I know tomato sauce should be cooked for a long time to develop flavor. To prevent it burning you have to stir constantly, though I find it burns on the stove (and the oven) too much without adding water.

I wonder however if adding water can stop the sauce from developing flavor since boiling food cannot reach 300+ temperatures required for flavor to develop. Lately I found putting a lid on the skillet reduces evaporation and thus chance for burning, though I think it may defeat the purpose.

When cooking tomato sauce, does adding water to prevent sauce from burning stop the flavor development?

  • 1
    Remember that the amount of sauce you're cooking influences how much will evaporate, because volume increases more than evaporation surface if using standard cooking methods, especially if simmering rather than intensely boiling it. If you want to get roast flavors, caramelize, Maillard and other reactions, consider frying and sauteing in a bit of oil
    – Arc
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:00
  • 1
    I am assuming Italian cuisine here. If so, cooking all tomato sauce for a long time is a faulty assumption. There is a range from uncooked (lots of raw sauces), to just barely cooked (pizza sauces...raw to start and cooked on pizza) to cooked a short time (many basic Italian tomato sauces are cooked for less than 30 mintues) to long cooked (Italian American "gravy" and sugo). So, for this question, use...type...style...regional variant...would be important variables. What is the end product you are looking for?
    – moscafj
    Oct 5, 2017 at 23:48
  • Isn't the "developed" flavor, in part, concentrating the flavors by evaporating off the water? Oct 6, 2017 at 15:05
  • To prevent burning, be sure your simmer is not too high. To prevent evaporation, cover. You should never need to add water. Nov 2, 2017 at 18:14

2 Answers 2


Tomatoes are mostly water anyway. They're not going to get above boiling point whether or not you add water (or at least not by more than a very few degrees even with salt added - less than the effect of altitude).

On the other hand the browned bits from the bottom of the pan (often called fond in the US though I've never heard this in the UK and the usage in France is a bit different) do give a nice flavour to the sauce so long as they don't catch.

If you do add water, you'll need to simmer it down anyway, making that the stirring step still happens, just later. But adding some water fairly early can give you some flexibility. A good time to do this is when it's starting to need constant stirring but you need to get on with the rest of the meal. A low heat and a heavy pan help too.

  • Without water how do people cook tomato sauces for 6 six hours? As the sauce gets reduced I figure the stirring needs to increase. I find it hard to believe even an Italian grandma would bother attending to a sauce 6 hours straight.
    – Bar Akiva
    Sep 11, 2016 at 16:25
  • 4
    @Bar Akiva: I'm not quite a g'ma, but am part Italian and have simmered thousands of pots of sauce, without added water or burning. Low, slow, covered (which means some condensation), an occasional stir and, yes, 4, 5, 6 hours.
    – Giorgio
    Sep 11, 2016 at 17:11
  • 2
    @Dorothy is right -- if you can get the heat low enough and the pan (i) is heavy enough to spread the heat out and (ii) has a tight enough lid to recycle a lot of the water that evaporates. This is easier in enamelled cast iron than non stick. Quantity also helps. If some of these factors let you down, a little water may help (though I often add some red wine to my sauces anyway)
    – Chris H
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:55
  • 1
    If you're starting with 4 gallon fresh chopped tomatoes, it takes several hours to reduce. The first couple at full boil, but then you have to start stirring more and turning the heat down as it gets thicker. Making puree can easily be an all day affair. Adding water just prolongs the process. Oct 5, 2017 at 22:51

In short no. Do not add water.

As you cook the toms water in them will evaporate creating a concentrated flavor. In the UK we call this process a "reduction". Any water you add will simply poach the tomatoes and dilute the flavor again.

If you find your sauce is burning I'd suggest your heat is too high. Or you may need a heavier bottomed pan. You want the toms/sauce to just tickle over, not a rolling boil. Your assumption about using a lid is correct. Don't stir continuously, rather swirl the pan from time to time and focus on your boiling speed. Slow and gentle.

If you find the sauce is getting too thick then add a little stock (veal or beef is best). but be carful not to dilute the rich tomato flavor. Taste, taste, taste.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.