If you’ve ever attempted a homemade tomato sauce for pasta night, you may have ended up with an acidic sauce. In that case, you may have reached for a dash of sugar to balance out the flavors. But does sugar belong in tomato sauce?

Whether sugar should be used in a home-made tomato sauce depends entirely on the type of tomatoes you’re using.

When not to use sugar

When you’re using fresh, in-season, tomatoes in your tomato sauce, you most likely don’t need to add additional sugar.

Organic tomatoes found at the farmers’ market are particularly fresh. Farmers’ market tomatoes are picked when they’re ripe and available only when tomatoes are in-season. Although it’s unfortunate that their availability is not year-round, their taste make up for it. Organic and fully ripe tomatoes are full of nutrients and flavors. They simply don’t compare to the tomatoes found in grocery stores.

In-season tomatoes are usually more difficult to store, which is why some may avoid them. They usually have blemishes, bruise and tear much easier, and have a significantly shorter shelf-life compared to store-bought tomatoes. But these imperfections are how you know that that the tomatoes are perfect for your tomato sauce.

Ripe tomatoes are dense with flavors, juices, and are higher in sugar content. In-season tomatoes are so sweet on their own that they don’t need more sugar.

In the USA, tomatoes are most fresh from May through October. However, the specific months of availability vary from state to state. So, make sure to check when tomatoes are in season at your closest farmers’ market.

When to use sugar

If your tomatoes are from the grocery store, and especially if it’s not tomato season, chances are you’ll need to add sugar to your tomato sauce.

Grocery store tomatoes are usually picked before they fully ripen so that they can last longer between the fields and the kitchen. Also, mass-produced tomatoes have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sugar that they can produce. The process of premature picking and genetics results in the bland and acidic tasting tomatoes. Which leads to a less flavorful and a more acidic tomato sauce.

So, when using grocery store tomatoes, you may find that additional sugar is necessary to create a rich and flavorful tomato sauce.

How to add sugar

If you need to add sugar to your tomato sauce, it should be the last step of your dish before letting it simmer and thicken. You can add brown or white sugar, depending on your preferences. But the amount of sugar you add depends entirely on how acidic the sauce is.

To add sugar without putting in too much, add a little dash at a time. Stir and taste after each time to prevent over-sweetening. If your sauce is still too acidic and you’ve already added a lot of sugar, add a cut of butter to the sauce. Butter has a high-fat content which helps to balance out some of the acidity.

Depending on the type of tomatoes you’re using (canned, store-bought, or farmer’s market tomatoes), the acidity of your tomato sauce will vary. If you’re using fresh farmer’s market tomatoes, you may not need to additional sugar. But if you’re using store-bought and out-of-season tomatoes, chances are your sauce may be a little too acidic and will benefit from the additional dash of sugar.

Check out our quick and simple tomato sauce with basil recipe and other tomato dishes: