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Getting Sauced: Pasta Sauce Formulating SecretsGetting Sauced: Pasta Sauce Formulating Secrets

Kimberly Decker

November 17, 2009

16 Min Read
Getting Sauced: Pasta Sauce Formulating Secrets

What do time-strapped moms, starving students and eligible bachelors flaunting their cooking skills have in common? At one time or another, each has tossed together an emergency dinner using little more than a box of pasta and a jar of store-bought sauce. And the results earned converts. As the supermarket selection of pastas and sauces has grown, all anyone now needs is a pot of waterand someone to wrench the lid off that jarto plate some fairly sophisticated pasta-sauce pairings in minutes.

The convenience of store-bought pasta sauce is a tribute to product-development savvy, but belies the tricky processing, formulation, distribution and storage paths a sauce travels from factory to fettuccine. As Chris Kelly, director, technical services, Advanced Food Systems, Somerset, NJ, says, Depending on whether youre making a tomato sauce, tomato-cream, cream, cream-and-cheese, or just a Marsala-type wine-based sauce, you need to formulate each individually based on how its used, and on how its manufactured and stored.

Feeling the heat

Such complications never wrinkled Grandmas brow as she stirred and simmered her Sunday sugo with loving patience. But treating a sauce with grandmotherly tenderness is no option for operations cranking out 1,000-lb. batches for commercial sale. Manufactured pasta sauces are subject to a fair share of abuse, and the first arrives with the application of heat.

Rachel Zemser, CCS, a San Franciscoarea food technologist who writes The Intrepid Culinologist blog on the CULINOLOGY® magazine website, spent years formulating tomato sauces for pasta and pizza applications. Pasta sauces all have to be heated to a minimum of 175°F to kill off lactic-acid bacteria, yeast and mold, she says. In a perfect world, that would be the only real heat they see. Fresh-packed tomatoes that go right from the field into the can and heated to 165 to 185°F are rendered shelf stable thanks to a sub-4.6 pH, and retain their true tomato flavor, she says, because they have only been heated one time.

But were not making tomato sauce in a perfect world. Some high-volume processors rely on remanufactured tomato paste and diced tomatoes as key ingredients. That processed tomato paste or dice is sold to tomato sauce companies who add their own spices, water and seasonings and then reheat it to 195°F for 5 minutes, Zemser says. Then into the pouch it goes. Flavor-wise, these sauces suffer, because theyve been double-cooked, she says. There is a characteristic cooked-tomato flavor that lacks the freshness you find in fresher tomato sauce. That cooked flavor increases substantially with retorting, but the only tomato sauces regularly retorted are those that contain at least 6% ground meat and are subject to USDA regulation. Those, she says, have to be heated to 250°F-plus temperatures to effectively kill off the most heat-resistant pathogen, Clostridium botulinum.

Retorting is also standard procedure for dairy-based sauces, but can play to their profiles favor. You can use that high-heat/longer-time process to bring some of those dairy flavors out, Kelly says. You heat the sauce first and usually put it in the jar hot. Then, with the come-up time and hold time at the retort stage, you develop some of those desirable cooked notes. You can get some good nutty notes out of it, like browned-cheese notes; or if you have onion and garlic, you can get some of the toasted notes out of them.

Of course, retort reaches its limits, as when sugars and proteins begin to brown extensively. Heat-treatment equipment, such as pipes and plate heat exchangers, can destroy sauce particulate texture, as with a tomato dice. Even sitting in the jar, can or bag over time can cause the tomato dice to deteriorate, Zemser says, noting that calcium chloride enhances dice firmness.

Zemser counsels frequent testing to compare whats whipped up on the bench with what production can practicably run. What happens in the lab stays in the lab and does not always translate to the test production run, she says Chunks of tomato stay nice and big when you make a 1,000-gram batch, but turn to mush when you make a 10,000-lb. batch using heat exchanges, contherms, pressure and everything else involved in real-world processing.

A cruel world

Heat, shear, scale-up: and those are just the trials a sauce suffers in the plant. When released into distribution and home use, the threats multiply. Angelina de Castro, senior technical service technologist, National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ, thinks formulators should also address syneresis prevention on the plate, ingredient suspension in the jar and cling on the pasta. Sauces need to maintain their visual appearance in the jar and on the pasta to maintain consumer loyalty, she says.

