Get the right pan for spaghetti sauce to prevent it from getting imparted with a metallic aftertaste. Here’s why this is important and how to choose.
What YouTube chefs and cookbook authors often forget to mention is that choosing the right cooking vessel can be just as critical to the success of your dish as finding the right ingredients.
The pans and pots we cook in can be made of a variety of metals—from aluminum and copper, which heat up quickly and cool down just as fast thanks to their ability to conduct heat, to cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel, which take a while to preheat but retain that heat for a long time.
Certain cooking vessels have a coated cooking surface. Just think of a ceramic skillet, a non-stick frying pan, or an enameled cast-iron Dutch Oven, whose metal bodies do not come into contact with your food. Others, like porous iron and smooth steel, allow us to cook directly on metal.
It is particularly important to choose the right kind of cookware if you’re making spaghetti sauce, and any other recipe that involves the addition of tomatoes, whether fresh or canned. When it comes to the acidity of your food, not all metals are created equal.
To cook spaghetti sauce, you need an inert pan that won’t react with the acidity in the tomatoes and leach metal into your food. Reach for ceramic, non-stick, stainless steel, and enameled cast iron; avoid cast iron and carbon steel.
The thing is, most metals don’t get along all that well with acids. When they come in contact with a cooking liquid that contains tomatoes (or wine, vinegar, or lemon juice), they react with it and release metal ions into your food.
As a result, not only does your spaghetti sauce get imparted with a strong metallic aftertaste, but it also gets saturated with dietary metals that build up in your body. The longer the simmering time, the greater the amount of metal ions that seep into the sauce.
What makes ceramic, non-stick, and enameled cast iron pans so good for the job is that their coatings act as a physical barrier between the cooking liquid of the sauce and the metal body of the cooking vessel. Nary material reacts with acid, so you can prepare the sauce without fuss and free from hassle.
Stainless steel is an alloy of steel with added chromium and nickel that’s resistant to corrosion. Compared to cast iron and carbon steel, it’s significantly less reactive and can safely be used for simmering acidic foods such as spaghetti sauce.
Whichever type of cooking vessel you go for, avoid cast iron and carbon steel. The acid will react to the metal surface, and the pan will give your spaghetti sauce a strong metallic aftertaste that’s less than desirable. Also, you may erode the seasoning on your skillet (to the extent that it may start flaking—and you have to strip it off and apply it anew).
Tips for Preparing Spaghetti Sauce
Through much trial and error, I’ve come to find that the simplest spaghetti sauce is also the tastiest: Sauté minced garlic in olive oil for 20 to 30 seconds over medium heat until it releases its perfume into the air in your kitchen. Add a can of plum tomatoes, whether crushed by hand for a chunky texture or straight from the blender for smoothness. Season with salt and simmer.
Black pepper should be added at the end of the cooking, when you’ve turned the heat off and you’re almost about to remove the pan from the stove. Crack it generously over the sauce and give it a good stir to incorporate the bits and pieces of crushed berries that add the pungency you’re oh-so looking for.
Unless you’ve added wine, broth, or water, and you need to boil the sauce down over high heat, use medium heat for the simmer. By doing so, you will keep the spaghetti sauce from splattering all over the stove (and your clothes), so you will have less of a mess to clean after you’re done cooking.
Complex spaghetti sauce may require extra prep and a specific sequencing.
For example, to make Bolognese, you brown the ground meat over medium-high heat for color, aroma, and flavor. Then, you remove the meat so that it doesn’t overcook, and you sweat the diced onions and carrots in its fats and juices.
The minced garlic is added 20-30 seconds before the tomato sauce and the meat, so that it doesn’t burn and develop an acrid taste. The sauce is salted and cooked, with herbs and spices added just before you are done cooking so that the heat doesn’t cook off their gentle aroma and flavor compounds.
Tips for Saucing Spaghetti
In no other Italian recipe is the order as important as in spaghetti. The sauce is prepared first because it takes longer than the pasta. In reverse order, the pasta would sit in the cooking water and become soft and mushy by the time it is tossed with the sauce.
Once the sauce is cooked, the pan or pot is covered with a lid to keep it warm. Then, the pasta is boiled to al dente in generously salted water. (Some time ago, Serious Eats’ Daniel Gritzer found 1% salinity, or roughly 1½ teaspoons per liter, to be just right.)
When the pasta is tender and soft on the inside, but still somewhat firm and with a barely noticeable crunch on the outside, it is separated from the pasta water, tossed with the sauce, and plated for serving. Hard Italian cheese, such as nutty parmesan or salty pecorino, are grated on top for that finishing touch.
The dish, of course, is enjoyed in the company of beloved family, good friends, and red wine.