Sugar is a beautiful thing. Dessert, coffee, candy, and as a term of endearment, sugar has a special place in most of our lives. But does sugar have a place in spaghetti sauce? Online, it seemed to be a heated debate with some very strong opinions. So, I asked some of my friends.
Michelle said, "Absolutely NOT. What are you freaking nuts??" Settle down, Michelle! It's just a question!
Michael, Maria, and Kelly simply said "No". I think they may have unfriended me just for asking.
Barry upped that reply with an emphatic "Hell NO!"
Diane told me, "My Italian grandmother always put a pinch of sugar in her sauce. It cut the acid, she said. Also, it was how I learned what a "pinch" was cooking-wise."
Lea backed up her PRO argument with a video clip that says it all. "Absolutely! Gotta cut that acidity! Like the Italian grandmas and the Corleone family!"
Aileen told me, "My aunt always adds a small sprinkle of sugar if she was dealing with store-bought canned tomatoes but she always said you didn't need it if the tomatoes are fresh. She told me it cuts the acidity and makes up for the sweetness they lose in processing."
David yelled at me and questioned my sanity. But then constructively added his solution. "NEVER!!! WHAT THE F*%k!!! Just kidding. No. I prefer to use finely minced carrots, celery, and onion for sweeteners and flavor and to cut the acid."
Mike said, "You don't need sugar if you use lots of onion and GOOD tomatoes" Mike is an actual chef too.
Candy had a good tip. "Yes and no. Some people prefer the sweet to cut the tart of the tomatoes AND it cuts the acidity out. If you don't like sweet, but also don't want heartburn, you can use a pinch of baking soda "
Joy confessed a family secret! "Depends on what mood you're in. I tend to like a sweet sauce so do my kids so I add it my grandma who was from Sicily always used it in her broken English she would say don't tell your dad"
So the opinions are varied and valid.
Why Add Sugar to Spaghetti
Adding sugar to spaghetti sauce is intended to reduce the acidity of the tomatoes. Sugar can add balance to a big comforting bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, especially if the tomatoes are missing that natural sweetness. But sugar certainly isn't required.
If you are using good quality naturally sweet tomatoes for your sauce, you may end up avoiding adding any sugar. The sweetness of the natural sugars will be released when they're cooking. But when the final sauce isn't the flavor profile you were going for, adding sugar comes in handy.
Adding sugar originated in Southern Italy when the tomatoes were out of season or not quite ripe enough to cook all those delicious dishes. Even the taste of your favorite brand of canned tomatoes can vary. Adding sugar can get the sweetness level up and the acidic tartness down. Try adding brown sugar in meat sauces instead of white sugar! But either sugar will work."
When To Add Sugar & How to Fix Too Sweet Spaghetti
Pro Tip: Don't add ANY sugar until your sauce is almost finished cooking. You want to give that natural sweetness of the tomatoes a fighting chance to come through. If you decide to add sugar at this point, go slow with very small pinches at a time. Stir, let simmer some more, and then taste again. Trust your taste but very gradually is the key.
If you find yourself in "oops" moment and you've adding TOO MUCH sugar, add a splash of lemon juice or vinegar to balance the acidity again. Another indulgent way to balance your tomato sauce, is to add some butter right after your spaghetti and sauce hits the plate. The fat in the butter cuts the acidity too. Plus, it's butter. How can you go wrong? Dip that crusty bread in and enjoy.