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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Unlike Neapolitan pies, which generally use a simple, uncooked sauce of fresh or canned tomatoes and salt, New York by-the-slice pies use a more heavily seasoned cooked sauce. The key to great NY-style sauce is the balance between sweetness, acidity, heat, with a definite herbal backbone and a texture that's thin enough enough to spread, but thick enough to keep your pizza from turning soggy during the de rigeur fold-and-carry.

You can pull off the easiest recipes in a New York minute: simply puree tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, and Italian seasoning then reduce it over a low flame. The results are not bad—certainly a step-up from canned pizza sauces (which are inevitably too sweet and herb-heavy)—but the goal here at the Pizza Lab is for something a little better than simply "not bad." We're after great. Time to hit the kitchen.

The Fat

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Most pizza sauces start with a base of extra-virgin olive oil, which is fine, but there's a better option. Is there anyone in the blogospheric world who's yet to hear about Marcella Hazan's amazingly simple and delicious Tomato sauce with Onion and Butter? Made by simply simmering tomatoes, butter, and a couple of onion halves (the onion gets discarded after cooking), it produces an exceptionally smooth, complex, and delicious sauce.

French chefs have known for years that adding butter to a sauce can help round off the rough edges and give it a richer, fuller mouthfeel. My pizza sauce was no exception. Simply replacing half of the two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil I was using with unsalted butter added sweetness, complexity, and smoothness to my sauce without creating any extra work (I left some of the olive oil in for its peppery bite).

I also decided to use Marcella's onion trick, further upping the sweetness.

The Herbs

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Most recipes call for either dried oregano, or a mix of dried "Italian Seasoning," which is mostly dried oregano and basil. My immediate thought was: replace the dried with fresh. Imagine my surprise when after cooking two sauces side-by-side with dried oregano vs. fresh leaves, there was barely any difference at all.

Many chef's assert that fresh herbs are superior to dried herbs, and they're right—most of the time. Most herbs contain flavor compounds that are more volatile than water, which means that any drying process which removes water, also ends up removing flavor.

But it's not always the case, and here's why. Savory herbs that tend to grow in hot, relatively dry climates—like oregano, for instance—have flavor compounds that are relatively stable at high temperatures, and are well-contained within the leaf. They have to be, in order to withstand the high temperatures and lack of humidity in their natural environment. Other arid herbs like rosemary, marjoram, bay leaf, thyme, and sage fare similarly well in the drying process.

I found that as long as I made sure to cook the herbs for long enough to soften their texture (I started by sauteeing them right from the beginning in the oil/butter mixture), the flavor I got out of them was just as good as using the real thing—and a whole lot cheaper and easier.

Basil, on the other hand, had to be added fresh. I tried adding it chopped right at the end as I would with most fresh herbs in order to maintain their flavor, but found that it wasn't right for pizza sauce. Better was to simply add whole sprigs of it while the sauce was simmering and remove them right at the end.

The Tomatoes

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First things first: I knew that I wanted to use canned tomatoes, since they are much more consistent year round (I shudder at the thought of making a fresh tomato sauce out of bland winter tomatoes). But which tomatoes should I use?

Adam is currently in the process of working with Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours on discovering which brand of tomato is the best, but what about which type of tomato product to use? Pretty much every brand has five offerings:

  • Whole Peeled Tomatoes are the least processed offering. Consisting of whole tomatoes that are peeled (either by steaming or being treated with lye), then packed either in tomato puree, or in tomato juice. Those packed in juice are less processed, and therefore more versatile (tomatoes packed in puree will always have a "cooked" flavor, even if you use them straight out of the can).
  • Diced Tomatoes are whole peeled tomatoes that have been machine-diced, then again, packed in juice or puree. The main difference here is that frequently, diced tomatoes are treated with calcium chloride, a firming agent which helps the dice keep their shape in the can. The problem is, calcium chloride makes the tomatoes too firm. They don't break down properly when cooking. Look for brands with no calcium chloride (whole canned tomatoes occasionally also contain this firming agent, but its effects are not as strong on whole tomatoes).
  • Crushed Tomatoes can vary wildly from brand to brand. There are actually no controls on the labeling of crushed tomatoes, so one brands "crushed" may be a chunky mash, while another's could be a nearly smooth puree. Because of this, it's generally better to avoid crushed products, opting instead to crush your own whole tomatoes.
  • Tomato Puree is a cooked and strained tomato product. It makes a good shortcut for quick cooking sauces, but your sauce will lack the complexity you get from slowly reducing a less processed tomato product. Leave the puree on the shelf.
  • Tomato Paste is concentrated tomato juice. After cooking fresh tomatoes, all of the larger solids are strained out, then the resulting juice is slowly cooked down to a moisture content of 76% or less. It's great for adding a strong umami backbone to stews and braises.

So diced tomatoes are too firm, crushed tomatoes are too inconsistent, and tomato puree and paste are too cooked, which left me with the whole canned tomatoes. I opted for those packed in juice, giving them a quick whir with my hand blender to puree them right after I added them to the pot (a food processor or food mill are equally effective, but harder-to-clean options).

Fixing Flavor

Numerous studies have shown that where tomatoes are concerned, the best should have high levels of both acidity and sweetness. Canned tomatoes invariably have some citric acid added to them in order to up their acidity. Slowly reducing the pureed tomatoes on the stovetop not only creates new flavor compounds, adding complexity to the sauce, but it also gets rid of water content, intensifying the flavors that are already there. Why go slow instead of fast? There are two good reasons:

First, if you aren't really careful, high heat can cause unwanted browning, created roasted, caramel notes in your sauce. This isn't a good thing. I tend not to be careful, so I hedge my bets by keeping the heat minimal.

Secondly, I value my marriage and the tranquility that walls and ceilings free from splattered tomato sauce bring to it.

After an hour of slow simmering, the sauce was nearly perfect, but was missing a couple of key elements. A little extra sugar helped to balance out the newly-intensified acidity, and a pinch of pepper flakes added a not-overwhelming heat. Cooking a new batch and adding the pepper flakes to saute in the butter/olive oil right from the beginning made it even better.

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In the end I had a sauce with just the right balance of flavor for my New York style pies. Sweet, a little hot, and intensely savory, with a texture that helps it melt in beautifully with the cheese, the way a good NY-style pie should.

But what about the crust, you ask? Well it's late, my dog is snoring, and my wife needs to be taken for a walk or she'll pee the bed again,* so that'll have to be another kitchen experiment for another time. Don't worry, we'll get there.

For now, use your own recipe, some store bought dough, or any one of ourexisting recipes.

*Strike that. Reverse it.

Get the recipe for New York Style Pizza Sauce here!

Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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