Pizza can exist without sauce—but for many pizzerias, this element is a major differentiation point and a surefire way to tantalize customers’ taste buds. You may be zealously loyal to your family’s slow-simmered recipe, have a long-standing relationship with a prepared product, or enjoy putting traditional sauce aside to use barbecue, pesto, oil-based, white or cheese-based sauces, but all pizzerias need to stock at least one type. Different sauce options can prove great marketing points, while a signature flavor can add a memorable factor to your food that keeps customers coming back for more.
Canned sauces can act as blank slates for you to add your favorite flavors, and understanding the nature of tomatoes may assist your recipe development. At most canneries, tomatoes are juiced through screens and then reduced (sometimes under a vacuum to create a lower boiling point for the finished product) to produce a thick and versatile product that can be made heavier or lighter with the addition of water or more tomatoes. From-concentrate products may be reduced more by canners to create an intensely flavored, pastelike sauce.
Chef instructor Peggy Ryan from the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago points out that longer simmer times come at a price. “You want to bring your sauce to a specific consistency,” she says. “If your sauce is too watery, you risk damaging the crust before you even get it in the oven; if you simmer the sauce too long, you risk running into caramelization, which alters the tomato flavor.” Also remember that time and temperature are tomatoes’ worst enemies when it comes to the freshness of your sauce, so store your canned tomato products away from heat and use them promptly.
You can also buy completely prepared sauces from a distributor and dress your dough immediately, but some pizzeria operators mix different sauces to create their desired blend of flavors, or use their own tricks to create the right taste and texture—add a little water, or incorporate unpeeled and/or peeled tomato chunks with herbs, onion and garlic. Still others favor a simple puree. Tom “The Dough Doctor” Lehmann, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas, practices a basic approach. “I add only enough water to make the sauce easy to spread,” he explains. “I never like to add onion or garlic to the sauce, as it will cause the sauce to gel, which requires even more water. I also like to add garlic and basil directly to the sauced dough skin with Parmesan cheese to sweeten and negate some of the sauce’s acidity.”
However, there are ways to get around the gelling Lehmann mentions. Steve Hitchcock, owner of Soda Creek Pizza in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, caramelizes garlic before adding it to his sauce. “We chop it, run it through the oven once, stir it, and run it through again. This cuts down on the pectins that would otherwise cause the sauce to set,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Nick Sasso, kitchen manager at Nick’s Pizzeria (nicksgrantville.com) in Grantville, Georgia, has found a way to incorporate garlic flavor into sauce without it gelling by adding garlic oil. “Most oils are made by putting cloves and olives in a press mash,” he points out. “This gives you a more blended flavor and enhances the fresh garlic you use.”
Tomatoes are a versatile fruit that can be easily enhanced with spices and herbs. For most chefs, the main differences between pizza and pasta sauce involves consistency and spice; pasta sauces are typically thinner and more lightly spiced. For both pizza and pasta, however, you can follow basic guidelines to create a memorable flavor profile. You might even develop a second red sauce for specialty pies. As Ryan notes, less is more for traditionalists, so let a few flavors ring true. For vegetarian dishes, mild herbs such as fresh basil and parsley pair best. For meat sauces and meat-topped pies, stick to rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage; these spices’ strong flavors complement sausage, chicken and beef. Ryan also suggests marketing sauces on your menu by mentioning the herbs and spices they contain. “It’s a huge selling point; customers feel better seeing the word ‘fresh’ on a menu.”
By understanding ingredients and following tried-and-true techniques—and perhaps experimenting with some of your own—you can find a way to identify and bring out that special flavor your food deserves. By buying the right product for your operation, monitoring time and temperature, maintaining a consistent texture and adding the right herbs, you can create a sauce that your customers will remember—and request again and again.–Andrew Abernathy