Cheap, fresh and saucy

Food - Bee Wilson on how home-made is best

It would be hard to get anyone who cares about such things to disagree with the proposition that tinned tomatoes are better for cooking with than fresh, except for during a few, rare, happy weeks in summer when fresh tomatoes acquire a ripeness and perfume that nothing can match. It would also be hard to find anyone - whether they care about it or not - who'd deny that tinned tomatoes are fantastic value. "Economy" tomatoes can be had for 12p a tin, and even "premium" brands, whose tomatoes are sweeter and more accurately peeled, will cost you only about 30p or 40p for 400g. In other words, tinned tomatoes are both cheap and excellent. So why do we continue to subsidise the bottled pasta sauce industry, whose products are neither cheap nor good?

The economics of it are simply madness. In certain branches of Sainsbury's, you can now buy a jar of tomato and basil pasta sauce that costs £7.95. Eight pounds! Some of the money goes on shipping tomatoes all the way from Italy to New York and all the way back to Europe again, which only reinforces the insanity of it. Admittedly, it is a very large jar (707.5g, to be precise), and the label on the front reads "Dean & Deluca marinara sauce", with an elegant picture of tomato, onion, basil, a red chilli and a papery white head of garlic. But when all's said and done, it is nothing more than a lot of ketchuppy-tasting diced tomatoes, rather highly seasoned with garlic and chilli, ahem, I mean "specially selected spices". So why eight pounds? The only way the pricing of Dean & Deluca sauce could possibly make sense would be if the product were better than all its competitors. Depressing as it may seem, this might be true.

Most bottled pasta sauces are palatable only if you use them in such minute quantities, and on such perfectly cooked pasta, that all you really taste is the butter, salt and pepper you have added yourself. Served by this method, the Dean & Deluca sauce was edible, though it rasped rather in the throat. Bertolli tomato and basil (£1.99 for 700g) was also inoffensive, if too sugary. Slightly worse are Dolmio and Ragu (£1.09 and 89p, respectively, for the smallest jars). Both of these play on naive images of bountiful Italian home cooking, yet both retain the acidic tang of industrial plants and, in the case of Dolmio, contain those unyielding squares of onion you get in brown English pickles.

But even Ragu, a blandly peppery puree, is almost plausible compared to some of the sauces on offer. Almost all make the mistake of adding far too many "herbs", giving a sickly taint and nasty green dots. This is true, for example, of Newman's Own, despite the inspiring story on the label about inheriting the recipe - "Mamma mia!" - from some "Venetian ancestor". Many sauces, particularly own-label ones, give off the odour of old blood and rotting plants. Loyd Grossman tomato and basil (£1.65 for 350g) has an unpalatable stale garlic taste, the smell of which really hits you when you open the jar. But worst of all are the "stir-in" sauces, for those too lazy even to heat up their ready-made sauce. Homepride "spicy Mediterranean tomato" (£1.49 for 480g), which comes in a milk-bottle-shaped container, made me feel so ill I had to lie down. Sainsbury's own-brand stir-in tomato and mascarpone sauce (£1.19) had a granular texture and a troubling yeasty aftertaste.

The real madness is that, for scarcely more effort than it takes to open a jar, you can make the simplest and most delicious of all tomato sauces. Peel and halve an onion and put it in a pan with 400g tinned tomatoes, a good slice of unsalted butter, and a large pinch each of sugar and salt. Simmer slowly for half an hour, giving it the occasional nonchalant stir with a wooden spoon until the tomatoes are sticky. Remove the onion. The sauce, which will taste sweet, fresh and homely, is now ready, to be used sparingly, with more butter, tossed into linguini. It costs barely 55p to make.

A useful variation is to add a quartered carrot and a quartered stick of celery along with the onion, and omit the butter, blending the sauce when it is done and adding olive oil to taste. If you make tomato sauce by the more traditional method, sweating onion and garlic first, then remember to drain most of the juices from the tomatoes before cooking them over a high heat.

Once you have the basic sauce, you can try countless variations - anchovies, rosemary and garlic for penne; marjoram and pecorino for spaghetti; red onions, capers, tuna and parsley for linguini. And give thanks to the stupid market values by which a tin of perfect red tomatoes is deemed to be 25 times less valuable than a jar of Dean & Deluca marinara sauce.