Your New Favorite Marinara Sauce

If you ask me, and you kind of are, because you’re reading this post, there are two egregious things that a cook can do when it comes to making marinara, or spaghetti sauce.  And they are on opposite ends of a tomato spectrum.The first thing is , buying jarred sauce. :( This deserves a frowning face, because jarred sauce is so bad, by and large.  We are often fooled in the Italian aisle of our grocery stores, by the new nomenclature that these sneaky brands come up with–things like “4 cheese” and “Tuscan home style” and “basil and cheese”–how they get away with this, I don’t know, but it fools us into thinking that there just might be something special in that jar.  We forget the fact that any cheese or basil or “home style” ingredients they use have to be processed in such a way that makes them shelf stable, which puts them on the opposite end of fresh, and certainly on the opposite end of home style!  If I have to make a final point against jarred sauces, just look at the price tags of some of the more gourmet brands…yeah, it really costs that much for fake marinara.The other problem with marinara, the one that is sort of the opposite of store-bought sauce, is this idea that spending a Sunday afternoon in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen, simmering tomato sauce for hours and hours, will produce the best sauce that any money can buy.  Now, I mean no offense at all to the Italian grandmothers, but this is simply not the case either.  See, the great advantage that homemade tomato sauce has over jarred sauce is freshness! But unfortunately, when you cook a sauce for hours to get that slow simmered taste, you are cooking out all the fresh tomato taste, all the fresh herb taste, all the fresh olive oil taste…you will be left with something bland, and possibly just as unappealing as the stuff on the grocery shelves.

That being said, HOW then, do you make the ideal sauce?! The one that tastes fresh, but not so fresh that it just tastes like a pile of tomatoes with some raw garlic on top.  And how do you get that deeper flavor without cooking the sauce to death?  Believe it or not, I think I have solved the problem.

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped medium
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1.5 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/4 cup medium-bodied red wine
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
pinch of sugar


The science:
There are two things that make a homemade tomato sauce less than stellar. One is if it is bland and watery, and
doesn’t have a hearty flavor, and the other is if the sauce is overcooked…but wait, how do we get that hearty flavor without the 8 hour simmer? You will find the answers to this conundrum below.Step 1:
Place the extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet and heat it over medium for a couple minutes.  Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sweat for 3-5 minutes, until it starts to soften. Did you note that I’m using a 12-inch skillet and not a saucepan? Gasp! This is actually a great idea though, because the wide profile of a skillet encourages evaporation more readily, which means the liquid will reduce quickly, so you don’t have to simmer for hours to get rid of that watery, bland taste. Once the tomatoes are in the mix, this will only take TEN minutes!Step 2:
Add the aromatics–red pepper flakes, garlic, dried oregano, and tomato paste–to the middle of the pan.  Mash it up to break up the tomato paste, and then cook for just 30 seconds to a minute, until the tomato paste starts to turn dark red/brown.  If the pan is looking really ugly, you will know you are there! P.S. Amore tomato paste is seriously the best.  I know that the squeeze tube costs a little more than the little cans, but the squeeze tube will last months; try storing that opened can of tomato paste in your fridge. Regardless of how you attempt to cover up the top, it will be growing all sorts of things on it before long.


See? Looks bad, doesn’t it? But tomato paste is an extra concentrated form of tomato.  Browning it, just for a minute, deepens the flavor, and almost caramelizes it, so you are getting rich tomato flavor in addition to a fresh tomato flavor at the end. It’s a beautiful thing.Step 3:
Pour the 1/4 cup of wine into the pan and scrape up the browned bits at the bottom, and simmer this mixture until it is reduced to a sort of syrup, just a couple of minutes.  This might seem weird, but that little bit of wine will give a robust depth to a quick-cooking sauce.  I know it’s just 1/4 of a cup, but it is a great excuse to get a bottle of wine going!  P.S. Use a Beaujolais, a Merlot, or a Pinot Noir, but steer clear of a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. I used a Cabernet Franc in this.

Step 4:
You are seriously almost done at this point, can you believe it? Simply pour in the can of crushed tomatoes, and gently simmer for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened a bit. Season to taste with salt and pepper, throw in that pinch of sugar, and you are done!Extras:
Now I know what some of you are probably thinking: She got up on her soap box about jarred sauce and now she is using canned tomatoes?  But, for most of us, we can only get good tasting, fresh tomatoes, a month or two out of the year, if that. And, believe it or not, most ‘fresh’ tomatoes, don’t taste very good the rest of the year.  That being said, I used canned crushed tomatoes because that’s something that tastes good year round. However, if you want to use fresh in this recipe, go right ahead! Or, if you don’t want to use fresh but would prefer canned diced tomatoes, that is fine too. However, you will want to drain them but reserve the liquid, because it’s got a lot of that good tomato flavor in it. And when you pour in and reduce the wine, pour in the tomato juice too, and simmer it a couple extra minutes.Add-ins:
This is a fantastic, basic marinara sauce, perfect for not only pasta but for chicken parm, pizza, meatball sandwiches, you name it.  I really did make the sauce this morning, and even at 10am my mouth was watering from the smells, and it was completely delicious. However, don’t think of this recipe, or any recipe, as set in stone. Here is a great little list of things you can add to this pasta to make it extra special, and to suite any unique tastes:

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
a couple tablespoons of capers
more (or less) red pepper flakes
fresh chopped basil (stirred in at the very end)
??? Whatever you want!

I hope I have successfully proven to you that a fantastic sauce doesn’t necessarily come from a jar, but it also doesn’t have to take hours to prepare. In about 20 minutes, including prep work, you can have a fantastic marinara sauce that, I promise, would make any Italian grandmother proud.

Stay hungry!


One thought on “Your New Favorite Marinara Sauce

  1. Pingback: Pesto Formula | The Little Red Kitchen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s