Improving Pizza Sauce - Modernist Cuisine

Improving Pizza Sauce

MPSeptember 15, 2023

A large tomato, often used in tomato sauce.

You can make pizza without cheese. You can make it without toppings. But to many, pizza is not pizza without some kind of sauce on top, which is why learning to improve your tomato sauce can seriously elevate your pizza. Here, you’ll discover quick and easy ways to elevate the flavor profiles of your tomato pizza sauces, whether you’re starting from scratch or want to punch up store-bought options.

The role of sauce in pizza making extends beyond its general culinary purposes of adding moisture and flavor. The nature of the sauce—including its liquid content, placement on the dough or around the toppings, and when it’s added to the pizza—can significantly influence the final outcome of both the pizza and its toppings.

For instance, sauce plays a protective role for the center of thin-crust and medium-crust pizzas, preventing their expansion and bubbling during baking. It also acts as a heat sink, its temperature limited to 100°C / 212°F until all water evaporates. This property shields delicate toppings from the oven’s high heat, making it a practical choice to cover ingredients like clams before baking.

The sauce’s liquid content is a key factor linked to pizza type, affecting baking time and temperature. Neapolitan pizza, baked at extreme heat, features a wet sauce that rapidly evaporates, forming a smooth, pulpy topping by the end of baking. On the other end, New York pizza requires a less watery sauce to avoid sogginess, given its lower temp and longer baking process. Temperature is also vital during saucing; applying cold sauce to dough can lower its temperature and affect baking time, potentially leading to issues like a gel layer. Room-temperature tempering for two hours is advised, while in specific cases like Detroit-style and deep-dish pizzas, heated sauce application post-baking is preferred. In essence, the intricate interplay between sauce consistency, temperature, and pizza type highlights how sauces on pizzas go beyond conventional culinary roles, acting as essential elements in achieving diverse textures and flavors across various pizza styles.


Although there are many kinds of pizza sauce, the most common kind is tomato, which is what we’ll be focusing on in this post. 

Pizzaioli commonly equate sauce with tomatoes, linking the strength of the sauce to the quality of the tomato. Chefs approach sauce differently, believing in enhancing flavors and equilibrium by introducing diverse elements to their sauces—a culinary dichotomy evident in Neapolitan pizza makers versus pasta chefs who create intricate sauces. The former uses canned, crushed tomatoes, while the latter create elaborate concoctions from many ingredients. One school of thought advocates adjusting sauces with salt, sugar, or acids in order to maintain consistency, while the other says to only use top-tier tomatoes. But it’s not always possible to use fresh ingredients all year round, which is why we think it’s important to know what ingredients to use to improve your tomato sauces.  

Tomato sauce usually has some general characteristics: acid, sweetness, and umami (savoriness). These characteristics can be bumped up or, depending on the application, used to correct a flaw or enhance flavors to get a particular result. You can view it as adjusting to improve a sauce that isn’t perfect or as a chance to make your own creation.

Even though tomatoes have a good amount of naturally occurring umami in them, they can be lacking in flavor, especially if they are out of season or were harvested when they were not quite ripe. We typically recommend that you season your sauce with salt and/or dried oregano, but you can also attain some complex flavor profiles with other flavorings. Add the following (either on their own or in combination; if using a combination, don’t use as much as we recommend for a single addition). For example, if there are two additions, divide the amount for each by two; if there are three additions, divide by three, and so on.


Most tomato sauces are somewhat acidic, but sometimes they can be flat. Use these ingredients to liven up your tomato sauce (adding salt helps too). Try 1% to 2% of

  • vinegar (white, champagne, red wine, white wine, and/or balsamic),
  • lime juice, or
  • lemon juice.


  • 0.4%–0.6% MSG: There is an assumption surrounding MSG that it’s unsafe, but we can assure you this is false. In fact, MSG is a principal ingredient in tomatoes.
  • 1.5%–2.5% anchovy oil: The more you add, the more anchovy-like the sauce will get. Whether that is a good or bad thing is up to you.
  • 1%–2% mushroom powder: We recommend shiitake or porcini. You won’t taste the mushrooms, but they will contribute a savory note.
  • 0.5%–1% soy sauce: Use sparingly.
  • 2%–3% Worcestershire sauce: Use sparingly.
  • 2%–3% fish sauce: Use sparingly.


  • 7–8 tomato leaves per kilo: Tomato leaves in small amounts can provide a very intense tomato taste. Some people believe that they are poisonous, but we can assure you they are not. Stir into the sauce and allow to sit for at least 3–4 hours to flavor.
  • 8%–10% tomato paste: Even the smallest amount of tomato paste is typically too much for most preparations. Use what you need, and freeze the rest flat in a zip-top bag so that you can break off pieces of it as you need it.
  • 3%–4% freeze-dried tomatoes: If you cannot find these, use sun-dried tomatoes, which have a slightly different taste and texture, but will add the desired tomato flavor.


Try any of these ingredients at 1%–4%. This percentage is wide because it is up to you how much to use, whether you want to sweeten the sauce or tame its acidity. Add 1 gram or 1/4 teaspoon at a time and taste:

  • sugar,
  • agave syrup, or
  • honey, or hot honey.


  • A1 steak sauce as needed. While you don’t necessarily want the pizza sauce to taste like steak sauce, A1 and other steak sauces have flavoring ingredients that work really well with pizza sauce, such as vinegar, tomato puree, garlic, onions, and celery seed.
  • 5–6 fresh basil leaves per kilo
  • Spicy ingredients (crushed red pepper flakes, commercial hot sauces, fresh chilis, dried chilis, chipotle peppers, cayenne, yuzu kosho, gochujang, sriracha)

Our team would love to see your improved sauces and the pizzas you’ve created, so please tag us in your social media posts if you end up experimenting with these techniques.

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