Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce: it couldn't be simpler – or more delicious.

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Author Marcella Hazan, who died this past week at the venerable age of 89, has long been known as the woman who introduced classic Italian cooking to America.

Her many books, beginning with 1973′s The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating and stretching right up to 2008, when she gave us her autobiography,  Amarcord: Marcella Remembers, helped opened our eyes to the simplest dishes: roast chicken, whose only adornment was two lemons in its cavity; the creamiest, easiest polenta; Parmesan and olive oil crostini, which she helpfully annotated, “Your fingers will get sticky handling this. Italian children lick theirs clean.”

And then there’s her Tomato Sauce. That’s right – just plain “Tomato Sauce.” Four ingredients. Forty-five minutes over a burner. Heaven on earth.

I’d heard fellow foodies rave about this recipe for years, yet I’d never made it myself. Which is a bit odd; with an Italian husband who could eat pasta three times a day, you’d think Marcella’s sauce recipe and I would have gotten together long since.

But you know how it is; hub loves Grammy’s sauce recipe, so Grammy’s recipe it’s been – for 37 years.

Time to branch out!

Time to see what all the fuss is about.

Marcella’s Tomato Sauce can be found, with slight variations, all over the Web. One thing is constant, though: those four ingredients.

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A 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole tomatoes. Five tablespoons butter. One yellow onion, peeled and halved. And salt – which ranged anywhere from “2 pinches” to 1 1/4 teaspoons.

I’m a salt-lover, so I went with the 1 1/4 teaspoons. In retrospect, I’d cut it back to 1 teaspoon.

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Combine everything in a saucepan.

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Bring to a simmer over medium heat; crush the tomatoes.

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Simmer until thickened; small pools of butter will appear on the sauce’s surface. This took about 45 to 50 minutes over low heat, in the pan I used.

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Take the sauce off the flame. Remove the onion, and stir to combine.

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Serve over spaghetti, with grated Parmesan. This recipe makes 2 cups of sauce, which Marcella says is enough for a pound of spaghetti.

That will vary, of course, according to how much/little sauce you and your family like on your pasta; but try it her way first. Cook a pound of spaghetti; top with sauce and cheese; roll your eyes heavenward.

Marcella’s up there, smiling.

Full disclosure: in my house, we’re SO used to Grammy’s sauce recipe, we found Marcella’s a bit too acidic. So, as any Italian cook worth her salt (and sugar) will often do, I tweaked the recipe: a tablespoon of sugar made it perfect, in our opinion. Remember, no Baking Police; whatever tastes good to YOU is “right.”

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. waikikirie

    My Italian husband love the sauce I’ve been making for 25 years (well, 25 years at the end of the month). Me, I’m still on the look out for my favorite sauce. Will give this one a try. I don’t think the hubby would mind trying this one too much as long as I make your scalia bread with it. It’s his FAVORITE.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      It’s mostly the method; she fried chunks of sausage and meatballs and onion in a big pan. Then she took the meat out, and to the same pan added 28 ounces canned tomato with purée, 8 ounces tomato sauce, and “liberal amounts of salt, basil, pepper, and garlic powder. 3 heaping teaspoons sugar. Slowly stew for an hour.” Meanwhile, the meatballs and sausage went into a big skillet, with water added so it covered them halfway. They simmered in the water for 15 minutes or so (I usually let them simmer longer, to boil away more of the water). After the tomato sauce has stewed for an hour, add the water from the meat to the sauce, and let stew “for awhile.” About 30 to 45 minutes before you’re going to eat, put the meat into the sauce and “shut the fire off. Heat up just before serving.” That’s it. These days, I substitute a jar of Ragu for the canned tomatoes and sauce, but the rest is the same. And her meatballs are wonderful: Mix 2 pieces stale bread or rolls, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup milk till bread is soft. Add 1 lb. hamburger, 1 teaspoon salt, half an onion (chopped), fresh parsley, pepper, garlic powder, and Parmesan. I think it’s the cheese that gives them that little something extra… Grammy passed away many years ago; I think she’d be pleased (and astounded!) that her recipe is out there for everyone to enjoy. PJH

    2. Cihan

      I love it when people share family recipes. I would never have thought to simmer the browned meat in water and then add the water to the sauce, I will have to try it.

