How to Make Basic Marinara Sauce

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There are as many recipes for tomato pasta sauce as there are Italian grandmothers. My Sicilian grandmother used to make her sauce every year from the tomatoes in her garden. Much of the time the sauce had meat in it but I don’t think it was ever exactly the same twice.  A child of the depression, my grandmother would throw into the pot whatever she had on hand; scraps of a roast, pieces of cooked pork, sausages, rinds of parmesan cheese. You never knew what you’d find in the sauce, but it was always good.

This is really a base pasta sauce recipe, meant to adapt to whatever you want it to be. Like meat in your sauce? Add a tough cut and let it cook down to make a Bolognese. Want to keep it vegetarian? Enjoy the recipe as it is or add some diced up vegetables. Like Pasta alla Norma? Add red chili flakes and diced eggplant to the sauce. Mushrooms or meatballs, it’s all up to you.

While the photo shows the sauce in a jar, I didn’t can this sauce. There are only so many ways to photograph tomato sauce, and stacks of tupperware just don’t make that pretty of a picture. But the sauce does freeze well, so you can enjoy the taste of freshly made sauce a few months from now, once the weather turns cold.

Basic Marinara Sauce

2  yellow onions, peeled and diced (about 2 cups diced)
2 Tbsp olive oil
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced (about 2 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp dried herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, etc)* mixed, total
1/2 cup red wine***
12 cups peeled and seeded fresh ripe tomatoes**
salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat up the olive oil. Add the onions and cook slowly, on medium heat until they start to caramelize. They should be evenly brown and soft. Cooking them this way brings out the natural sweetness in the onions. Add the garlic and dried herbs and cook for 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the 1/2 cup of red wine and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and their juice and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook on low, stirring occasionally for at least 2 hours, or longer depending on the water content of the tomatoes. The sauce should be thick with much of the water evaporated to concentrate the flavor (sometimes I let it cook 4-5 hours over a very low flame). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cooking marinara sauce

*Dried herbs hold their flavor much longer than fresh herbs so when slow cooking. If you want to use fresh herbs, add them at then end of the cooking process, just before serving. Use  which ever of those herbs you prefer for a total of 2 Tablespoons.

**Start with 4-5 lbs of fresh, ripe, tomatoes. If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, you can use 2 (28 oz) cans of crushed tomatoes, 1 (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes and 1 (6 oz) can of tomato paste. When I use canned tomatoes, I always add a couple tablespoons of sugar to counteract the acidity of the canned tomatoes. I find I don’t have to add any sugar with the ripe tomatoes from my garden.

***On the question of “Do I have to use red wine?” The answer is no, but it does add to the flavor and if you’re going to have wine with dinner anyway, or have an open bottle, throw some in!

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