I’ve been making this sauce for ages, and it’s filed under “Ten Minute Tomato Sauce”, though by now I know it by heart. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it tastes sweet and clean and tart. You can have a spaghetti dinner in the time it takes you to cook the pasta. This sauce is simplicity itself, and with only four ingredients—olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, and basil—they should each be of good quality. Weeknights are a lot less stressful if you know how to make this sauce. Pantry meals rule!
Is Marinara Sauce the Same as Tomato Sauce?
While typical Italian tomato-based pasta sauce (sugo di pomodoro) is often simmered for hours and may contain onions, celery, carrots, or meat, marinara sauce is a light, fresh-tasting, tomato-forward sauce that is slightly chunky and cooks in about 10 minutes. Take the taste challenge: make this sauce and compare it to the sauce in the jar lingering in your fridge. Wow, this one is so much better! It’s a win-win, and you’ll save quite a few bucks in the process.
Tips and Tricks for Homemade Marinara Sauce
- Use good-quality tomatoes. All canned tomatoes are not created equal. San Marzano tomatoes are a variety of plum tomatoes, not a brand, grown in the San Marzano region of Italy. The flesh of these tomatoes is thick, but brands vary. If they were canned when ripe, they should break up easily and their packing juice should be thick, not watery. If you can’t find San Marzano tomatoes, try several brands until you find one you like and stick with it.
- Squish the tomatoes. Break the tomatoes up by squeezing them with your hands in a bowl before adding them to the skillet. If the tomatoes were canned while slightly unripe and are in a thin sauce, they may be harder to break up when cold, but will soften and yield to a potato masher or fork once they have cooked for a few minutes.
- Use a skillet or wide saucepan. A skillet or wide saucepan is a must for cooking this sauce to ensure it thickens quickly and cooks evenly. That’s why it tastes so fresh, and its color stays a beautiful, bright red.
- Start with a cold pan. I break my habit of heating the oil first before adding anything to the pan when I’m making marinara sauce. Add the garlic to the oil before placing the pan over the heat, so the garlic can cook slowly and flavor the oil. Garlic burns rapidly when it comes into contact with hot oil and burned garlic will taste bitter. As soon as it sizzles, add the tomatoes.
- Throw in a few sprigs of fresh basil. Even in winter you can often find a sprig or two of basil, and it really elevates the sauce. A pinch of dried oregano would suffice as a substitute if fresh basil were not available.
Ways to Use Marinara Sauce
- Pasta: Long pasta like spaghetti and linguine is most suited to a smooth sauce, and shorter pasta like orecchiette, fusilli, and cavatappi works with chunkier sauces. But really, there are no strict rules. Whatever pasta is in your pantry is the right pasta to serve with the sauce. Grated Parmesan is a plus!
- Marinara sauce is great to spoon over fish, shrimp, or cooked chicken breasts.
- Add leftover sauce to soup or stir into vegetables like sauteed zucchini or eggplant.
Recipes That Use Marinara Sauce
- Baked Chicken Marinara
- Turkey Meatballs
- Pepperoni Calzones
- Easy Chicken Parmesan
- Baked Ziti
Squish the tomatoes:
Pour the canned tomatoes and their juices into a bowl. Squish them with your hands to break them up into small pieces. Stand back until you get the hang of this; the tomatoes will spurt if handled too briskly.
Sizzle the garlic:
In a skillet or wide saucepan, pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil Add the garlic and set the pan over medium heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, shake the pan and let it cook for 15 to 30 seconds, until it starts to turn a light golden brown. Do not let the garlic brown too much or the sauce will taste burned.
Cook the sauce:
Add the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pan. Adjust the heat so that the sauce simmers briskly without splattering. Stir the basil leaves and chile (if using) into the sauce.
Cook until the sauce has thickened to your liking, about 10 minutes. It may take a few minutes longer if the tomatoes from the can are watery. On the other hand, if the tomatoes from the can are in a thick sauce, add up to 1/2 cup water.
Taste and add more salt if needed. Remove from the heat and fish out and discard the basil (and dried chile, if you added on). If using to dress pasta, swirl in another tablespoon of olive oil.
Marinara sauce will keep for at least 1 week in the fridge. For storage up to 3 months or longer, tuck it into the freezer. (Marinara sauce loses its zing in the freezer after a few months but is perfectly safe to eat for 6 months.)
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Can You Can This Marinara Sauce?
This recipe makes about 3 cups, so it’s not worth the trouble of canning. However, don’t scale it up for canning. For food safety reasons, use a marinara sauce recipe that’s designed for home canning in a water bath. It should call for adding a little acid (citric acid, lemon juice, or vinegar). Here’s one from Ball Canning.