This fast and flavorful sauce is perfect for weeknight pasta
Looking for quick and delicious? We’re here to help.
Our basic Italian tomato sauce (sometimes called marinara) cooks in half an hour or less. It also has a lighter, fresher flavor than meat-based ragù.
It’s great with almost any pasta shape. You can also use it as a sauce for dishes like chicken or veal parmigiana. Or even as a topping when you make pizza.
Weeknight quick, company ready. Perfecto!
Recipe: Basic Italian Tomato Sauce (Marinara)
Although we love a hearty, rich ragù that simmers on the stove for hours, we often want something quicker and easier. This recipe is simplicity itself: Sauté some onions and garlic in olive oil, add tomatoes and seasoning, then cook until tasty. The whole process takes maybe half an hour.
Should you use fresh or canned tomatoes in this dish? Both work, but we almost always use canned, because good-quality fresh ones rarely are available. You can use crushed or whole canned tomatoes (if it’s the latter, we crush them in our hands before adding them to the cooking pot). More about canned tomatoes in the Notes.
Prep time for this recipe is about 5 minutes. Cooking time adds 20 to 30 minutes.
This recipe makes enough to sauce for 1 to 1½ pounds of dried pasta, depending on how saucy you like to be.
This sauce freezes quite well, too. So you may want to make a big batch and freeze it in portion-size containers. They’ll keep for weeks in the freezer.
- 1 medium onion (¾ to 1 cup when diced)
- 2 cloves garlic (or more to taste)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (or more to taste)
- salt to taste (about ½ teaspoon kosher salt for us; see Notes)
- ¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes (very optional; increase to ½ teaspoon if you like spicy)
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano (or marjoram; see Notes)
- 1 28-ounce can whole or crushed Italian-style tomatoes (preferably San Marzano; see Notes)
- cooked pasta for serving (3 to 4 ounces of dried pasta makes a main-course serving for us)
- freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese for garnish (optional)
- chopped parsley or parsley sprigs for garnish (optional)
- Peel the onion and cut it into ½-inch dice. Set aside.
- Peel the garlic and mince it finely or cut it into thin slices. Set aside.
- Place a 4-quart cooking pot over medium stovetop heat. When the pot is heated, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot (about 15 seconds; it’ll shimmer), add the chopped onion. Add salt to taste. Sauté until the onion is translucent (5 to 8 minutes).
- Add the chopped garlic to the cooking pot and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add the red pepper flakes, if using, and the oregano. Cook for an additional 30 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes (if using whole tomatoes, crush them in your hands before adding them to the cooking pot). Add a cup of water (perhaps a bit more) to thin the sauce. Stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 15 to 25 minutes (up to 40 minutes), until the sauce is tasty.
- Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Add the sauce to cooked (drained) pasta, then toss together. Dish up and serve. We usually garnish each plate with grated cheese and/or parsley.
- We often reserve a bit of this sauce, then top each serving of pasta with a dollop of it after plating.
- You can make this dish with fresh tomatoes if you wish. We usually don’t because good fresh tomatoes are available for only a couple of months in the summer. If using fresh tomatoes (plum tomatoes would be our recommendation), use 2½ to 3 pounds.
- If using canned tomatoes, should you go with whole tomatoes or crushed? Or diced? Canned plum tomatoes tend to have a “brighter” flavor than crushed or diced tomatoes. Plum tomatoes do break down as they cook, though they retain a somewhat chunky texture. We use plum, crushed, or diced tomatoes, depending on our mood.
- San Marzano tomatoes are considered the best canned variety for Italian red sauce. They originated in the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, close to Naples. They have fewer seeds and thicker flesh than many other tomatoes, plus a more pronounced flavor and less acidity. Imported San Marzano canned tomatoes can be expensive (and difficult to find). Tomatoes grown from San Marzano seeds are produced in the US, and are less expensive (although some people think their flavor is inferior to the Italian original).
- BTW, “authentic” canned San Marzano tomatoes are available whole only, not crushed.
- Other canned tomatoes can make really good sauce, too. We like Muir Glen and Redpack, two US brands. We suggest you buy several brands at your supermarket, then see which one pleases your taste buds.
- Use good-quality olive oil in this dish, and don’t skimp on the quantity (you can even use more than we specify). The flavor of olive oil is part of the charm of this dish.
- We use kosher salt in cooking. It’s less salty by volume than regular table salt (because the flakes are larger, they don’t pack a measure as tightly). If using table salt, start with about half as much as we recommend. But always season to your own taste.
- We generally use oregano in this dish. Some people find its flavor too strong, and prefer marjoram (which is a bit less pungent).
- If you have fresh basil on hand, you could add some to the sauce shortly before it’s ready to be served (roll it in a cigar shape and cut it into fine strips – a technique known as chiffonade).
- This sauce is ideal for long-strand pastas like spaghetti or linguine, though we prefer the more tubular pastas (rigatoni, ziti, or penne).
- Our marinara sauce is nice with fresh pasta, of course. But we think it works even better with dried.
- We call our recipe “basic Italian tomato sauce” or “marinara sauce.” But some cooks differentiate between the two. As best we can tell, those cooks claim that marinara sauce should have fewer ingredients and cook more quickly (20 minutes or so) – which gives it a lighter, fresher flavor. Whereas “tomato sauce” may cook at least twice as long and tends to have more ingredients (such as carrots and celery – although we almost never use either in Italian tomato sauce).
- Some cooks also claim that marinara sauce should contain only garlic, never onion (while Italian tomato sauce tends to contain onion and no garlic). Well, we like both, so we include both.
- Our sauce is quick cooking and fairly light in flavor, so we call it marinara. But call it Italian tomato sauce if you like. We just call it good.
- And where did the “marinara” part come from, anyway? Well, marinara means “from the sea.” One story says the sauce is so called because it’s simple, made from ingredients that sailors would have on hand. Sounds like made-up etymology to us, but we’ll go with it.
“Here we go again!” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “How can I resist this sauce?”
“I’ll always take a chance on this,” I said. “Easy to make, too.”
“Knowing me, knowing you,” said Mrs K R. “We’ll be having this quite often.”
“And you don’t have to be a super trouper to make this sauce,” I said. “Anyone can do it.”
“Light too,” said Mrs K R. “So I can keep on being a dancing queen.”
Only seventeen! Plus a few decades.
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