What Can You Do To Thicken Tomato Sauce

It's red, it's delicious, it can make or break your whole meal: It's a nice, solid tomato sauce. Sunday Gravy. Meat sauce. Bolognese. Red sauces can come in all shapes, sizes, and names, but whatever you call it, you know that the consistency and texture of the sauce are nearly as important as the flavor. If you've accidentally cooked your sauce too thick and want it a bit thinner, it's not difficult to add more water or stock; The real issues come about when you're trying to thicken your tomato sauce up.

No one likes a watery tomato sauce (you might as well just squeeze a tomato above some pasta), so you need ways to thicken your tomato sauce without sacrificing any of that bold flavor or perfect texture. The specifics of the methods that you decide to employ in order to thicken your sauce may vary depending on the actual recipe, but the following are some easy and effective ways to bring your sauce together.

Reduce, reheat, and reveal a thick tomato sauce

The simplest way to thicken a sauce is to let it simmer for a really long time. According to Martha Stewart, simmering your sauce over low heat will reduce the sauce by letting go of water from the tomatoes and other ingredients and simultaneously caramelizing the sugars in the sauce to get a richer flavor as well as a more hardy consistency.

Reducing your sauce is easy, but it does take an exorbitantly long amount of time. Christopher Arturo, a chef and instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, suggests about a six-hour simmer for maximum effect — so if you plan to reduce, plan ahead and set out enough time. 

To simmer your sauce, bring your sauce to a boil first then lower the heat and cover to let it cook low and slow. You should also be mindful about using non-reactive cookware for long cooks; Materials like copper and aluminum will impart a metallic taste into your sauce, per Arturo.

Just add starch

Starch is a carbohydrate, but as a thickening agent, it can work to literally tie most foods together. Simply adding starch products to your sauce will do a great deal to thicken your sauce, and there are quite a few starch products available that pair nicely with tomato sauce.

Of course if your sauce is going towards a pasta dish, you should always save some of the water that the pasta was boiled in (no matter the sauce, no matter the pasta dish) to add to the dish later. "Pasta water," as it's called, is high in starch content and can thicken not just your tomato sauce but other sauces as well. For a more direct approach you can also add cornstarch, arrowroot powder, or even a bit of flour directly to your sauce. 

Mashed potatoes are also an especially interesting starch option. Just puree some mashed potatoes and mix into your sauce to get a thicker, more textured tomato sauce, per Lacademie.

Dairy products

Adding dairy products is another flavorful way to thicken up a sauce without having to spend too much time incorporating new ingredients. Cream is an especially effective thickener and so are certain kinds of cheeses that melt well (such as mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan, and cream cheese), per Lacademie. The high fat content of dairy products helps to make the sauce richer and impart a deeper flavor into your sauce.

You could also make a roux to add to your sauce, which will not only make it thicker but also add a more subtle nuttier flavor than some other dairy products. Just melt butter in a pan and mix in an equal part of flour and stir constantly until a thick gravy-like consistency has been reached. Fold the roux into the tomato sauce and enjoy (A roux will also work to thicken lots of other sauces for lots of other dishes).

Getting creative

There are also some ingredients you can add that may not initially seem effective but can actually do quite a bit for your sauce. Egg yolks can act as a binding agent and add some subtle rich flavor as well, but when adding them to your sauce you have to be careful to not cook them too thoroughly and end up with scrambled eggs in your sauce (via Lacademie). Set some sauce aside to cool first and mix the egg yolks in the cooled sauce slowly and stirring constantly. Then fold that entire mixture back into your sauce, making sure to stir until completely incorporated.

Tomato ketchup and breadcrumbs are two other unconventional but still effective methods to use. When using ketchup, be mindful of strong flavors: Ketchup has high sugar and salt content so be careful not to go overboard. Breadcrumbs can definitely thicken a sauce but will also add some added textures. So, as Kitchenaries recommends, be sure to ground the crumbs as finely as you can.