Bobby Flay Weighed In On The Sugar In Tomato Sauce Debate

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In 2020, a Facebook post went viral with over 10,000 comments and 90,000 shares after a woman posted an image featuring spaghetti and an admittedly copious quantity of sugar. "'LET'S ARGUE' DO (sic) SUGAR GO IN SPAGHETTI??" she asked in the caption. The post was divisive, with many saying "no" and others qualifying their opposition to the addition, saying that the amount of sugar was "too much."

Food Network celeb chef Bobby Flay appears to have breathed new life into this discussion on Today recently when he shared his recipe for chicken parmigiana. Flay shows off what he calls a "cleaner version," and it's full of little hacks. First, he makes use of a neutral oil (avocado) to fry up the cutlets. Then, when he adds the buffalo mozzarella, the chef leaves crisp sections exposed so there is a contrast of textures. He also protects the chicken's crunchy exterior in the presentation. Instead of completely covering the cutlet in tomato sauce, he spoons the sauce onto the plate and sets the chicken on top. 

Flay's sauce is homemade, with canned whole tomatoes, tomato, onions, and garlic, and he adds what is, by his own admission, a divisive ingredient: a dash of sugar.

Sugar is necessary if the tomatoes are too tart

Bobby Flay tells Today that he puts a little bit of sugar in his tomato sauce and admits the practice is controversial, saying "Some people say don't ever put sugar in your tomatoes ... but if they're acidic, you'll want a little bit of sugar to balance it out."

Cook's Illustrated would agree, saying that the key to making a good tomato sauce means walking a fine line between acidity and sweetness — and while the publication says adding a pinch of baking soda can neutralize the tomatoes' acidity, sugar enhances the tomato flavor more, which is why it is preferred.

California chef Michael Chiarello says tomatoes shouldn't really need sugar anymore, since, as he puts it, "commercial tomatoes often have no need for the sugar, because they are bred to be more of a fruit — back in the day, the PH (or acidity level) of tomatoes was 25 to 35 percent higher than today," Epicurious. However, he also says a bit of sugar won't do any harm, particularly if you're working with subpar or underripe tomatoes. 

Even the great Marcella Hazan is all in for sugar in tomato sauce, as she points out in "The Classic Italian Cookbook," per The Guardian. Her recipe for "tomato sauce III" calls for a quarter teaspoon for every 2.2 pounds of ripe plum tomato, which should kill the controversy right there.