Consider the toll that distribution takes on refrigerated and frozen sauces. Refrigerated and frozen sauces are subjected to the most abuse throughout the distribution chain, de Castro says. They need to be robust enough to maintain their optimal texture, appearance and quality through the rigor of drastic temperature fluctuations from plant through transportation, storage, retail and, ultimately, in the household. As more aseptically processed, pouch-packaged sauces show up on shelves, theyll also present new tolerance concerns. Typically heated, homogenized and subjected to HTST processing,250°F-plus (typically 270 to 290ºF) for 2 to 15 seconds vs. 250°F for 20 to 50 minutes in the case of the commercial sterilization of retortingsuch sauces promise a longer shelf life than refrigerated, and a fresher appearance and flavor than jarred.

Stabilizing the patient

The key to shoring up a sauce against abuse is to formulate textural stability and process tolerance into it. Without an optimized texture solution and other functional ingredients in place for the specific product, sauces can easily gel, separate, change color and, in the end, have both eating and visual qualities completely different from those present at the time of manufacture, says Yadunandan Dar, Ph.D., applications technology manager, National Starch Food Innovation. Food formulators and research chefs need to incorporate acid-, heat- and shear-resistant starches, also known as process-tolerant starches, to maintain the desired texture and viscosity after processing.

According to Rachel Wicklund, associate food scientist, Tate & Lyle, Decatur, IL, the typical processing protocol for pasta sauce calls for modified starches. Cross-linking of the amylopectin or amylose chains in starch can greatly improve the heat, shear and acid stability of the starch, she says. Substitution with high-water-binding groups like hydroxypropyl opens and expands the starch granule structure, which adds viscosity, improves the water-holding capacity and stabilizes the texture during the shelf life of the sauce. Cross-linking comes in handy for refrigerated sauces, although the greatest concern for that category is syneresis, a consequence of starch retrogradationa threat that substituted starches help avert, she says.

Aseptically processed products, de Castro says, require a starch that will have superior tolerance to heat and shear, while maintaining excellent mouthfeel and viscosity. In frozen applications, freeze/thaw stability is paramount, calling for starches that provide viscosity, texture, shelf stability and syneresis prevention throughout product life.

Wicklund advises manufacturers to formulate for sauce consistency and texture, as well, particularly as they apply to yield stress, so that the sauce pours from the bottle but clings nicely to the pasta, she says, noting that modified food starches can work with xanthan gum or other hydrocolloids to optimize these attributes. She also adds that a sauce that is too runny may not be acceptable from the consumers viewpoint, and may also promote ingredient separation.

Another consideration is pH. Pasta sauces can vary in pH from the mid 3s to the 6s, de Castro says. Ingredients that are resistant to breakdown at low pH levels are imperative. These may include process-tolerant starchesmodified or clean-labeland certain hydrocolloids.

Coki Fisseha, culinary scientist, TIC Gums, Belcamp, MD, hails hydrocolloids as effective stabilizers in tough pH and processing conditions. Gums are traditionally very process-tolerant, regardless of the method of manufacture, she says, citing xanthan as the hardiest, and the best choice in low-pH environments. Xanthan is the most-tolerant gum below 3.5, she says, but guar and LBG (locust bean gum) will be stable up until that point.

Fisseha suggests carrageenans for neutral pHs, especially in sauces with a dairy base, which introduce a number of their own unique considerations. For starters, not being acidic, dairy sauces generally require retortingor, alternatively, low-temperature storageto ensure microbial safety.

You cant acidify a cream sauce, Zemser notes, because it will taste sournot the way a creamy sauce is supposed to taste.

The high-heat treatment to which we subject dairy sauces demands equally robust stabilizers. Dairy sauces are also typically higher in oil, which requires additional stabilization. The use of emulsifiers, such as egg, monoglycerides or lipophilic starches, is necessary, along with a high-shear finishing step during processing, Wicklund says. Lipophilic starches contain both hydrophilic and lipophilic regions that can emulsify the oil and water phases that are characteristic of dairy-based sauces. They can also extend or replace egg yolk or other emulsifiers that processors typically use.

Alternately, to reduce fats and oils in a dairy sauce, Dar says, starch-based fat mimetics or texturizers provide water binding, body and viscosity, and will increase creaminess because they can provide a fat-like mouthfeel with a very bland flavor.

