We've all been there. You're making tomato sauce with delicious, fresh ingredients, things like tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fresh basil. And it smells to die for! But there's one problem- you taste it and realize it still has an acidic taste...
This is a common problem all home cooks run into at one point or another. The good news is: I'm here to teach you how to make tomato sauce less acidic in 3 easy steps.
I should start by explaining that no matter what you do, the pH of tomato sauce will always stay under 7. Yes, it will be acidic no matter what because all of the ingredients in tomato sauce are acidic. (pH less than 7)
Clemson.edu reports that the acidity of tomatoes (both canned and raw tomatoes) is about 4.3-4.9 on the pH scale. (4.3 being more acidic and 4.9 being less acidic) However, there are different ways to reduce the acidity of the sauce or make it seem less acidic.
1- Use Good Tomatoes
So even though all tomatoes are acidic, some are more acidic than others. And the acidity of the tomatoes directly impacts the acidity of the tomato sauce.
The less acidic the tomatoes are (closer to 4.9) the less acidic the sauce will taste. If you start with sweet, flavorful, low-acid tomatoes, your sauce will taste naturally sweet, flavorful, and not very acidic.
If you start with more acidic tomatoes (closer to 4.3), you'll end up with a more acidic tomato sauce.
Us.gov explains here that the pH scale is a logarithmic scale. Meaning each point on the scale signifies a 10x change. Therefore, food with a pH of 4 is 10x more acidic than food with a pH of 5.
Here are some general guidelines to use when choosing the best tomatoes for your homemade sauce.
How to choose the right tomatoes for your sauce
Choosing the right tomatoes for your tomato sauce comes down to a few factors: the preparation/type of tomatoes, the flavor, and even the price. You may have to prioritize certain aspects over others depending on the kind of tomato sauce and the options available at your local store.
Preparation of the Tomatoes:
Below I've highlighted some of the most commonly available types of tomatoes and when to use them. (Note: Pay attention to the whole and crushed types, as I find these to be the best options.)
- Fresh/Ripe Tomatoes: Cherry, grape, and Campari tomatoes are the sweetest year-round and make excellent simple tomato sauces. In the summer, larger tomatoes like vine-ripened heirloom and beefsteak also make delicious sauces.
- Canned Whole: Great for a chunkier sauces, like my Penne Pomodoro. Though most canned tomatoes utilize citric acid as a preservative, whole tomatoes tend to maintain the most natural and least acidic taste among all the canned varieties, in my experience.
- Canned Crushed: Great for smoother sauces like Penne with Pink Sauce or Italian Sunday Gravy, which still have some texture. (not fully pureed)
- Canned Pureed: I don't see any use for pureed tomatoes in tomato sauce. They're typically just too smooth for my liking.
- Canned Diced: DO NOT RECOMMEND. They stay too firm and seem to taste the most artificial. According to J.Kenji Lopez Alt, their greater surface area combined with calcium chloride is what makes them so firm. If you want to add a chunky texture to a generally smooth sauce, you're better off adding a handful of diced fresh tomatoes OR a few whole canned tomatoes that you've hand-diced.
- Canned/Jarred Tomato Sauce: DO NOT RECOMMEND. My reasons are unrelated to the acidity of tomato sauce, and more related to the unnatural taste. Pre-made sauces usually contain garlic and onion powders and dried herbs. These ingredients make canned sauces taste just that- canned. Not fresh.
Flavors and brand
This is where you may have to do a little research and even some trial and error. After all, everyone's preferences are different!
- San Marzano Tomatoes: San Marzano is a tomato variety that originated in Italy. It's known for its sweetness and is often seen as the gold standard of saucing tomatoes. But San Marzano Tomatoes can actually grow anywhere, and there are many brands to choose from. (more on choosing the brand later)
- Plum tomatoes: Plum is another main type of tomato used in sauces. Though it's not as idolized for its sweetness, it can be really tasty too.
- Some of my favorite brands: Cento, Wegman's store brand, Delallo,and Sclafani. Other brands my friends love, which I have yet to try, include Bianco DiNapoli and San Merican.
- Italian Tomato brands: You can find a whole slew of Italian tomato brands on Yummy Bazaar (below). Yummy Bazaar is an international online grocer. They sell tomatoes that are known or being sweet and delicious but difficult to find in the U.S.
- Brands to avoid: Hunts, Muir Glen, and Contadina have all failed me in the past. They're unreliable and often taste highly acidic or bland.
Holidays and special occasions are great excuses to opt for the delicious $6/can Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes. But it's OK to opt for a less expensive brand of tomatoes for your weeknight supper.
I recommend avoiding the ones listed under "brands I avoid" (above) and choose from your other options based on how much you want to spend.
2- Cook the Sauce longer
Now you know that the type and flavor of tomatoes vary... a lot! They all contain different amounts of natural sweetness and acidity. If you chose the best tomatoes you could find and even use the same recipe you always use, but your sauce is STILL tasting sour, try this option.
Cooking down the sauce for even just 10 extra minutes can help improve the sauce's flavor and natural sweetness.
As we know, all tomatoes are at least a little acidic, and they all contain varying degrees of water and sugar. As more water evaporates, the flavors, including sugars, become more concentrated.