    3. PJ Hamel , post author

      You know, it was probably that Depression-era mentality – use everything you can, which means the water and “scrapings” from the meatball pan. I do think it adds flavor to the sauce, though – especially if you boil the water down a bit to concentrate it. Enjoy – PJH

  2. Diane

    I don’t believe she would have put a blob of the sauce on the plain spaghetti……non-Italian food stylists have to get this right!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      This “non-Italian food stylist” (I’m Irish; and a writer, without much of an eye for photographs, though I take them as part of my job) puts blobs of sauce on plain spaghetti, then quickly tosses it all to combine. But for the picture, I thought it would look nice to shoot it before the tossing. So yup, a little “artistic liberty” at work here for sure. :) PJH

  3. Graziana

    I am happy to see the onion infused in the sauce instead of sauteed in tons of olive oil – as some other cooks insist. I have been making my sauce this way for years, infusing a carrot together with the onion and a sprig of fresh basil in plain store-bought sauce. No red pepper flakes, no overwhelming amounts of herbs and spices, and no garlic either! Personally, I would not use butter, which is more of a Northern Italian custom, because the sauce becomes more easily rancid, whereas with olive oil it stays fresher. The simpler recipes are the best. RIP Marcella. Thanks KAF.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks, Graziana – good tip about the olive oil, especially if the sauce may be sitting for awhile. I also like what you said about infusing vegetable flavors (which I’ll try next time), and keeping things simple. So much of traditional Italian cooking is very simple – olive oil drizzled on bread and toasted, for instance. Or shredded zucchini cooked with egg and a touch of salt, which I enjoyed last night. Thanks again to Marcella for reminding us that simple can be very delicious indeed. PJH

    2. maxie

      Yes, Graziana, my Nonna made this same sauce but with olive oil instead of butter. And we always stirred in some fresh basil at the end.

  4. jc

    Doesn’t anyone set these recipes up for printing, anymore??? I just want to print it out, so I can put it in the kitchen, where I cook. thank you.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Yes, when we have a recipe on our site that goes with the blog post, there’ll be a “print” link at the end of the post that takes you to the recipe. We don’t have this recipe on our site, thus no link. But just jot down “28 ounces San Marzano tomatoes, 5 tablespoons butter, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 onion” – and leave it taped inside your pantry or cupboard door. That’s what I do. :) PJH

    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Pam, next time I’m leaving it in – for sweetness, and flavor. Thanks for the reinforcement – PJH

  5. Berni Foster

    This recipe is so much like my nonna’s sauce. Its funny, she passed when I was only about 8 years old and I don’t think I ever actually made sauce her way. I do remember the butter. though I think she chopped the onion small and left it in. But like this, it was a very plain and fast sauce. Now I must try this. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Berni, this is indeed a classic, traditional Italian sauce (northern Italian, I’d suspect, due to the butter rather than oil), so I’ll bet your nonna did it just the same way. And definitely chop the onion and leave it in – no Food Police, right? We each have our own special family traditions, none more “right” than the next. Cheers – PJH

  6. cindy bastion

    After 45 years of making sauce I have finally learned that San Marzano tomatoes are the only ones to use and the only ones I will ever use. The taste is consistent from one can to the next-no need to add sugar to cut the acidity or an acid to cut the sweetness. Just perfect. I buy the Cento brand and can find it in #10 cans so I get two and make 3 gallons of sauce at a time. Freeze in sandwich bags (1 1/2 c. each) and I have the perfect amount for one good serving to give to a sick friend or just for one of those hurry up meals. I see why San Marzano are like champagne…if not from that region it can not be labled as San Marzano.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks, Cindy – I don’t usually use canned tomatoes, so it’s good to know that the San Marzanos are actually worth the added $. (Kind of like King Arthur Flour, yes?) And thanks for the hint about making a lot at a time – we have a restaurant supply store nearby, and ‘ll bet I can find a larger can and make a larger amount of sauce. Excellent tip! PJH

  7. T.K. Whalen

    This sounds great – but add a touch of sugar to it – it balances the acidity of the tomatoes. Also – if you cook the pasta aldente, drain (don’t rinsee) and then add it to the sauce and cook for approximately 30 seconds, it will coat all the strands -

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks for the tip, T.K. – I did add some sugar, for the acidity. This time, for the sake of the picture (so everyone could see the lovely color and creamy look of the sauce), I left it on top before stirring it in, but next time I’ll definitely stir it in right after the pasta is drained, as you suggest. PJH

    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      I’ll try that next time, Molly, now that I’ve done the original. The onion would definitely sweeten it a bit, too. Thanks! PJH

