Homemade marinara sauce is one of the essential recipes to have in your culinary repertoire. You just need whole peeled tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, onions, garlic, oregano, and basil. Sauteing first concentrates and develops new flavors, then simmering enriches the sauce ensuring robust tomato characteristics.
Marinara sauce is a staple in Italian kitchens, although each region has a slightly different spin on this classic recipe. For this variation, we’re keeping the ingredient list to a minimum and focusing on preparation to maximize flavor. The crucial element here is choosing the right type of tomato to start. Canned certified San Marzano is my go-to if I don’t have fresh vine-ripened on hand.
To concentrate and enhance the sauce flavors I use two different cooking methods. Sautéing onions, garlic, and the tomatoes add savory aromas that boost the natural sweetness of the vegetables. Simmering thickens the sauce and allows the acids in the tomatoes to help break down the flesh for a smooth texture.
How to make marinara sauce
- Drain the tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl and reserve juice to add back in later.
- Crush whole peeled tomatoes by hand int smaller chunks.
- Saute onions in olive oil.
- Stir in garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and chili flakes (optional).
- Add tomatoes and reduce until it lightly browns on the side of the pan.
- Add in reserved tomato juice, stir and simmer until sauce is thickened.
- Add basil, taste, then add any additional desired seasonings.
How to build layers of flavor in a simple sauce
Finely chopped onions are sauteed in extra virgin olive oil which lightly caramelizes them and enhances their natural sweetness. Adding minced garlic intensifies the pungency while adding strong aromatics as the sauce simmers. Adding in oregano and chili flakes (optional) to the oil blooms the herbs and spices, infusing earthy oil-soluble flavor compounds into the sauce. To add freshness to the sauce, chop up fresh basil leaves and stir them in at the very end.
Why saute the tomatoes?
The best trick to quickly developing flavor is to saute the tomato flesh over medium-high heat. You’ll notice the moisture leaving the pan, causing the sauce to lightly brown and stick to the sides. The subtle browning is an indication of new savory and sweet flavors generating. The reserved tomato juice is then added to deglaze the pan, incorporating those tasty bits right into the sauce as it simmers.
What’s the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?
A marinara sauce tends to be quicker to make with a rustic and chunkier texture. It typically just consists of hand-crushed San Marzano plum tomatoes, garlic, onions, red pepper flakes, and basil.
Spaghetti sauce, also called pasta sauce often simmers for a longer period with a thicker consistency. It can be made with either crushed or pureed tomatoes, tends to use more onions, and can include vegetables like carrots. A spaghetti sauce can also incorporate meat like beef, pork, or veal for heartiness similar to my bolognese sauce.
What’s the best type of tomato to use for marinara sauce?
Sweet Italian plum tomatoes are the best for making marinara sauce. The tomatoes tend to have a meaty texture, full of rich tomato flavor, and low in acidity. I recommend using whole peeled and canned San Marzano tomatoes that are grown and certified from regions near Campania, Italy. If you aren’t sure, look for the label to call out Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino for authenticity.
There are a lot of San Marzano style products available, but they aren’t all the same. The Cento brand is my top pick which is easy to find in the United States. If you can’t find San Marzano, another option is Muir Glen tomatoes. They vary widely in flavor between brands, but it’s easy to adjust the sauce to balance sweetness and acidity with salt or a touch of sugar.
Can fresh tomatoes be used?
Yes! If you are blessed with a green thumb or have vine-ripened fresh tomatoes available, use them up. Make sure to blanch and shock the tomatoes to easily peel before crushing by hand. Remove any excess seeds and fibrous parts of the tomatoes before cooking.
How can you use marinara sauce?
The versatility of marinara sauce will enhance almost any dish, from classic spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, to the top of a Neapolitan pizza. You can also add in a touch of cream for a richer sauce like Alla Vodka, or load in more chili peppers for Arrabbiata-style flavor.
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Why are whole tomatoes used for marinara sauce?
Whole tomatoes give you the ability to control the texture of the sauce. When cooked, the flesh becomes smooth and keeps its characteristic sweet tomato flavor. On the other hand, crushed and pureed-bought tomatoes tend to be precooked which loses the vibrant tomato taste and tends to be a bit bland.
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Homemade Marinara Sauce
- 56 ounces whole peeled tomatoes, San Marzano recommended
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup minced yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano, or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
- ¼ teaspoon red chili flakes, optional
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ cup chopped basil
- Drain the tomatoes in a colander set in a bowl.
