Cooking the basics: Homemade Marinara Sauce

by Terry B on November 26, 2014

Marinara sauce, a classic Italian red sauce with garlic, onions, herbs and not much more, is easy and weeknight quick to make. Recipe—and variations—below.

Homemade Marina Sauce

This post is about breaking old habits and overcoming fears. In our kitchen, both for the blog and for everyday cooking, we try to work with real ingredients as much as possible, not overly processed foods. (We do count certain canned and frozen goods as ingredients—beans, tomatoes and spinach, for instance.) But for some reason, I’ve resisted making my own marinara sauce.

Partly, it’s because the idea has always intimidated me a little. I pictured Italian grandmothers, dressed in black, of course, crushing freshly peeled tomatoes by hand, adding countless ingredients and simmering the sauce for countless hours. Partly, though, if I’m being honest, it’s because I’ve always considered marinara (and other basic red sauces) fairly low on the Italian foods evolutionary scale. It’s what unsure tourists order at the Olive Garden. It’s how you introduce children to Italian cuisine. It’s what you throw together for a quick comfort food dinner after a hectic day, starting with a jar of store-bought sauce that you doctor with additional ingredients. Or at least, that’s what I’ve done for far too long.

Turns out making homemade marinara sauce is easy—and about as quick as doctoring a jar of sauce. At its most basic, marinara sauce is an Italian tomato sauce made with garlic, onion and herbs. You can start with the base sauce and customize it into many variations, depending on your mood or what’s in the fridge or pantry.

I had been sneaking up on the idea of making my own marinara sauce for a while, but what finally got me off the dime was an excellent piece on the Bon Appétit website outlining six common mistakes in making the basic sauce. Not only did it tell me what not to do, it made doing sound fairly straightforward and simple. So after looking at a few recipes (through Bon Appétit’s mistakes filter), I put together my own. It was indeed easy and quite good. I made mine adding some Italian sausage, and I used dried oregano. See Kitchen Notes for additional variations.

Homemade Marinara Sauce
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage (optional)
1 28-ounce can peeled whole Italian tomatoes (see Kitchen Notes)
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (also optional)

12 ounces dry pasta, cooked to package directions (I used spaghetti)

Heat a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-low flame. Swirl olive oil and butter together in pot until butter is melted and fats are combined. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and sweat, stirring frequently. After 5 minutes, add garlic and oregano (the fragrance will be wonderful). Cook for an additional 10 minutes, stirring frequently and lowering heat, if necessary. You don’t want the aromatics to brown or burn; you just want the onion to be very soft.

If you’re adding sausage, brown it now in a separate skillet with a drizzle of olive oil over medium flame, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. You don’t want it crispy brown, just not pink. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and reserve.

When onions have softened, add tomatoes and their juices to the Dutch oven. Using a hand masher, break up the whole tomatoes. (You can crush them by hand in a bowl before starting to cook, if you prefer, but the masher is quicker and less messy—also, any juices you end up washing off your hands are juices that don’t end up in the sauce.) If you’ve cooked some sausage, add it to the pot now. Season with some black pepper. Raise the heat and bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and partially cover.

Cook the sauce for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. About halfway through the process, remove it from the heat and, using an immersion blender, blend the sauce to the desired mix of smooth and chunky. Don’t overdo this—you want some texture and some chunks. If you don’t have an immersion blender, pulse (don’t purée) in a food processor. Resume cooking until the sauce is somewhat thickened.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Time it so the pasta is a minute or two shy of al dente when the sauce is done. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to combine, adding pasta water a bit at a time if it seems dry. Cook for another minute or two to finish pasta and let it absorb some sauce.

Divide among four shallow pasta bowls and top with some Parmesan, if desired. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Variations on a theme. Add some sausage, as I did—mild, hot, you decide. Or crushed red pepper flakes if you like heat. Some recipes call for all kinds of vegetables—celery, carrots or whatever’s in the fridge. Bon Appétit calls this a mistake. I agree, but it’s your sauce. You decide. And that said, we love adding frozen spinach to red sauce. A little wine is also a good but optional addition, either red or white. Use a light hand, though, or it will take over.

Dried herbs? Fresh? And which ones? You get lots of variation here too. Oregano and basil are popular favorites. If you’re using dry, add them with the onions as I did, so they can release their flavorful oils and soften. If you’re using fresh, add them at the very end—and add more, since dried are more powerful.

Use good tomatoes. These are the backbone of the sauce, so choose well. Whole, peeled genuine Italian canned tomatoes are the best bet. If you can find San Marzano plum tomatoes, those are considered the gold standard by many chefs.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

KJ November 26, 2014 at 8:59 am

Sounds almost exactly like my simple red sauce… except I use lots of fresh basil, no oregano, and add a good sized pour of red wine.

When serving I will also sometimes stir in some ricotta- which is a great variation.

Terry B November 26, 2014 at 9:26 am

KJ, fresh basil is always popular with us. And the ricotta is genius. It’s a simple way to make a nice creamy sauce for pasta.

[email protected] Riffs November 26, 2014 at 9:51 am

Sounds like a great, basic Italian red sauce! Something I make all the time, although we do use the jarred stuff when we want a quick dinner with frozen ravioli (yup, we definitely use convenience foods sometimes). And when I make red sauce I almost always use both onion and garlic — there’s a school of thought that says one should use one or the other, but not both together. My taste buds say otherwise. 😉 And canned tomatoes have much better flavor than all but the ripest, late summer tomatoes., IMO. Anyway, good dish — thanks.

randi November 28, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I’ve never been happy with my attempts at ‘pasta’ sauces but then again I don’t know what I’m aiming for. I barely know the difference between them so using jarred sauce has always worked for me. I do like to make a quick fresh tomato sauce which is barely cooked but that’s where my Italian cooking skills end. I really like that cookbook by Lidia Bastianich you recommended and have made some lovely meals from it. Looking at your recipe I should try again. Using Italian sausage instead of typical ground beef looks like it would make a huge difference.

Anita November 28, 2014 at 3:20 pm

John, who the heck runs that onions OR garlic school of thought??! Peh, I say to them – I’m cutting class.
And Terry, dried oregano! The dark side scores a point! Any warnings about how things would change if I used fresh tomatoes? (No, I would not use pale waxy blobs) Also, do you think this would freeze well? I’m not seeing any warning flares, but then again, I sometimes miss such things. Thanks!

Terry B November 29, 2014 at 10:26 am

John, you’re right about out-of-season tomatoes not being as good as good canned tomatoes. And for red sauce, they work beautifully. There are a number of Italian sauces we cook that use fresh tomatoes, but that is a different taste experience altogether. And I have to say I agree with Anita—onion and garlic were meant for each other.

Randi, I think you’ll find that Italian sausage instead of ground beef will make a huge difference.

Anita, there are plenty of times we rely on dried herbs instead of fresh. The key to using dried is to add them early to give them time to infuse the dish with their flavors. When using fresh, add them at the end or else you’ll cook away their flavor. To use fresh tomatoes, you would need to blanch and peel them first, for starters. Then chop them up and add extra cooking time. In this instance, I really do think you’re better off using good quality canned Italian whole peeled tomatoes.

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