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

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 grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. M Condon

    I don’t like to add sugar to my tomato sauce. I feel it gives the sauce a funny flavor. I grate a carrot into my sauce. The natural sugars take the bitterness out of the tomato’s. Use a micro plane to grate the carrot and it dissolves into the sauce.

    Reply
  2. Renee

    This is delicious!
    Some years ago, a blog had the technique of a tomatoe based bread dipping sauce that the author found at a restaurant in New York. It had honey and hot sauce in it, and was delicious! I lost it in a move, and was wondering if anyone could recall it!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Renee. Nothing comes to mind for us but maybe someone perusing the blog comments will know. Best of luck with your search! Morgan@KAF

  3. Joann

    Last time made sauce I used Cento San Marzano tomatoes I didn’t like it
    I put sausages in the sauce and cooked for about an hour and half.
    Fixed it.
    I am used to sicilian sauce my family always had meat in sauce or clams.

    Reply
  4. Mario S.

    As a Neapolitan who has been cooking Italian sauces for 60 years I have these simple comments.
    1) Sorry Hazan’s sauce may be delicious, but it is not authentic. Naples, and Southern Italy. are very poor places. Most of the people living there have literally never seen butter. They use olive oil, but real olive oil, which most Americans have never tasted because almost all the olive oils sold in this country are adulterated.
    2) If your sauce is too acidic there are two primary reasons. a) Too much heat and/or b) cooking too long. At the very first bubble, turn it off. If you have cooked it more than 15 minutes, meat sauces excepted, you have cooked it too long.
    Heat releases the acidity. Think about it…there is no ingredient in the sauce that you couldn’t eat raw.
    As a side note on a comment one of your readers wrote. OMG, please, only San Marzano tomatoes! Every type of tomato has a reason and that type is THE sauce tomato.
    Buon appetit!

    Reply
    1. Anton

      I have Marcella sauce on the stove right now. I followed instructions , mine taste like rich tomatoe soup. Ill stick to the good old southern sauces. What a disappointment.

  5. An Honest Cook

    Some of the comments here are well-intentioned, but misguided. This is not a marinara sauce. This is not a southern Italian sauce — Marcella was from Emilia Romagna in the north. This is not your nonna’s Sunday gravy. Most especially, this is not a sauce to “doctor” up. This sauce challenges our over-the-top American notion of what a tomato sauce is.

    Its whole point is its utter simplicity — a sauce far greater than the sum of its parts.

    If you want to add sausage and sugar and garlic and whatnot, do so, but do not imagine that will have anything in common with Marcella’s sauce.

    Please do not put diced onion in it — the peeled and halved onion is there merely to sacrifice its mellow oniony essence, not to show off its assertive side. Do not add sugar. Not even a pinch. Not the first time at least. Americans are trained to crave a sweetness in everything. This SHOULD be somewhat acidic. And if you’re using good tomatoes and good unsalted butter, both of those ingredients will not make you reach for sugar. I recommend either Muir Glen or Hunt’s whole peeled plum tomatoes. 90% of the so-called “Marzano” tomatoes you can buy in this country are either fake-Marzano grown in California, or are otherwise insipid. Even many of the imported ones can be terrible. Marzano is a region in Italy from which those tomatoes get their name. Like the taste of wine is dependent on the soil and climate for its ultimate taste — its “terrior” — so, too, the Marzano tomato.

    Do not substitute olive oil for the butter. The butter is there for its buttery luxuriousness, and it is there because northern Italians like Marcella were far more apt to use a dairy fat than one derived from olives. (She was born in the land of dairy cows and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.) There are a million olive-oil-based sauces. This is not one of them.

    Do not, whatever you do, use canned diced tomatoes. Those bits of mechanically thrashed tomato are far too hard and will never melt down to the desired texture. The crucial step that PJ left off of this recipe is the direction that Marcella gives for “mashing any large pieces of tomato in the pan with a wooden spoon” as you occasionally stir the sauce as it simmers. This breaks the tomatoes down into a more cohesive whole, so that using diced tomatoes or blending the finished sauce — which would ruin its intended consistency — becomes unnecessary.

    I’m sure people will think I’m being pretentious, a purist. I don’t care. I tweak recipes constantly as well. But not this one. There is no point in tarting up a sauce whose whole reason for being is its utter elemental simplicity. Make this delicious sauce, at least the first time, entirely as it was intended. If after that you want to make your own changes, by all means do so. But I doubt you’ll want to or need to.

    Reply
  6. Monica

    It’s amazing how many different “traditional” tomato sauces have been handed down in Italian families! My family is Sicilian, and my grandmother, mother, and aunts all made their sauce the same way, and I do, too. In your “sauce pot” (generally not used for anything else!), brown meatballs, chunks of pork and beef, a few sausages until not quite cooked. At the last minute, add a clove of garlic cut into large pieces and smash it into the hot oil until browned. Remove and discard most of the garlic and transfer the meats to a platter, discard most of the oil, but leave all the browned bits in the bottom. Add two 28oz. cans of Redpack crushed tomatoes in puree, one 28oz. can Redpack puree, and one can full of water, salt, pepper and fresh basil torn with your fingers. Bring it all to a boil, carefully add the meat back into the pot, and rinse off the platter that held the meat with a little water and add that to the sauce. Bring it back to a boil, then simmer slowly, partially covered and stirring often for at least two hours. Add a little more fresh basil at the end. I don’t know why it had to be Redpack tomatoes, but I have never tried to tamper with success! I also know that no one ever added sugar to their sauce, and using onions would have been cause for getting the evil eye! Amazingly, my sauce tastes the same as my Grandma’s and Mom’s, and every time I make it I am transported back to Sunday mornings after church, sauce bubbling on the stove, my brother stealing meatballs behind Mom’s back. I believe that every time we make a family recipe we bring back all the generations before us, and they are with us at the stove, stirring the sauce, baking the cookies, and stealing the meatballs!

    Reply
  7. Sue

    We recently had the pleasure of having a friends meatballs and sauce. The sauce was so good and I could not put my finger on what made it so different. Her Great grandmothers recipe…buttermilk!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That sounds like a great family secret to have stored away to take your tomato sauce to the next level…thanks for sharing! Happy Baking! Jocelyn@KAF

  8. 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
  9. 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

  10. 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

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