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Skip the processed tomato sauce! Learn how to make a simple, fresh-tasting homemade marinara sauce any time of year using canned tomatoes, garlic, onion and basil. This an essential sauce for spaghetti or any pasta shape, and keeps refrigerated or frozen.
Homemade marinara sauce is one of the most versatile foods you could ever learn how to cook, especially when it comes to making family dinner recipes on the fly.
Benefits of homemade marinara sauce
- It’s quick! Marinara is one of the most basic pasta sauces. I’m talking about a simple sauce made with just 4 ingredients that cooks in about 15 minutes.
- It costs less: Yes, prepared sauce saves time. But dollar for dollar, it’s absolutely more economical to make a batch of marinara sauce from scratch.
- Skip the junk: Many brands of jarred marinara sauce are over-processed, and contain stuff you really don’t want or need in your life, like excessive amounts of sugar, corn syrup and sodium.
- Foolproof: I’ve cooked and tested this recipe hundreds (maybe thousands!) of times with many different types of tomatoes and seasonings, and it’s always a winner.
Ready to make your sauce? You really only need four ingredients to make delicious homemade marinara sauce (not counting salt), with a few optional add-ins.
- Canned tomatoes: Start with good-quality canned whole tomatoes or crushed tomatoes. For a smoother texture, swap out one can with tomato puree.
- Onion: Yellow onion or chopped shallots form the foundation of the sauce.
- Olive Oil: Use your favorite everyday extra-virgin olive oil as the base for cooking the onions.
- Garlic: Use fresh garlic rather than garlic powder if possible — it really makes a huge difference in flavor. While it’s tempting to add tons of garlic to marinara sauce, you really only need 3-4 cloves. Grating the garlic on rasp grater or chopping it finely releases the most juice. And never brown the garlic, which will add an acrid taste to the sauce.
- OPTIONAL INGREDIENTS:
- Sugar: A pinch of sugar can do wonders to bring out the natural sweetness of canned tomatoes. Taste your tomatoes before cooking to gauge their acidity level.
- Fresh basil: Totally optional, but if you happen to have fresh basil on hand, it will add an extra boost of aromatic flavor.
- Crushed red pepper: Also an option — add a large or small pinch to taste along with the softened onions for a touch of heat.
This sauce is so quick to make it can be simmering away in a pot while the water boils for cooking perfectly textured pasta.
Marinara sauce vs. tomato sauce
The difference between the two types of tomato sauces is based on the time they each take to cook and ingredients.
- Marinara is typically a plain tomato sauce that cooks in a short time without meat.
- Traditional tomato sauces — think ragù or rich, robust Italian meat sauce — are usually slow-cooked and simmered for hours, often with meats like beef, veal and pork.
The best canned tomatoes for sauce:
I grew up in an Italian family and have been testing and tasting canned tomatoes for a lonnnng time. One thing any grandma will tell you is basic marinara is a simple sauce with few ingredients, so it makes sense to use high-quality canned tomatoes.
You can drive yourself crazy deciding which tomatoes to buy. Imported Italian? Authentic San Marzano tomatoes? Or how about non-Italian San Marzano tomatoes, grown in California? It gets confusing.
Unless you have access to incredible home-grown tomatoes, I recommend buying canned whole plum tomatoes or crushed tomatoes. I’ve found this widely available brand to be most consistent in quality and it’s priced right.
Marinara sauce uses:
- Serve marinara sauce with basic baked chicken breasts.
- Make a batch of creamy Parmesan polenta and top with the sauce.
- Spoon it over homemade pizza dough or focaccia.
15-Minute Marinara Sauce with Canned Tomatoes
Yield: 5 cups sauce, enough for 2-3 pounds pasta
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup finely chopped onion, about ½ of a medium-large onion
- 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped or grated on a rasp grater
- 2 28-ounce (793 g each) cans whole peeled tomatoes, or crushed tomatoes *see note
- Kosher salt
- ½-1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar, optional
- ¼ cup sliced fresh basil, optional
- Put the oil and onion in a large saucepan or Dutch oven and place over medium-low heat. Stir in a pinch of salt to encourage the onion to release liquid.
- Cover the pan and cook gently until softened, 5-7 minutes — the steam created in the covered pot helps this process go a bit quicker. Stir in the garlic and cook a few seconds, until fragrant. If using crushed red pepper, stir it in.
- Stir in the tomatoes, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, pepper and sugar (if using) to the pot. Bring to a simmer. Cook 15-20 minutes. The sauce will bubble up as it simmers. Partially cover the pot to keep it from splashing on your cooktop.
- Taste the sauce for seasoning (I usually add about another ½ teaspoon of salt).
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- The sauce keeps refrigerated up to one week and frozen up to 2 months in leakproof containers.
- If you prefer a smoother sauce, swap out one can of tomatoes for a 28-ounce can of puree or passata. You can also use a handheld stick blender to create your desired consistency.
- Optional seasonings: Add about 1 teaspoon dried oregano for that classic Italian restaurant aroma. Butter isn’t traditional, but it adds a rich flavor. Stir in a tablespoon or two into the hot sauce until it melts.
- Serve with homemade Classic Italian Meatballs!