  8. Bianca DiRuocco

    Sugar in sauce? My Italian ancestors are spinning in their graves….
    If your sauce is too acidic, I have two suggestions:
    1) change the brand of canned tomato products you use, some are considerably more acidic than others;
    or if that doesn’t help sufficiently
    2) Cut the salt out entirely and add 1/2 tsp baking soda.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Bianca, my Italian grandmother-in-law (and her Naples-born husband) added sugar to their sauce, always. As does my Italian MIL. I do add baking soda to some tomato recipes (my favorite tomato soup, for instance), and tried it in this recipe; but for some reason, the baking soda left me with a flat taste. I just preferred the sugar. Thanks for the info. about trying different tomatoes, though; I’ll use a different brand next time, and maybe they won’t be as acidic. PJH

  9. Tom

    Serendipitously, a friend gave me a copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking last Sunday at church. We tried this last night, with the following changes: added finely diced onion, added 1/4 cup sweet Italian sausage. We used whole wheat angel hair pasta. Excellent!

    Reply
  10. Lorrainesfav

    I don’t think Marcella’s recipe is an example of good marinara sauce. Marinara is “the sauce of the sailors” as I researched. I agree the San Marzano tomatoes are best but her sauce has no way of developing flavor by just dumping in butter, onion and tomatoes. Yes it will be very acidic as the tomatoes don’t have a chance to reduce and intensify in flavor. The onions should be minced and sautéed just until soft in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. NO GARLIC for me as it adds bitterness to the sauce. The tomatoes should be crushed before adding to the sauce. The most important ingredient is a chiffonade of FRESH BASIL! Added partly in the beginning of cooking right in the sauce and then to stir in just before serving. Toss the pasta in the sauce before serving. More at the table. There should be no sugar required. What about freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to serve at the table? Now your talking a good marinara sauce in about 45 minutes. PJ your sauce is more of a Sunday meat sauce which takes more time to cook and it sounds real good to me.

    Reply
  11. Debby Singleton

    Great recipe, but my kids don’t like chunk sauce, so I put it in the blender for just a little bit. Problem solved, although it turned out more orange than red.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      This sauce is definitely a lighter colored sauce than most typical tomato sauces, Debby; and yes, mine looked quite orange, too. But very tasty, don’t you think? No problem putting it through the blender; to each his own, eh? PJH

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Unfortunately we do not have this recipe on our website, as such there is no printer friendly version. Jon@KAF

  12. Anne in WA

    PJ,

    I too was saddened to hear of Marcella’s passing. I love her book. I have made this tomato sauce for a few years, and have tweaked it to “our” perfection. I finely chop one onion and finely grate a carrot. Saute in a little olive oil until slightly browned. Then I add a can of tomatoes, and three tablespoons of the butter. I simmer on low for about an hour, then add the remaining two tablespoons of butter. Depending on the acidity of the tomatoes, I sometimes add a bit more butter…which helps to “tame” the tomatoes. Then I toss with a pound of pasta, top with freshly grated parm cheese and sometimes (if I have it on hand) tear up a few fresh basil leaves for garnish. I have found that my toddlers love this recipe as it is a bit sweeter and not spicy. When I make this for play dates, the kids devour it! My teenagers love it, and due to the fact I have two teenage sons with never-ending stomachs, I usually double the recipe and serve your fabulous crunchy bread along side. Adding the carrot deletes the need for sugar, and adds a bit more veggies! I hope you give it a try, it is delicious!

    Thanks again PJ!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Anne, I’ve heard from two readers about using carrots to add sweetness, so I guess I’d better try it next time. Adding part of the butter at the end sounds like it would add flavor, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to add your feedback here – much appreciated! PJH

  13. Pamela

    Being from an Italian background I have been making the long simmered sauce (gravy) for years.
    But I have have to say the last couple of years I have been making it simpler. I make more of a marinara sauce and have found that I do not need to cook it as long. Then I came across this recipe.
    And I love it. I have always been a less is more kind of person when it comes to pasta. I do not like my pasta swimming in sauce. (Hubby does, but to bad), So this is the perfect amount for a pound of pasta. But I have to say I did have to vary from the recipe. My dgt picked up the wrong tomatoes. She got crushed tomatoes instead of whole. But since they are Italian tomatoes I used them. Well, it turned out wonderful. So if you find that you pick up the wrong kind of tomatoes this recipe can still be done. :)

