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I have never succeeded from making great tomato sauce using our native tomatoes and the final product always tastes flat. When I eat the tomato, there is always 0 hints of sweetness in them and not much juice comes out of it. Just by looking at the color, it may be simply poor quality farming as we live in a 3rd world country.

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I have never been able to find tomatoes looking very vibrant red here.

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So I always end up using packaged tomato sauce and add spices/meat to them instead of making them fresh because it never tastes as good.

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    I don't see how your country being "3rd world" would hurt the quality of your tomatoes. Tomatoes have been cultivated since at least 500 BC, well before the invention of modern industrial farming practices. And generally speaking, "first world farming" doesn't necessarily make food taste better; it just allows farmers to grow and harvest more food per unit of land, or to do it with less manual labor, which makes the food cheaper.
    – MJ713
    Nov 8, 2021 at 0:46
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    Unless you have access to excellent tomatoes it will always be better to use a good canned product.
    – eps
    Nov 8, 2021 at 3:33
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    @eps I bought a 12 pack of San Marzano 400g cans off Amazon. It's a bit more expensive than the stuff at the supermarket, but you can taste the difference. I do add a couple teaspoons of sugar, but I probably don't need to. Plus there's no need to peel! Nov 8, 2021 at 10:57
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    "So I always end up using packaged tomato sauce and add spices/meat to them instead of making them fresh because it never tastes as good." -- nothing wrong with that at all. Preservation methods such as canning exist exactly because ('even' in 21st Century first world countries etc.) we can't have the best fresh year-round. It's not easy to beat quality canned, because it can be canned so quickly after picking, hardly any time for them to damage or spoil. (I'm assuming by 'packaged tomato sauce' you do mean chopped tomatoes or passata, not a pre-made & flavoured 'pasta sauce'?)
    – OJFord
    Nov 8, 2021 at 11:36
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    @MJ713 mb the good stock is exported Nov 8, 2021 at 12:33

9 Answers 9

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I have never succeeded from making great tomato sauce using our native tomatos and the final product always tastes flat. When I eat the tomato, there is always 0 hints of sweetness in them and not much juice comes out of it. Just by looking at the color, it may be simply poor quality farming as we live in a 3rd world country.

Living in the US (supposedly a first-world country), I’ve had the same issues with most store-bought brands of tomatoes. The issue isn’t how they’re grown, it’s two specific aspects related to them being sold commercially in grocery stores:

  • The varieties typically sold are ones which have been actively bred to maximize shelf life and allow for growing year-round in greenhouses. This is, to some extent, at odds with getting good flavor.
  • Even with that optimization for shelf life, tomatoes still have a relatively short shelf life, so the ones shipped to stores are usually shipped under-ripe (they’re more durable this way and have a longer shelf life), and often are either not let ripen at all, or are artificially ripened (yes, this is actually a thing).

There are a couple of options I’ve found to get around this:

  • Look for tomatoes sold ‘on the vine’. That is, instead of being picked, a section of vine with ripe or near ripe tomatoes on it is cut from the plant and then sold as a whole. This approach results in a longer shelf life without the tomatoes needing to be significantly under-ripe, so the tomatoes you get tend to taste better and have a better texture.
  • See if you can source tomatoes from a local farmer’s market, or even direct from a local farm. These will tend to be in much better condition than what you get from a store, and also avoid the issues with ripening involved in getting them from a store.
  • Possibly consider growing your own. Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, the only tricky parts are making sure the flowers are pollinated (without this, you won’t get any actual tomatoes) and picking the ripe tomatoes before they rot on the vine. This has the bonus that you can pick exactly the varieties you want for what you are making (I’m partial to Roma tomatoes for most things, though Beefsteak are my go-to for pureés and sauce bases due to them being enormous, and Super Sweet 100 are my go-to for salads due to their small size).
  • Failing all else, canned tomatoes work perfectly well for sauces and soups. Just make sure to get good quality ones of a variety that works well for what you want to do with them.
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    "Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow" That's something of an understatement. If anything, the difficulty with growing (at least some varieties of) tomatoes is stopping them from growing like weeds and taking over your entire yard!
    – nick012000
    Nov 8, 2021 at 6:00
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    Yeah, for sauces canned is the easiest option. Since they're usually processed right from the field, tomatoes grown for the can are usually varieties that haven't had their flavor ruined
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 8, 2021 at 14:42
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    "the only tricky parts" you forgot dealing with wildlife that would eat them before you can. Cages, nets, etc. must be set up around the plants.
    – JDługosz
    Nov 9, 2021 at 15:37
  • @nick012000 I live in the UK and I envy you. Here, they need a decent summer (or a greenhouse). All too often they get cut down by frost just as they hit their stride. But the flavour compared to supermarket ones makes it completely worth while.
    – nigel222
    Nov 10, 2021 at 11:05
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    One point to add: When you buy tomatoes that are under-ripe, don't just stick them in the fridge when you get home. Instead, put them out in the open, preferably in a place where they can get direct sunlight, like a window sill. Even without the vine, they will continue to ripen for another few days. (Don't overdo it or they'll rot, of course.) Nov 10, 2021 at 14:34
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It might just be the variety of tomatoes, but the in example you posted these look a little unripe to me. Perhaps try leaving them in a sunny place such as by a window, and wait a few days until they ripen fully.