Gums improve mouthfeel and keep fats and oils in check Guar and LBG are traditionally used to increase viscosity and maintain stability during processing and reheat conditions, Fisseha says. Additionally, emulsion stability can be achieved by adding modified gum arabic. Cheese sauces also benefit from the addition of stabilizers, and carrageenans are perfect for increasing mouthfeel when cheese solids are being optimized.

Optimization is a hot topic in sauce-making circles. In both tomato and dairy-based sauces, processors today are looking at ingredient optimization, such as replacing tomato solids or extending dairy ingredients or reducing fats and oils, says Shana Brewer, senior marketing analyst, savory products North America, National Starch Food Innovation.

The suspense

When it comes to optimizing the addition of particulatesherbs, spices, vegetables, nutsthe key remains stabilization. Inclusions can add additional moisture to the food system, leading to separation, or syneresis, Dar cautions.

Inclusions could also aggregate or separate, affecting the visual appeal of the products. Kelly notes the propensity of some nuts to float above the aqueous medium because of their high lipid content. Also, if you have some bits of ground meat, he says, some of the fat usually melts out during heating, so you get a little bit of fat cap that you want to stabilize, as well.

Kelly also warns against the damage that processing equipment can do to particulate integrity. Youve got to formulate based on the equipment the customer has, he says. As youre dispersing some of the starches, you may grind up some of the particulates, so we take that into account. You need to think of the pumps, the way you add the particulate to the sauce, how you can make sure that you deposit it either in your entrée or in your jars and have everything evenly dispersed.

One trick Dar suggests for suspending particulates, pulp and spices is to increase the sauces low-shear viscosity. This can be achieved using a suitable texturizer solution, he says.

Fisseha points to guar and xanthan gum combinations as being beneficial for suspension of particulates and additional thickening in tomato-based sauces, while guar, LBG and carrageenans work well in dairy-based sauces.

Another important particulate to consider is the sauces raison dêtre: the pasta. In a ready meal, as noodles are cooked, some of the starch in the pasta is released and contributes viscosity and thickening to the sauce, de Castro says. By contrast, high-moisture vegetables in prepared dishes can dilute a thick sauce. The addition of selected starches readily balances out this additional moisture, she says.

And, as Kelly adds: The sauce needs to cling to the pasta without soaking into it too much. And if its a cream- or dairy-based sauce, you cant let it be too pasty or floury.

Whats cooking

Formulators can (and should) spend so much time working on behind-the-scenes formulation particulars that its a relief to step back and consider what were all here for in the first place: to make a tasty pasta sauce. And thats where the expertise of research chefs proves handy. Sean Craig, senior executive chef, Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Gilroy, CA, has studied pasta sauces past and present and has some ideas for taking them into the future.

Whereas sauces in the French canon are, effectively, the offspring of a few mother sauces, Craig says, Italian pasta sauces are more like a big, happy family of diverse personalities, and each sauce is married to a very particular type of pasta based on tradition and geography, but also on the carefully considered affinity between a particular pasta shape and texture and its typical sauce. Of course, contemporary chefs take liberties with these pairings, and the diverse personalities of pasta sauces grant formulators much-appreciated leeway in playing with the pasta-sauce concept.

For example, a pasta sauce neednt be that saucy. As Craig says, the product can vary from what one traditionally thinks of as a pourable sauce to a light and refreshing garden style with less liquidity and more vegetable chunks. In so doing, you capitalize on the healthy halo extra greenery brings. Adding more vegetables to pasta sauces helps adapt pasta meals to the health-and-wellness trend, as well as add bulk to pasta entrées, he says. Controlled-moisture spinach comes frozen and ready to eat, saving product developers from the time- and labor-intensive process of working with fresh spinach. He suggests using the product in stuffed-pasta dishes, or adding it directly to dairy-based systems, where it doesnt add extra water content to the sauce base the way fresh or IQF spinach does.

Another break from standard sauce practice is to play with the tomato-or-dairy dichotomy that has long defined our idea of pasta sauces. Tomato-based sauces are more common in southern Italy, and the fat component is olive oil, Craig explains. Although aromatics like onions and garlic, or a soffritto of onions, celery and carrots, are traditional flavorings, basil, olives, capers, pancetta and chile flakes can all spark up a tomato sauce, he notes. Roasted garlic and tomatoes add depth of flavor to tomato sauce, and we can develop custom seasoning blends to achieve proprietary flavor variations on the classic tomato-sauce theme.

