Why A Dash Of Sugar Will Kick Your Tomato Sauce Up A Notch

Whether you call it tomato sauce or red gravy, many people strive to accurately make their favorite childhood spaghetti topping taste just like Nonna's. All the best cooks have suggestions for getting that simple marinara just right — a splash of olive oil, a cup of red wine, or perhaps a bay leaf. Everyone has an opinion.

The humble tomato sauce is the foundation for many variations of Italian dishes. Are you craving a spicy pasta arrabbiata or maybe an aromatic tagliatelle all'aglione with loads of fresh garlic? No matter what recipe you decide to make, it all starts with a simple sauce. The tomato sauce you use can make or break a meal, so before you gather all the ingredients you need for that lasagna, you'll want to get that red sauce just right.

One addition that many chefs believe can make all the difference in a tasty tomato sauce is the one ingredient that most cooks already have in their pantry: plain white sugar.

Just a pinch will do

The purpose of adding a pinch of sugar to tomato sauce is to balance the acidity of the tomatoes (per The Guardian). Every good cook knows to taste the sauce before adding any potentially unnecessary ingredients, and sugar is no exception. Start with a pinch, taste it and add another pinch until you achieve the flavor you want. Wide Open Eats cautions against adding sugar to the sauce too soon in the cooking process. Add it toward the end when you're adding your fresh basil. Give the tomatoes some time to sweeten the sauce on their own.

Including a sweetener in your tomato sauce depends on your tomato type. If tomato season is over and you resort to canned tomatoes, a minute amount of sugar can enhance the sauce. However, you may not need it if you make sauce from in-season homegrown San Marzano or another sweet variety of tomatoes.


Jarred sauces can be a lifesaver when you don't have time to cook from scratch — no judgment here. Feel free to add more garlic or Italian seasoning to that sauce but avoid adding any sweeteners, as many premade sauces already contain a lot of sugar. According to Integrative Nutrition, one particular brand of jarred sauce has 24 grams per cup, so read the labels to see which brands contain the least amount of sugar.

Table sugar isn't the only ingredient you can add to mellow out the taste of your tomato sauce. A pinch of brown sugar or an unrefined sweetener such as coconut sugar can add a nice layer of flavor that'll still balance the acidity. Many professional cooks, including celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, use carrots instead of sugar to add sweetness plus a nutritional boost to their sauce.

Now that's something even Nonna would approve of.