Might also be worth while using some tomato purée (aka tomato paste) in addition to the fresh tomatoes. It can help increase the flavour.

If you live in a warm country or have a greenhouse, maybe think about growing your own. I live in a cold country (Scotland), and finding good fresh tomatoes for sauce isn't so easy. I make tomato sauce with homegrown tomatoes which are far superior to those on sale in supermarkets generally. Supermarket tomatoes always taste too watery to me, and generally lack flavour even when ripe.

When I run out of homegrown I generally return to using canned tomatoes from Italy. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using canned tomatoes. Even Italians use them when they're out of season.

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    Ripe tomatoes are hard to find because they have a very short shelf life. Less ripe tomatoes are easier to handle and last longer, so very ripe tomatoes are usually find where the commercialisation route is short (e.g. bought direct from a producer that harvested them the day before) or from relatively expensive groceries that can afford to throw away wasted tomatoes if they don't manage to sell all the ripe tomatoes in time.
    – Pere
    Nov 7, 2021 at 22:21
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I live in Australia, we have a warm climate, and abundant fresh produce year round. However the tomatoes available for purchase in supermarkets are universally bland & tasteless. They are desirable to the supermarket because they stay green & firm quite well, so can be transported and stored more cheaply. Flavour does not seem to factor into the supermarket's idea of a good tomato at all.

Some of the much smaller tomatoes still have flavour, but these are quite expensive relative to ordinary tomatoes.

Can you buy better tomatoes at a Farmers' Market? Or grow them yourself? I had success growing tomatoes indoors in Switzerland. After I realised that I had to pollinate the flowers myself.

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    I agree that the breed of tomato is the main determiner of flavor. It's worth noting that the tomato breeds used for canning (tomato purée, tomato sauce, etc.) usually go straight from the field to the nearby canning factory, so they can be bred for flavor rather than durability.
    – MJ713
    Nov 8, 2021 at 0:43
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    German here, supermarket tomatoes are pretty much universally horrible abominations of what that fruit could be. Cherry tomatoes have an ok chance of tasting like tomatoes, but sadly it's canned or self-grown if you want flavor from tomatoes in our modern economic system
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 8, 2021 at 14:41
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As tomatoes are an agricultural product, they’re always going to be a little different each time. If you think it’s not sweet enough, you can add a heavy pinch of sugar and see if that improves the flavor. Sometimes a splash of vinegar can help if it’s overly sweet, and salt can help to bring out muted flavors.

I personally take out a little insurance … onions will add sweetness if cooked slowly. Finely minced (or grated) carrots also help, so sweat them down at the beginning of cooking, before you add the tomatoes. (As the acid in the tomatoes will keep them from softening)

And yes, I often use canned tomatoes, as most store bought tomatoes in my area are grown for how well they ship and store, not flavor.

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I think you'll find added sugar in almost any "good" tomato sauce. Not only will adding some sugar give you the sweetness you're looking for, it will also cut/negate any acidity in your sauce - at least in my experience as a home cook (not a trained chef).

Something else to consider would be to keep the lid on your pot when making the sauce to reduce the volume of water lost to evaporation, if it's still too dry - a splash of white wine in the sauce wouldn't do any harm to the flavour profile while adding some liquid.

Better still - add a muscato white wine like muscatel in place of the sugar!

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The best tomatoes for spaghetti sauce are plum tomatoes (such as Romas) because they have less water content which makes them perfect for sauces, paste & processing. For the BEST variety, you should choose specifically San Marzano tomatoes because they are meaty, sweet & have a lot of tomato flavor. Use canned San Marzano tomatoes for a convenient way to add them to your sauce. However, true San Marzano canned tomatoes are pricey. Because of this, it is a known fact that many cans labeled 'San Marzano' are often fake and mislabeled by unscrupulous suppliers to get a higher price (just like avocado oil).

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    The fake bit would be the "DOP" (Designated Origin) part? Because there are plenty of San Marzano tomatoes grown outside the San Marzano region in Italy.
    – MSalters
    Nov 9, 2021 at 8:14
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I've always gotten the "best" tomato I could find in the grocery store, if the Roma wasn't looking good. I've had good results with any type.

