Pressure Cooker Tomato Sauce Recipe

The pressure cooker gives you a red sauce with all-day flavor on a weeknight schedule.

Overhead shot of a pot of pressure cooker tomato sauce, bowl of pasta tossed in tomato sauce, and hunk of parmigiano resting on a cheese grater

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Why It Works

  • Great sauce starts with great ingredients. Use the best canned whole peeled tomatoes you can find, preferably San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes.
  • A mixture of butter and olive oil gives the sauce extra richness while mellowing out the stronger flavors.
  • A whole onion and a carrot added to the sauce while it simmers add natural sweetness, without overwhelming the sauce with extra flavors or being cloying.
  • The pressure cooker cooks the sauce hot enough to trigger the Maillard reaction, creating complex, browned flavors in record time.
  • Fish sauce, if you'd like to use it, adds rich, intensely savory flavor (and no, it won't make the sauce taste fishy).
  • Saving some of the tomatoes to stir in at the end gives the sauce a layer of freshness.

We generally associate the Maillard reaction with extra-high temperatures: smoking-hot pans or grills to brown our steaks, or hot ovens to give us dark bread crusts. But the reaction can actually take place at much lower temperatures; it just happens to occur at a slightly slower pace.

I take advantage of this fact when making a big batch of my slow-cooked tomato sauce, which spends about six hours in a 300°F (150°C) oven. Even though the sauce never comes close to the temperatures you'd need for browning steak or bread, it still darkens significantly in color over its long cooking time. This deepening of color corresponds to an equal deepening of flavor. It isn't a bright, fresh tomato sauce. It's a rich, complex sauce that tastes like it cooked all day precisely because it did.

But what if I don't have all day to cook my tomato sauce? What if it's six o'clock on a Wednesday night and I want to be in my pajamas and in bed, with a full belly and a content smile on my face, by eight?

Well, I could turn to Daniel's 40-minute red sauce. It's a great recipe that delivers some of the depth of a slow-cooked sauce by using tomato paste in the flavor base. But, given that I wisely foresaw this exact circumstance and got myself a pressure cooker to deal with it, I've got a better option on the counter.

Because a pressure cooker cooks hotter than a simmering pot—250°F (121°C) at high pressure, as opposed to 212°F (100°C) for standard boiling—all kinds of interesting things take place inside its hermetically sealed walls. One of those is browning. We don't typically associate browning with moist cooking methods, like simmering, boiling, or steaming, but a pressure cooker allows liquids to get hot enough to actually start undergoing the Maillard reaction.

In just 45 minutes of cooking at high pressure, you can develop many of the deep flavors you associate with all-day tomato sauces. Good news for a weeknight cook.

You may be saying to yourself, Wait a minute—the sauce in the oven cooked at 300°F for six hours, and you're only cooking at 250°F for 45 minutes. Lower temperature and less time. What gives?

The answer is that in the oven, the air temperature is 300°F, but that doesn't mean that the temperature of the sauce is actually 300°F. Indeed, you'll find that, other than on the very surface, most of the sauce doesn't ever heat up beyond around 200°F or so. The vast majority of the darkening that occurs in an oven occurs only at the surface of the sauce, which means you need a decent amount of time to darken it enough to flavor the whole batch.

A pressure cooker, on the other hand, heats its entire contents to 250°F. That's the sauce at the top, the bottom, and everything in between. Browning occurs more evenly, as well as over a greater volume, so it takes less time overall.

Remember, liquids don't really reduce in a pressure cooker, which means that the final flavor of a pressure-cooked sauce is not quite the same as that of an oven-cooked sauce. But, unless you're doing a direct, side-by-side comparison, it's not something you or your dinner companions are likely to notice.

That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make to be able to eat this stuff any day of the week.

Ladling tomato sauce out of pressure cooker.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

And remember: The greatest sauce in the world ain't worth a damn if you don't sauce that pasta the right way!

October 2016

Recipe Facts

4.1

(13)

Active: 20 mins
Total: 75 mins
Serves: 12 servings
Makes: 1 1/2 quarts

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Ingredients

  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes (about 1.5kg total) (see notes)

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing

  • 2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/2 teaspoon (about 2g) red pepper flakes

  • 1/2 tablespoon (about 4g) dried oregano

  • 1 small carrot (about 4 ounces; 110g), cut into large chunks

  • 1 small onion (about 5 ounces; 140g), split in half

  • 1 large stem fresh basil

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 teaspoons (10ml) Asian fish sauce, optional

  • 1/4 cup (about 10g) minced fresh parsley or basil leaves (or a mix of the two)

Directions

  1. Place tomatoes in a large bowl. Using your hands, crush tomatoes by squeezing them through your fingers until pieces no larger than 1/2 inch remain. Transfer 1 cup (240ml) of crushed tomatoes to a sealed container and reserve in the refrigerator until step 3.

    Hand crushing whole peeled tomatoes in a bowl.

    Serious Eats

  2. Heat olive oil and butter over medium heat in a pressure cooker until butter is melted. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until softened and fragrant but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add pepper flakes and oregano and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, carrot, onion, and basil and stir to combine. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Seal pressure cooker and bring to high pressure. Cook for 45 minutes, then release pressure and open lid.

    Adding dry herbs and pepper flakes to melted butter and olive oil.

    Serious Eats

  3. Using tongs, discard onion halves, carrot, and basil. Add reserved tomatoes to sauce and stir to combine. Add fish sauce, if using. Season generously with salt and pepper and stir in minced herbs, along with additional olive oil as desired. Serve immediately, or allow to cool at room temperature, transfer to airtight containers, and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Sauce can also be frozen in sealed containers for up to 6 months. To reheat, warm very gently in a saucepan with 1/2 cup (120ml) water, stirring until it all melts and heats through.

    Pot of pressure cooker tomato sauce with ladle.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Notes

Use the best tomatoes you can find. D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy are readily available and a guarantee of quality, though any high-quality domestic or imported canned tomato will work. Make sure that the San Marzano tomatoes you buy are labeled "D.O.P.," not just "San Marzano–style."

Special Equipment

Electric or stovetop pressure cooker

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
64 Calories
4g Fat
6g Carbs
1g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 64
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 4g 6%
Saturated Fat 2g 8%
Cholesterol 5mg 2%
Sodium 296mg 13%
Total Carbohydrate 6g 2%
Dietary Fiber 2g 6%
Total Sugars 4g
Protein 1g
Vitamin C 20mg 98%
Calcium 23mg 2%
Iron 1mg 3%
Potassium 330mg 7%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)