    Reply
  14. rltracy

    I’m Polish but I also love Italian food. Made a lot of sauces but never found the winner. This is it !!! But the bonus is PJ’s Grandma’s meatball recipe. Once again I have tried many recipes for meatballs and some were good but no ah ah moment…this one did it. not ever trying another sauce or meatball recipe again. THANKS and keep saving our/your ancestors recipes…..if we don’t they will be lost forever. I so wish I had my mother/grandmother’s recipes for so many things but too late.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Truly a winning combination, isn’t it? Sounds so simple, but there’s something about those meatballs, and that sauce, that’s just right. And I agree – it feels REALLY good to save these old recipes, many of which came over to this country and our American culture from other parts of the world. A little bit of history in our kitchens, eh? You know, you might try checking out some older Polish cookbooks; I gave one to my Polish sister-in-law, and she says the recipes are exact clones for what her mom made… worth a try. Thanks for connecting here – PJH

  15. Tom

    We made this sauce again last night with a few changes: I used Muir Glenn diced tomatoes, added finely chopped onion and a couple of tablespoons of browned, hot, Italian sausage. It’s a winner. Easy, quick and flavorful. The cooked sauce seems to have a brighter flavor than jarred sauces (even using canned tomatoes).

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      WB, I was surprised at that, too – how bright and fresh both color and flavor are, using canned tomatoes. Were the Muir Glen San Marzano? I’m wondering if people are trying this using other types of tomatoes. Great idea adding the sausage; I’ll try that next time. Cheers – hope you’re having some decent weather out there… PJH

  16. d

    A year or so ago, my husband and I set out to remove all processed foods from our diet. Our one guilty ‘pleasure’ was Muir Glen Pasta Sauce. I’ve made this recipe twice and will never ever, ever again purchase pasta sauce again. This is incredible! The flavor, texture and taste are heaven. Thank you for this recipe.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Diane, thanks to Marcella Hazan – she’s made an awful lot of people happy with her very simple sauce. Glad we were able to pass it along to you. PJH

  17. Tom

    PJ, the Muir Glen tomatoes I used were labeled “diced tomatoes in tomato juice.” The onion I used was a Hermiston Sweet. We like a touch of sausage, just for a bit of flavor. We get the sausage from a local market. They make it in-house and it’s wonderful. You don’t need much for it to make a big impact. We added some whole-wheat angel-hair pasta, a Maytag salad and a glass of wine. :)

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Good to know you didn’t necessarily use San Marzano – so it’s not the tomatoes so much as the method. Thanks. Hey, when you re-create that meal, let me know – I’ll be right over! :) PJH

  18. S. B. Jones

    This is one of those beautifully simple sauces that emphasizes the essential truth that quality ingredients will always tend to yield great results when used to their best advantage. Good quality tomatoes, rich butter and mature well grown onion combine to produce a terrific marriage of flavors in this sauce if it is not overcooked, or cooked too fast over too high heat.

    Something else worth noting, (and I speak from my own experience as one who makes any number of different tomato-based sauces), is that whil good D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes are typically really really good, it seems clear that over the last 10 years or so the quality of San Marzanos exported from Italy to the US has deteriorated significantly. It may be that the increased fashionability of the tomato type has caused production methods in Italy to change radically and in the process quality has been sacrificed in the quest for tonnage, but many formerly good brands are really quite ordinary now and some have become quite ghastly. (I think the main problem is that the tomatoes are very much overcooked now in the production process and the extreme bitterness in the water from the cooking process adds to the difficulty of bringing out the full, fresh and sweet tomato taste once one begins making ones sauce with these already-cooked-to-smithereens tomatoes.

    In any case, it’s worth experimenting with tomato brands rather than being married to the idea that ‘San Marzanos’ are always going to be the superior tomato amongst the available competition. Where I live now near the central California coast there are numerous brands of San Marzano tomatoes available in the more yuppie oriented stores. Yet in these last 3 years or so the consistently best tasting canned plum tomatoes I’ve found are the Cento “Italian Style” tomatoes. They are very tasty, not overcooked, have good texture, can cook a short time and pop great fresh vibrant taste or cook low and slow for a ong time and develop that deep righ sweet tomato taste many of us undoubtedly remember growing up. (These Cento “Italian Style” tomatoes are not to be confused with the Cento “Italian” or “San Marzano tomatoes which are imported from Italy and which are really terrible at more than twice the price.)

    Reply

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