Peel the tomatoes first. Then cut in half and scoop out the liquid, seeds, and ribs. Those can add bitterness and reduce the sweetness, so you want to leave them out. I'll add a can of crushed tomatoes too if I end up needing more; I buy 2 pounds fresh but always have cans stored at home. Perhaps using fresh and canned combines the subtleties of the fresh with the intensity of the canned; you might try using both intentionally. When I was first starting to make it myself, I would always wind up with not enough liquid, and found a brand of crushed tomatoes sold in a carton (not a can) that was very good; ended up just making that part of the usual recipe. (I've not seen that where I live now. You'll have to find a high-quality brand you have locally)

Then, add a can of tomato paste to add sweetness and some intensity. Mom would add a spoon of sugar but I've never needed to. Using wine in the sauce helps bring out the flavors.

It might depend on the herbs too. Using a lot of parsley seems to bring out the tomato flavor. Also, what else is in the sauce? Simmering it with something savory (like a meat sauce rather than plain) makes a big difference. I use meat and mushrooms.

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Your linked picture look like perfectly reasonable commercial canning tomatoes. If that's the only type you can find locally and want something different you'll have to grow different cultivars.

Your regional, or perhaps national, research university should have an agricultural department that could recommend alternative cultivars suited to your local climate. In the United States this function is held by State Universities' Agricultural Extensions, which are the public outreach arm of their Agricultural Experimentation Stations.

Each US state contracts with at least one University to run an Agricultural Experiment Station, often that University's founding charter requires it to operate one. Your country's equivalent intuitions will differ, but most will have them.

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My advice is to seek out people who really care about tomato flavor, and I don't know anyone who cares about it more than tomato gardeners (many of them grow with flavor as their top priority). There are lots of online tomato communities, but tomatojunction.com is the one I would recommend.

I also recommend a number of things when growing the tomatoes for improved flavor:

  • Warm the soil (such as with black plastic, or whatever other method you like); this seems to improve the concentration of sugars/acids in many (not all) kinds of tomatoes
  • Add nutrients to the soil; they can impact the flavor; a lot of people (including me) think Epsom salt impacts the flavor.
  • I think fertilizing with foliar sprays helps the flavor, too (foliar sprays are said to increase the nutrients in fruits compared to ground fertilization; so, that would probably make a flavor difference).
  • Soil. Different soils produce different flavors.
  • Sunlight: insufficient sunlight can lessen the flavor at times
  • Season: tomatoes taste different when they ripen at different times of the year
  • Vine-ripened tomatoes usually taste the best, in my opinion
  • Many people think tomatoes taste better if you don't refrigerate them.
  • Dry-farming (many people think this increases the flavor)

Variety makes a big difference, of course. There are maybe 20k+ kinds of tomatoes out there, and there are a lot of different flavors. Most people I meet on gardening forums prefer the flavors of big pink beefsteaks, such as Stump of the World and Aunt Ginny's Purple (which is actually dark pink), for example--not particularly for sauce, but if you ask, they generally recommend such for sauce, too (flavor-wise). They also often like oxhearts, which are often a lot like paste tomatoes, with more flavor (they're meaty with few seeds). Some people like the taste of lots of kinds of tomatoes mixed together.

Some tomatoes taste better cooked than others. I think Peaceful Valley's Beefsteak is excellent cooked. I think Early Girl F1 makes a nice spaghetti sauce (but they've improved the variety since I've had it as a spaghetti sauce--so it might not taste the same).

As far as paste tomatoes go, though, if you want those, I recommend just growing a bunch of kinds to see what you like. Most paste tomatoes I've tried are kind of normal-tasting. I've read good reviews about the flavor of orange paste tomatoes, though (e.g. Orange Banana); I plan to try some next year.

If you're worried about the higher water content of big pink beefsteaks, and such, there are plenty of methods to thicken the sauce. Remember that sauce and paste aren't the same thing, though; you don't always need or want tomato paste. Tomato paste is quite a bit thicker than jam (it doesn't flow at all). You wouldn't dip breadsticks in tomato paste, normally, I imagine. One trick to thicken sauce is to add oil and a little ground mustard (or another emulsifier). The carotenoids that color the tomatoes also mix with the oil. You wouldn't want to add oil if you're canning the sauce, however (due to botulism risk with oil).

Be sure to add plenty of black pepper. It really brings out the flavor of tomatoes, raw or cooked (much as it helps strawberries taste even sweeter). I think adding paprika also helps add some extra zest. I like to add brown sugar or raisins (blended up) to my sauce if it isn't sweet enough; I think brown sugar helps thicken the sauce, too. My typical spaghetti sauce includes ingredients like these:

  • Pink salt
  • Black pepper
  • Paprika
  • Fresh sage leaves (blended into the sauce)
  • Onion powder
  • Sometimes celery (it adds a nice flavor)
  • Basil

Add these things when it's nearly done (if they're over-cooked, it's not as good):

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlic

Chives are really nice cooked into spaghetti sauce, too.

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