Often when making tomato sauce, the taste can turn out to be unpleasantly bitter or metallic. This is particularly true of canned tomatoes which can vary in sweetness between brands. There are a few tricks that I mention in this article that I use to fix a bitter tomato sauce.
To fix a bitter tomato sauce, try cooking the sauce longer to sweeten it, or adding baking soda to neutralize its high acidity. Sugar, butter, or cream can help mask the bitterness. Consider the type of tomato you use in your sauce and the level of ripeness as this will contribute to the bitterness.
Tomato sauce can be bitter because tomatoes are naturally very acidic. The tomatoes also might be of poor quality or not ripe enough which gives the fruit their sweetness – so it’s worth buying the best you can.
Maybe there was too much tomato paste used – I wrote a whole article on balancing tomato paste if that’s your problem.
Thankfully, I have a few steps for you to follow and turn the situation around. Read on to learn how to fix bitter tomato sauce and follow these steps to saucy success. I’ve also included some of my favorite tomato sauce recipes.
Fixing Bitter Tomato Sauce
Tomato sauce typically turns bitter because of the high acid levels in the tomatoes, using poor quality canned tomatoes or tomatoes that aren’t ripe enough.
We will go a little deeper into other causes soon, but for now, let’s look at rescuing that sauce and your meal. All of our options are ideas on how to rescue a sauce already cooked.
Option One: Check Your Salt
The first and easiest option is to try adding some salt. In small quantities, salt reduces bitterness and enhances sweetness. In larger quantities, it will increase savory flavors and become too “salty”. We definitely want to avoid that so be careful.
Try adding a pinch or two of salt and see if the sauce improves in flavor. It may or may not help, but if not then don’t keep adding salt. Especially if you are going to try the next step in reducing the sauce as it will become saltier.
Option Two: Cook Down Your Sauce More
It’s well known that cooking your tomato sauce will sweeten and intensify it. This might be due to the sauce becoming more concentrated or the cooking process just bringing out more sweet flavors in the tomato. Some tomatoes start fairly sweet but some just need that extra reduction to sweeten up.
If you’ve got the time then the longer the better. A good sauce needs 45 minutes or more, but the best ones have a few hours. So try giving your sauce another 30 minutes or so of cooking and see if it has improved.
A gentle simmer is fine; you don’t want to be too aggressive as this could burn it or overcook it.
Option Three: Baking Soda
Baking soda is an alkali so neutralizes the acid in the tomatoes. A bit like the science experiments in school of mixing baking soda and vinegar, it will make the sauce fizz temporarily and then less acidic. Baking soda is safe to eat in amounts you might use in baking (i.e. a teaspoon or two) and has minimal taste.
It’s worth trying this before adding sugar as sugar can make your sauce sweet if not careful.
To add baking soda to bitter tomato sauce:
- Try 1/4 teaspoon at a time.
- Add, stir and taste. If the sauce is still bitter, add another 1/4 teaspoon, stir and taste again.
- Repeat this process until your sauce is neutralized and hopefully tastes better.
Option Four: Sugar
This might be seen as a bit of a “hack” in the cookery world, but it does work. Remember that you want to add just enough sugar to reduce the bitterness but not enough so that you can actually taste sugar. If you get to that point then you’ve gone too far.
To add sugar to your bitter tomato sauce, add ¼ teaspoon at a time. Add, stir and taste. If your sauce is still bitter after the first ¼ teaspoon, repeat the process.
You may notice that your sauce is a little unbalanced in other ways once the bitterness is gone. Don’t be afraid to add salt, oregano, and different flavors towards the end, to suit your tastes.
Option Five: Butter Or Cream
Fat can help a bitter sauce in the same way that milk or cream helps a bitter black coffee. The richness masks the bitter notes and the sugar from the lactose will sweeten the sauce.
Butter will add richness without being too invasive. Cream will transform the sauce quite drastically as it will become creamy and orange rather than tomatoey red. Pick the one which will suit your final dish best.
To add butter or cream to your bitter tomato sauce:
- Place a heaped teaspoon into your sauce.
- Allow it to melt and mix it in.
- Try your sauce and add a little more if necessary.
If It’s Still Bitter
Consider that the fault could lie with your tomatoes. If you have used fresh tomatoes, they could be at the incorrect stage of ripeness. If you used canned tomatoes, it is possible that the seeds were crushed in the canning process, causing bitterness. Check out my post on fresh tomatoes vs canned tomatoes for sauces.
Why Does Tomato Sauce Turn Bitter?
Tomato sauce turns bitter for a few reasons. Most of them have to do with acid. Let’s look into what makes tomatoes turn bitter and how you can possibly avoid this cooking catastrophe. Firstly picking the best tomatoes.
Choose The Best Tomatoes For Sauce
Plum tomatoes make great options for sauces. They are relatively sweet and are synonymous with Italian sauces. If you are using canned tomatoes for your sauce, it is good to select whole tomatoes and not diced or chopped ones.
Whole tomatoes are the best quality while the chopped/crushed ones use the lesser quality leftovers. These sometimes have their seeds crushed or cut during the canning process. Crushed seeds can lead to bitter tomatoes before reaching your pot.
