Tomato-based dishes, from pasta puttanesca to a vindaloo, all have something in common: they all need help with their ‘bliss point’. Here’s how to create gastrique – the simple element your tomato sauce is missing that’ll take your cooking to another level.
How many times have you tasted the tomato base you’ve cooked for pasta, soups, curries, stews and bakes and thought this needs something extra?
How many times have you added extra herbs, spices, salt, sugar and a variety of other ingredients and the sauce has still lacked that little kick that takes it way above a regular sauce?
It used to happen to me all the time, and then I found a seemingly little-known trick called ‘gastrique’.
To professional chefs and food scientists, this is probably no surprise at all.
But I haven’t met a fellow kitchen hermit yet who has shrugged and gone ‘oh yeah. I thought everyone knew that’.
Here’s how – and why – you make gastrique.
Gastrique – the life and soul of your tomato party
In the past, when I’ve noticed my tomato sauces aren’t really doing much in terms of flavour, I’ve tried adding more and more salt, thinking that would help, but it just flattens out the flavour.
I’ve added a bit of sugar, but it’s only done so much. I’ve even added vinegar, hoping it might lift the sauce, but it’s never really worked either.
I discovered gastrique while watching an old episode of Rick Stein’s cooking show with our mates Clare and Dave. If there’s nothing on TV, Dave and I will always end up watching a bit of classic Stein. His shows are great.
But when he talked about gastrique, I was fascinated and really keen to try it.
This recipe is from what I could glean from various websites and books. It’s occasionally hinted at, rarely explained and almost never talked about in terms of exact measurements. I’ve also spoken to Italians who are far better cooks than me and they ‘haven’t heard of it’.
I wonder if I’ve somehow broken into some kind of magic circle for chefs. My life could be in danger just by knowing this stuff!
Here’s how to make gastrique
– 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
– 2-3 tbsp caster sugar
1. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar in a pan over a medium to high heat.
2. Heat until you create a syrup, where the surface blisters but not to the point where it gets too thick, then add it to your tomato sauce while it’s still hot.
I taste-tested my sauce before and after adding the gastrique.
The result was astonishing.
This much gastrique is enough for a large batch of sauce – two to three litres. More than that and you might need to increase the amount of gastrique you make.
Gastrique really can be added to all kinds of rich, non-creamy sauces*, stews, gravies and curries to give that extra layer of flavour that brings everything together.
*Edit: I tried adding a little gastrique to creamy polenta last night – really brings out the flavours of the stock.
What is the bliss point?
Our brother-in-law is a food scientist and explained how and why gastrique works. He hadn’t heard of this specific technique before, but said it makes sense.
It’s part of what’s called the ‘bliss point’.
A perfect storm of flavours in the taste matrix of sweet, sour and salty. You build that point up until it peaks and becomes an almost monosodium glutamate factor.
You can’t put your finger on what the flavour is, it’s just intense and delicious.
At it’s quickest and simplest, a tomato sauce is finely chopped onion and garlic, a tin of good quality crushed tomato all cooked down.
You can blanche, peel, de-seed and cook down whole fresh tomatoes if you have time, but however you get there, this tomato base becomes one of the most versatile components to cooking.
Add chilli for an arabiata sauce, meat for a ragu, spices for a chilli or a curry, more water for a soup base or a stew… the options are endless once you have that basic tomato sauce.
But believe me, that moment you add gastrique to your sauce is when all the flavours of whatever you’re cooking really sing.