- Crush tomatoes using your hand, breaking into smaller chunks. Allow the tomatoes to sit and drain in the colander for 5 minutes. Reserve the tomato juice.
- Heat a dutch oven over medium heat. Once hot, add the olive oil. When the olive oil begins to shimmer, add in the onions. Saute until onions are softened and lightly browned, 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, oregano, chili flakes (if using), salt, and pepper. Stir and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.
- Add the strained tomatoes and stir to combine. Increase heat to medium-high, cook and stir frequently, until the liquid evaporates, and the sauce begins to brown in the edges, 10 minutes.
- Add in 2 ½ cups of the reserved tomato juice. Stir the sauce, scraping any browned bits from the pan. Reduce heat to a simmer, stir and cook until the sauce thickened about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the chopped basil. Taste sauce and season with more salt, pepper, and chili flakes as desired.
- Recipe Yield: 3 cups of sauce.
- Serving Size: ¼ cup (60ml)
- If you want a less thick marinara sauce, add more tomato juice.
- For an even thicker consistency, reduce the sauce for longer. Some tomato paste can also be used for faster thickening.
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15 Comments Leave a comment or review
Marie Czarnecki says
I would add sugar to the sauce about two tblsps when cooking to calm the acidity of the tomato. Otherwise the recipe is great and I will try it.
Jessica Gavin says
I often find that it dopends on the type of tomato and brand. I’ve had good success with San Marzano because they tend to be naturally more sweet, but other varieties definitely could use a little sugar to balance that acids. Thanks for your tip!
MaryAnn (Gramiccioni) Neblock says
I have been making spaghetti sauce for ~50 years! As I was researching tomato vs. marinara, I came across your recipe to compare. I liked the idea of cooking the “solids” first to develop flavor and decided to try it. As per the previous comment, I never use sugar and when using San Marzano tomatoes, it’s not necessary. I did cook it longer because I wanted to concentrate it but it was not necessary. I always use fresh bay leaf (1 or 2 as my Nonna did!) I like to add fresh basil sprigs for cooking the sauce, then remove it and add more fresh when done and a glug of olive oil for flavor. I will explore your site some more! Thanks a bunch!
Jessica Gavin says
I really like your idea of adding in fresh basil sprigs and extra olive oil for flavor, I will definitely have to try it with my next batch!
Natosha Porter says
I use carrots for sweetness when my tomatoes are too acidic. I have also seen orange peel be used but I’m unsure if that changes the flavor profile.
Pamela Miller says
I really like the way you break it down and explain why you do the sauce. I learned a similar method from an old Italian friend when I was a youngster. I use the same pot to do everything in so that the glazing from the saute goes into the sauce, When making spaghetti sauce I brown chicken and a pork chop along with the onions (etc) then take the meat out and continue with the tomatoes adding the meat in again later. It makes a lovely, yummy, sauce.
Jessica Gavin says
That’s so smart to cook the marinara sauce with the fond (browned bits) and juices from the meat, so yummy!
Debbie Glisson says
Loved your recipe- I’m not a fan of oregano and I added sugar – awesome flavor thanks for the technique
John Baldino says
I used this recipe to make a sauce for my daughter. I saw a lot of people saying they added sugar. Instead of sugar I used cinnamon to sweeten it and replace the pepper
Jessica Gavin says
Wow, I’ve never used cinnamon before in the sauce, just I do for my glazed salmon to add a hint of sweetness. Great idea!
Is it possible to make a large batch and freeze, or will the defrosted sauce be different from the fresh sauce?
Jessica Gavin says
Hi Diana- You can definitely freeze the sauce once it’s cooled down. You may need to add some water when you cook it again, only if its too thick.
This came out wonderful! Intense tomato flavor. Perfect balance. Ready for any pasta or Italian dish that calls for a red sauce. Thank you!
Jessica Gavin says
You’re welcome! Happy to hear that you can use this sauce for whatever you are craving.
Ken Lichtsinn says
I have just started making marinara and I used garden fresh tomatoes. The problem that I have is that, when I froze the sauce and then later reheated it for serving, it “breaks” and turns watery even though I simmered it fairly thickly. Am I just not simmering it down thickly enough? I simmered it for about 45 min., then added the basil and simmered it a few minutes more. Also, I used a blender before cooking it.