So I recommend buying the best quality canned whole plum tomatoes for your sauces. Unless you are in season and have access to great tomatoes on the vine.
A few tomatoes that typically make great sauces include:
- San Marzano
- Amish Paste
- Viva Italia
- Big Mama
San Marzano (Italian heirloom tomatoes) are probably the best tomato for sauce. They are sweeter, have low water content, thin skins and fewer seeds.
The type of tomato you select for your sauce can determine the levels of bitterness. Most of us prefer tomatoes with a good balance of sugar and acid.
Tomatoes that spend the longest on the vine are of the best quality as they have maximum sunlight which leads to more sugars. This often means the best tomatoes are the canned ones from places like Italy where they are harvested late and canned straight away. Avoid canned tomatoes with added herbs as they can taste metallic.
If your tomatoes were perfect before cooking, the bitter taste in your sauce could be because of a few other factors.
What Causes Bitterness In Tomato Sauce?
Bad tomatoes, too much acidity, seeds, skins, burnt garlic, bad herbs, or aluminum pans can all cause bitter tomato sauce.
Now that we have covered which tomatoes are best, let’s look into a few reasons your sauce could be turning bitter while cooking. If you have used sweet tomatoes, there are a few other reasons your sauce could become bitter along the way.
Here are a few points to consider:
- Be careful when frying your garlic. If cooked even slightly too long, garlic burns and becomes bitter.
- Add herbs like oregano and basil towards the end of the cook. When herbs are over-cooked, they become bitter.
- Avoid cooking your sauce in an aluminum pan as it can affect the taste of acidic foods. Go for a stainless steel or iron pan instead to enjoy a better-tasting sauce.
- Try to use tomatoes with no skins and no seeds, as both can contribute to a bitter taste in your sauce.
- Try to add a little grated carrot to your tomato sauce. This is how many Italian people add a little natural sugar to their dishes. Adding a little carrot to the sauce brings the acid levels down and makes the sauce taste great.
Do Tomato Skins Make Sauce Bitter?
Tomato skins can make a tomato sauce bitter so it is advised to remove them from fresh tomatoes before reducing them into a sauce. Canned tomatoes usually have the skins removed.
The skins contain antioxidants called flavonols which can cause bitterness. When the skin is cooked for a long time, the flavonols give off a bitter taste into the sauce.
The fact that tomato skins make the sauce bitter is one reason to peel your tomatoes before adding them to your sauce. Another reason is the texture. If you don’t mind having pieces of differently-textured tomato skin in your sauce, then it could be acceptable to leave it in. If you prefer a consistently smooth texture in your sauces, it may be best to use tomatoes with no skin.
I wrote a whole article on whether you should peel tomatoes along with tips on how to remove the skins and seeds which you should check out.
When cooking tomatoes whole or using them in a sandwich, it is entirely acceptable to use them with their skin on. These anti-oxidants can help lower your risk of certain cancers, heart disease, etc. Keeping the skin on when cooking a tomato whole will help keep it together until it reaches your plate.
Why Does Salt Make Tomatoes Taste Better?
Salt enhances flavor and reduces bitterness on tomatoes. A salted tomato tastes a little more intense and sweeter than an unsalted tomato, which can often taste bland.
Salt will enhance all foods and make them taste more intense. From french fries to bread, if you leave out the salt then the food tastes a lot more muted.
Another way salt works to make tomatoes taste better is on your tongue. When your tongue tastes salt, it produces more saliva. Having more saliva in your mouth means that the delicious taste of the tomato can spread across your tastebuds.
When salt is added to a tomato, it makes the tomato go into osmosis. The salt stimulates the liquids to be drawn out of the cells. When you eat tomato with salt on, it is less juicy but more flavorful.
Tasting salt also tricks your brain into tasting less bitterness and more sweetness. Salt is added to cookies and chocolate and pretty much every baked goods. And don’t forget salted caramel!
Best Tomato Sauce Recipes
Making tomato sauce is fairly straight forward. Some quality tomatoes, garlic, herbs and oil and you can’t go wrong. But checking out some good recipes will set you on the right track. Here are some ones I love:
If you are after an Italian-American sauce, then The Best Italian-American Tomato Sauce Recipe by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will make you swoon. This will make an incredible sauce with canned tomatoes but does take a little more time. The research and write up in the recipe is epic too.
This Homemade Tomato Sauce uses fresh tomatoes that are skinned, diced up and then reduced down. Perfect if you have access to some ripe fresh tomatoes from a farm or your backyard.
Finally there is a Super Simple Marinara Sauce which is easy as it uses canned tomatoes and is quicker, cooking in 45 minutes. The best option for when you don’t have hours to wait but still packs a flavor punch.
What makes tomatoes go bitter in a sauce really comes down to the acid levels and the ripeness of tomato. Try to use plum tomatoes or whole, skinned tomatoes from a can when making tomato sauce. If your sauce has become bitter while cooking, try adding a little baking soda, sugar, or butter to rescue it.
When all else fails, salt makes tomatoes taste a lot sweeter, whether by altering their moisture levels or stimulating your salivary glands. Try to use tomatoes with no skins or seeds for your sauce, as skins and seeds add a bitter flavor to tomato sauce.