From pasta to chilli con carne, a tin of plum tomatoes can go a long way

In our weekly Kitchen Essentials column Laoise Casey shares how to craft the perfect tomato sauce as a base for countless dishes

Perhaps one of the things I love most about a tomato sauce is how you can use it as a starting point for countless dishes. Spend a little bit of time getting the basic sauce right, then add some extra herbs and spices and for me that is pure simple kitchen magic.

I don’t always want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so I like to make a batch of the sauce at the weekend and then create different meals with it during the week.

Here I am using brown onions in this base recipe. But you can swap them for red onions or a combination of white and red ones for a sweeter sauce.

You can add various herbs e.g. thyme, rosemary, sage, depending on what dish the sauce is for. What about some chilli flakes or smoky paprika for a spicy kick? Try a splash of vinegar, like balsamic or chardonnay for a sharper taste. Lemon juice will also have the same, if slightly fresher, effect – squeeze into the pan just before serving.

How to make a tomato sauce

1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
3 tbsp olive oil, plus a little extra to drizzle on top
Pinch of sugar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 x 400g tinned plum tomatoes or 800g fresh tomatoes
Small handful basil leaves, torn
Sea salt, cracked black pepper


Wooden spoon

How to

Once the basic sauce is perfected, it's time to get a bit more creative

Heat the olive oil in a medium sized saucepan over a low heat. Season the onions then gently sweat them in the pan for 10 minutes or until soft and juicy (see how to sweat onions).  When they are soft I like to sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Next, increase the heat and cook out the tomato paste for a few minutes or until lightly caramelised – you will see the paste starting to split or separate out. Pour in the tinned or fresh tomatoes and stir with the wooden spoon to break them up. If you are using fresh tomatoes place them in a pan of boiling water for a few seconds, remove and peel then roughly chop.

Check the seasoning. Don’t add too much salt and pepper at this stage as you are now going to reduce the sauce. Simmer on a low heat for 40 minutes to an hour. Then adjust the seasoning as required. If you are going to eat the sauce straight away chuck in a handful of torn basil leaves and a glug of olive oil on top, if you like.

What to do if

If the sauce tastes too highly seasoned – don’t add too much seasoning at the start, season lightly as you go and always taste. If the sauce becomes too dry while reducing add some water, or vegetable stock if you have it. If the sauce has a bitter taste – the garlic may have been cooked on too high a heat. Try adding a splash of lemon juice to balance this out. Or a little knob of butter stirred through at the end.

You can then make

Pour the sauce over cooked penne pasta, dot with mascarpone and breadcrumbs then cook under the grill until bubbling for a quick pasta bake. Serve with a green salad with lots of cracked black pepper. Tomato sauce and meatballs are a happy pair. Try this lamb meatballs with rose harissa tomato sauce recipe (link to last week’s column).

Tomato sauce is the key ingredient in Shakshuka, a hearty Middle Eastern poached eggs dish 

Turn it into a soup, blitz with a hand blender and thin out with some water or vegetable stock. Stir through some spinach into the hot soup to wilt it just before eating. Then top with croutons and a little grated parmesan. Make some homemade beans on toast by heating through cannellini, butter beans or borlotti beans in the sauce. Serve on thickly sliced ciabatta with a nice hard cheese such as Montgomery cheddar. Go one step further and turn this into a bean and meat stew – merguez, chorizo, and pancetta will all work wonderfully together.

Aubergine and tomatoes are great friends. Roast an aubergine in half lengthways with lots of olive oil. Drizzle the sauce on the flesh side, some ricotta, a handful of pine nuts and cook under a hot grill for a few minutes. Ratatouille, shakshuka, lasagne, chilli con carne and pizza bases all begin with a basic tomato sauce.

One of my favourite ways is to gently poach a few eggs in the sauce in a low oven (140C). Then top with golden breadcrumbs, parsley and lemon zest. All scooped up with some crusty bread.

Next week’s kitchen essentials: How to make mayonnaise
For more tips follow Laoise Casey: Twitter @laoisecooks Instagram @laoisecooks