A higher percentage of natural sugars doesn't significantly change the tomato sauce acidity. But the sugar content can make us perceive the sauce as less acidic. Sweetness is often used as a way to counterbalance acidity.
Like adding agave or sugar to a margarita, cooking down the sauce makes the sauce sweeter and more flavorful without having to add sugar or other sweeteners.
3- Add to the Sauce to Balance Flavors
Which brings me to the last option... Maybe you've cooked down the sauce, and you don't want it to get any thicker, but you're working with really acidic tomatoes and the sauce still tastes tart.
The last step you can take to make tomato sauce seem less acidic is to add ingredients that make the sauce taste more well-rounded. Even if these ingredients don't significantly reduce the tomato sauce's acidity, the perception of it being less acidic is what matters.
TOP TIP: Add Higher-pH Ingredients (Fatty Dairy Products)
The following ingredients are mostly acidic ingredients. But their pH ratings are closer to neutral (7). So they do a better job at actually making tomato sauce less acidic.
- Butter: Add 2-4 tablespoons of butter to the tomato sauce after it's done cooking. (28-oz can of tomatoes) It not only helps neutralize the acidity, but also acts as a natural emulsifier. Meaning it makes the sauce more cohesive/ less watery.
- Cream: In Penne alla Vodka, Italian Pink Sauce, and lemon cream sauces, the cream's role is to make the sauce, well... creamy. Not all sauces are meant to have cream though. If you're in the mood for a simple tomato pasta sauce or marinara, adding cream may distract from the pure tomato flavor.
- Cheese: Parmesan, ricotta, mozzarella, and mascarpone are all common Italian cheeses. Since cheeses are also fat-based, they can be great at neutralizing acidic tomato sauces. Again, cheese is not always warranted as it can overpower the dish.
- Olive oil: Olive oil doesn't have a pH because it isn't water soluble. (more on that here) But its richness nicely counteracts the acidic tones of a tomato sauce. Almost all of my tomato sauce recipes call for sautéing garlic and tomato paste in olive oil as the first step. You can also add more at the end if the sauce tastes too acidic.
- Baking Soda: Many sources cite using a pinch of baking soda to make tomato sauce less acidic. It has a pH above 7, so although it will technically work, I DO NOT RECOMMEND. I've never made a sauce so acidic that I thought the only way to salvage it was to add baking soda.
Add Something Sweet
A little bit of added sweetness wont significantly reduce the acidity as you would need too much of it to significantly alter its pH. However, sweet ingredients CAN make the acidity more enjoyable and create a more balanced sauce.
- Tomato Paste: Tomato paste is a very condensed tomato puree. Therefore, it has a higher concentration of sugars than whole or crushed tomatoes. Almost all of my tomato sauce recipes start with a couple tablespoons of tomato paste.
- White Sugar: I rarely add sugar because I personally don't like the taste of sugar in tomato sauce, but many people do! You can add a little bit of sugar when the sauce is done cooking, a pinch at a time, until the sauce is sweet enough for you. A teaspoon of sugar is the maximum amount I recommend for a 28oz can of tomatoes.
- I do NOT recommend using other sweeteners such as agave syrup, honey, brown sugar, or maple syrup. In my opinion, their caramel-like sweet taste strays a little too far from what I consider acceptable in an Italian Tomato Sauce. Even as a last resort, I probably would not use them.
Add Umami-Forward, Savory Flavors:
- Soy Sauce and/or Fish Sauce: I know, it's very unconventional to use soy sauce and fish sauce in homemade tomato sauce. But both ingredients offer really rich, savory, umami flavors that pair well with tomatoes. Just a drop goes a long way.
- Bay Leaves: I like the subtle complexity bay leaves add to sauces and soups. It's not overpowering, so it's worth a try. Add it to the sauce at the same time as the tomatoes. See if you notice that the sauce tastes more complex!
Add Fresh Herbs
- Parsley or basil: fresh herbs are bright and summery and make the sauce taste more fresh and well-rounded. It's best to add these at the very end to maximize their flavors. Both parsley and basil lose most of flavor when heated.
- Rosemary: Rosemary's flavor lasts fairly well in the face of heat, so you can add a sprig at the beginning when you add the garlic and let it simmer while the tomato sauce simmers. Rosemary isn't as subtle as a bay leaf, so only use it if you like its flavor.
Again, adding spice is yet another way to improve the overall well-roundedness of the tomato sauce even if it doesn't change the acid level.
- Whole Chili Peppers (Chiles de arbol): I call for these peppers in my Pomodoro recipe. And I truly think they set my recipe apart from so many others. The Chiles de arbol add both spice and flavor to the whole sauce.
- Crushed Red Pepper (flakes)
- Calabrian Chili peppers: The ones packed in oil are my favorite and i always keep them in my fridge.
The Best Tomato Sauce Recipe:
I highly recommend trying my Penne al Pomodoro recipe. It's a simple sauce with only 7-8 ingredients. It calls for whole canned tomatoes, which I find give the sauce the perfect texture. And I can pretty consistently rely on it tasting perfectly balanced and not too acidic.