Semi Homemade


The following originally appeared on 5/20/09 at Exit 51.

Semi Homemade

I don’t understand people’s obsession with homemade tomato sauce.  Never have.  When I make sauce from scratch, I end up feeling that my time has been wasted and I should have just opened a jar instead.  Especially meat sauce.  For years, and I do mean many years, I convinced myself that I could not make meat sauce.  Because even when I started with jarred sauce and added ground beef, the results were dismal. Instead of being velvety and rich, I would end up with a greasy, thick sauce that had big chunks of tough ground beef.  It was more Sloppy Joe than spaghetti sauce.  Definitely not what I was going for.  And then Cook’s Illustrated showed me the error of my ways.

As it turns out, I was missing a crucial step in the process.  Namely, the food processor.  Not to get too technical, but the reason the ground beef was always tough and dry was that the cooking process squeezed every bit of goodness out of even the chuckiest ground chuck.  The solution was to insulate the ground beef with a mixture of bread and milk, called a panade.  Crazy right?  Here, I’ll let them explain it:

“What is a panade and what do you use it for? A panade is a paste of milk and bread that is typically used to help foods like meatballs and meatloaf hold their shape and moisture. Starches from the bread absorb liquid from the milk to form a gel that coats and lubricates the protein molecules in the meat, much in the same way as fat, keeping them moist and preventing them from linking together to form a tough matrix. Mixing the beef and panade in a food processor helps to ensure that the starch is well dispersed so that all the meat reaps its benefits.”

Sure enough, the addition of milk and bread to the ground beef worked like magic.   I began making the most fantastic meat sauce, even with really lean (93%) ground beef.  Incroyable!!

Yes, this method does require you to get the food processor dirty.  But I promise you, it will be worth it.  And once you master the technique, don’t be surprised if you find yourself making double batches so that you have sauce waiting at your beck and call in the freezer.

Like I said, I don’t understand all the to do over homemade sauce.  Being utterly shameless, I am perfectly happy to take a jarred sauce that I like and tinker with it.  If Sandra Lee can build an entire career out of the Semi Homemade approach, I can certainly use the philosophy so that my whole wheat ziti is not sitting naked on the plate.

Semi Homemade Meat Sauce

Science courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated

  • 2 jars spaghetti sauce
  • 1 pound lean ground beef (85% to 93% should work well)
  • 1 slice white bread, torn into quarters
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 shallot (optional)

Put shallot, bread, and milk into food processor and pulse until paste forms.  The milk and bread will combine completely and stick to the sides of the food processor work bowl.  If your panade is on the dry side, add more milk a teaspoon at a time until the paste forms.

Add the ground beef and pulse until the mixture is well combined.  It will look mushy and pasty, that’s ok.

Heat a dutch oven or large saucepan over medium-high heat and add groundbeef.  Cook, breaking meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon or spatula, until beef loses its raw color, anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes (or slightly more) just make sure that meat does not brown.

Stir in the spaghetti sauce, cover, and gently simmer 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, for flavors to combine.  Add salt, pepper, and any other herbs to taste.  If you have some balsamic vinegar or red wine, consider adding a bit to the sauce as it simmers.

Serve with your favorite pasta and freeze the leftover sauce, that is if you can keep yourself from sopping it all up with chunks of hearty bread.

9 thoughts on “Semi Homemade

    1. Jen, I’m sure there are more of us that are too ashamed to admit to dependence on jarred sauce. Hopefully they will find the courage to stand up and say “Hi, I’m ____. I use jarred pasta sauce and I’m ok with that.”

  1. Hi, I’m Omawarisan, and I use jarred pasta sauce. This is a painful admission for me given that my dad’s family came over on the boat from Italy one generation ago.

    I got the same result trying to make meat sauce, Wendi, but realized that the results were so much better when I accidentally made a panade when I made meatballs. Thanks for letting me know why!

    1. Hello Omawarisan. Thanks for sharing. Our next support group will meet at my dining room table in about six hours. Who wants to bring the pasta sauce?

      The panade is a miracle worker. It takes meat sauce from drab to fab and answers one of life’s biggest mysteries – why my sauce had been drab for so long.

  2. I’m absolutely up for giving this a go, anything that takes meat sauce from drab to fab would be a winner for me (although, I’ve made some pretty mean Italian meat sauces in my time), but I’m game…, looking forward to giving this a try. Thanks Wendi 🙂

    1. Anna, I know many people swear by homemade sauce but I must not have inherited the gene that is responsible for that skill. So my best bet is to fancy up jarred sauce. This approach is great when you’re short on time, or ingredients for homemade sauce, but still want a fab way to dress your pasta.

    1. Wendi, give your husband a night off…get one of the boys to do it. I imagine making a pasty mess in the food processor would be quite appealing to a kid.

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