Without fail, I end up with a pile of tomatoes on my kitchen counter right before my family heads out for a big summer trip. (This year we went to Ireland. I did enjoy a pint of Guinness and all the cheese under the Irish sun, but I’ll never forget the chocolate cake at Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory at the foothills of Burren Mountains—it’s the best thing I ate on the trip.) The night before we left for the airport, a giant pile of tomatoes stared right back at me.
So I did what I’ve been doing every summer for nearly two decades: I placed the tomatoes whole in a zip-top bag and threw them into the freezer. After we returned from our trip, I made the tastiest tomato sauce ever.
The recipe comes from legendary cookbook author and Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazan. Tomatoes, a sweet yellow onion, and butter are cooked low and slow, yielding a sauce that’s shockingly easy to make and so delicious.
I’m a busy mom who is never without jars of store-bought tomato sauce in my pantry, and this is the only homemade version I’ll make from scratch. Not only does it taste heavenly, the recipe has so much going for it. It dirties just one pot and calls for three budget-friendly ingredients. The sauce is easy to double or triple to meal plan or feed a crowd. It requires zero cooking skills—just throw the ingredients in a pot and let them simmer. I’ve made this tomato sauce so many times that I have it memorized.
Marcella Hazan’s Famous Tomato Sauce
It’s no surprise this tomato sauce is beloved by millions and has stood the test of time—perhaps what Hazan is best known for. The recipe was published in 1973 in The Classic Italian Cook Book then again in 1992 in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking—that’s where I first learned to make it.
The original recipe calls for 2 cups of canned tomatoes (or blanched, peeled, and chopped tomatoes) simmered with a halved yellow onion, 5 tablespoons of butter, and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt for about 1 hour. The tomatoes are smashed as they cook and the onions are removed and discarded at the end. (Take a look at this amazing story and illustration about Hazan in the New York Times.)
It’s delicious as written, but over the 20 years I’ve been making it, I’ve simplified the recipe even more. My way cuts the prep time to zero, doesn’t waste the onions, and creates a smooth sauce that clings to spaghetti like two people in love.
How I Make Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
I place six large tomatoes (about 2 pounds), a yellow onion peeled and cut in half, and 5 tablespoons of salted butter in a pot. Because peeling and coring tomatoes is annoying, I don’t and it’s so good all the same. And if the tomatoes are frozen, I don’t defrost them either as you can see in the image below. If using unsalted butter, I add 1 teaspoon kosher salt.
Every time I’ve made this tomato sauce, I’ve thought: Maybe I should add garlic, basil, black pepper, or a little pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. And when I do, I regret it afterward. This recipe is best with just the ingredients it calls for. The sweet onions and the fat from the butter are simply a magical match for the tomatoes.
Set the pot over medium-low to low heat. Slowly cook uncovered for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours until the tomatoes and onions fall apart when poked with a spoon as shown in the image below. If starting with frozen tomatoes, I cover the pot with a lid for the first 30 minutes to help move the process along.
Though I could stir it occasionally, there’s honestly no need to babysit this sauce. I’ve walked away to do chores around the house with a timer set. On low heat, the bottom has never burned.
The original recipe calls for removing and discarding the onion from the sauce. I never do this. Since I don’t skin or core the tomatoes and prefer my sauce smooth, I stick an immersion blender into the pot to blend the tomatoes and onions. The resulting sauce is thick and deeply flavorful. No wonder this is the only recipe I’ll ever make.