As for dairy-based sauces, Alfredo is the icon in most consumers minds, although, as Craig points out, its dairy foundation comes traditionally from butter and Parmesan cheese and not the milk or cream that processors add to most store-bought versions. Many of the most popular pasta sauces are neither dairy-basedif we except cheesenor tomato-based, he says, citing as examples carbonara, made with pancetta, egg, olive oil and Pecorino; aglio-olio, with its garlic, chile flakes, olive oil and parsley; and classic Bolognese meat sauce, which has a touch of tomato paste and milk, but not so much of either as to strongly characterize the sauce.

Not all popular pasta sauces trace their roots to Italy, either. You might not think of the United States as having its own pasta tradition, Craig says, but what could be more American than macaroni-and-choose, orin spite of the Italian-sounding namegood-old pasta Tetrazzini? And, with Asian cuisines grabbing the spotlight, formulators are paying attention to how they use their noodles. The Asian tradition, Craig says, is not one of a separately made sauce thats added to the pasta, but of a layering of noodles with a particular set of ingredientseggs, tofu, bean sprouts and seasonings in pad Thai, for example. In other cases, noodles might be coated in oyster sauce or a lightly thickened combination of soy sauce, rice wine, chicken stock and seasoning.

The big, happy family of pasta sauces is getting biggerand tastierby the day.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].


The Safety Dance

Manufacturers of hot-fill tomato sauces have a straightforward strategy for keeping their products free of spoilage organisms. In addition to maintaining a clean plant, they heat their sauces to a minimum of 165°F to kill off lactic-acid bacteria, yeast and mold, then count on the acidic nature of their tomatoesbelow pH 4.6, generallyto keep their products out of the Clostridium botulism germination zone.

But getting the pH just right is a delicate dance between safety and organoleptics. While a sub-4.6 pH isn't so pivotal in refrigerated or frozen sauceswhose storage method keeps microbial growth in checkor in retorted products that eradicate bugs thermally, it's the safety linchpin for many tomato sauces on the shelf. Formulating a sauce with a pH down at that level would be no sweat if it weren't for one little matter: flavor.

"Non-retorted tomato-based sauces can be very acidic and sour tasting," says Rachel Zemser, CCS, a San Francisco-based food technologist who writes "The Intrepid Culinologist" blog for on the CULINOLOGY® magazine website. That taste isn't exactly a desired trait. Therefore, she says, "the goal is always to reduce the acid perception while still staying in that safe pH range below 4.6."

That's where the delicate dance comes in: keeping the pH at a palatable level, but low enough to prevent the germination of pathogenic spores. So, beware the effect added ingredients have on sauce pH. For example, Zemser says, "big, non-acidic particulateslike carrotscan cause low-acid pockets in the sauce, and it must be ensured that the pH equilibrates to below 4.6 for shelf-stable, non-retorted sauces like tomato sauce in a pouch, jar or can." Keep those pH meters handy.

Finally, Zemser advises processors of acidified tomato saucesthose with low-acid ingredientsthat "the FDA needs to know your processing plans so they can verify that your product is equilibrating below pH 4.6 and being processed properly. You can let the FDA know what you're doing by submitting form 2541A for food-canning establishments."


Pasta Sauces 2.0

As sublime as a perfect pesto or classic clam sauce may be, isnt it time we give the stand-bys a little shake? Sean Craig, senior executive chef, Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Gilroy, CA, has some suggestions for updating all the old favorites.

  • Marinara is an elegantly simple sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil. But its this very simplicity that makes it so ideal for improving with additions like shrimp, scallops or tuna; diced, roasted vegetables; Indian or Latin American spice combinations; or pretty much any herb that you like.

  • Pesto is typically made with basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. But it can easily be skewed toward a different profile by varying the ingredientse.g., cilantro gives pasta a Latin spin; add hot green chiles and coconut and youre got pesto Indian-style.

  • Alfredo has already been widely adapted with the addition of milk or cream, but its also a great base for cheese beyond the typical Parmesan, as well as for herb purées.

  • Amatriciana combines bacon or pancetta, tomatoes, and onions with a touch of spicy chile flakes. Shreds of tender pulled pork, meaty slices of grilled mushrooms or strips of roasted peppers each add a new dimension to this sauce.

  • Clam sauces fall into two camps: white wine, garlic, and olive-oil-based white clam sauce, and tomato-based red clam sauce. In either case, naturally, clams are a must. But whos to stop you from adding other shellfish, like mussels and shrimp, or zesty flavor elements like capers and olives?

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer that has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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