked up a jar of Ragu Traditional from the store to find out.
1. Tomato Paste Base
In reading the ingredient label, the first thing that stood out is that the sauce is made from tomato paste. In other words, the people at the Ragu factory don’t make their sauce by boiling down massive quantities of fresh tomatoes. They take already processed tomato paste and thin the paste out with water, then add spices and flavorings.
A good analogy here would making orange juice from concentrate but using only half the called for water, vs. squeezing oranges fresh for juice and reducing by half. You’re just going to get a very different flavor and texture when you start from a concentrated, smooth, pre-cooked-down base.
The tomato paste base impacts the color as well as the flavor of the sauce. Instead of the standard bright orangey-red of a homemade tomato sauce, the Ragu is a very dark red, almost like ketchup.
2. Dried Herbs and Spices
The second big thing I noticed is that the vegetables and spices in the sauce were all dried – including things like the onion. This made a difference to the mouth feel of the sauce. Unlike fresh onions, which become very soft after a long simmer, the dried onions in the Ragu had a toothsome quality even after whatever processing the commercial sauce underwent.
3. Sugar Content
The third big observation about this commercial pasta sauce is that it was quite sweet. There was hardly any noticeable acidity to Ragu sauce, and when I checked the label, sugar was very high up the ingredient list.
All tomatoes have some natural acidity, but the addition of lots of extra sugar will change the perceived flavor balance to something less tangy, and more smooth and sweet like the Ragu.
My fourth observation – not really a surprise given that this sauce is basically a thinned down tomato paste – was the thickness of the sauce. The Ragu was closer in texture to what I think of as a thick pizza sauce than a pasta sauce The Ragu stands up on the spoon, and is notably slow to pour out of the jar.
Takeaways For Our Homemade Sauce
If we want to win over folks who love that commercial style pasta sauce flavor, we need a homemade sauce with:
- A long-cooked, thick texture
- Moderately high levels of added sugar
- Minimal added acid
In general, making an appealing sauce for fans of store-bought Ragu is going to be less about oregano or specific spices, and more about duplicating the thickness and the round, mildly sweet flavor of a commercial sauce.
But, keeping in mind Matthew’s wife’s preferences, I did keep this particular pasta sauce oregano-free and fairly low in basil. As with all canning recipes you can swap out dry herbs and spices to your hearts content, with absolutely no effect on safety.
Notes on this pasta sauce recipe
1. Added Tomato Paste
I add commercial tomato paste to this recipe. There’s two reasons for this.
First, it will take you all flipping day to reduce 30 pounds of tomatoes down to something even close to commercial sauce thickness. A little help from the commercial tomato paste will get you to a thick sauce far faster and easier.
Second, the tomato paste helps add a little of that long-cooked, caramelized, paste-like flavor to the sauce. Think of it as pouring in a little orange juice concentrate into your pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice, just to help ease the transition from commercial to homemade flavors.
2. Pressure Canning
I’m calling for this sauce to be pressure canned. I developed this recipe by modifying a recipe that called for pressure canning originally, so that’s what I’m comfortable recommending.
Pressure canning also allows this sauce to be safely canned without the addition of citric acid or lemon juice, which would change the flavor of the sauce to something less like the smooth, mild flavor of the commercial sauce. (This is not a blanket statement about pressure canning tomatoes – I’m only speaking about this particular sauce.)
However, according to the Fresh Preserving website – which is the website of the Ball Canning Company – a recipe that is, at its core, very similar to this one can be water bath canned if 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or 1/2 tsp of granular citric acid are added to every quart jar before processing.
If you go the water bath canning route with this recipe, you’ll want to dramatically reduce the oil down to 1.5 tablespoons, make sure you don’t increase low acid ingredients like onion or garlic at all, acidulate your jars with bottled lemon juice or citric acid according to standard tomato water bath canning procedures, and process quart jars 40 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.
Again, as this recipe is written, it must be pressure canned.
As mentioned, you can modify dry herbs all you want. I think the herbs called for here will get you very close to that Ragu flavor without any specific herbal flavors really standing out.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “oh this sauce sounds good but actually I love oregano” go ahead and add some. You can add, remove, modify or substitute dry herbs as much as you want. This includes thyme, bay, black pepper, oregano, chili flakes – whatever you might prefer in your pasta sauce.
Similarly, you can reduce the sugar or salt in this base recipe. Because I’m deliberately aiming for a commercial style sauce, both sugar and salt levels are quite high. If you are on a reduced sugar or sodium diet, you can cut either way down. Or – if your tastebuds are a little crazy – you could increase them, too.
The only thing I can’t recommend playing around with, from a safety perspective, is a change or addition of low-acid ingredients like onions, garlic, etc. Even though this recipe is pressure canned, the total processing time may not be long enough if you start adding additional low acid ingredients.
Real Talk: How Close Is This To Ragu?
Despite hours of simmering, I wasn’t able to fully duplicate that long-cooked, slightly metallic tomato paste flavor you get with Ragu. Doubling or even tripling the tomato paste would get the sauce closer, if that’s important to you. But then at a certain point, you should just buy Ragu, know what I mean?
So, this is not a full-on copycat recipe. However, I did manage to create a thick, slightly sweet sauce with very little noticeable acidity that plays in the same category as a commercial pasta sauce. After fiddling and simmering and more fiddling and more simmering, I A/B tested the results of this sauce and the store bought Ragu.
To my palette, the homemade sauce is fresher, slightly less viscous (but still thick), and has a bit more texture than Ragu. My kids, aged 13 and 6, both declared that they preferred the homemade sauce. They praised the texture as better than Ragu and liked the sweetness of the sauce.
I think that if you, your kids, or a family member prefer a mild, thick, store bought sauce, this is a great homemade alternative and possibly a way to start transitioning to more homemade options.
Printable Recipe: Homemade Pasta Sauce For People Who Like Ragu
Note: you can listen to the audio version of my response to Matthew on The Survival Podcast Episode 2030.