Not Recipes

How to Make Any Marinara Sauce in 5 Steps (and 20 Minutes)

By • June 3, 2013 • 29 Comments

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: How to make fresh marinara in 20 minutes flat, with variations -- you'll never want to buy the jarred stuff again.

Homemade marinara sauce is my culinary version of the little black dress, and can be reliably dressed up or down with delicious ease.

My marinara is a simple tomato sauce that can be made with just six ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry — high quality tomatoes (canned are perfectly acceptable in my book!), extra virgin olive oil, garlic, kosher or sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a fresh herb or two. Plus it is very quick to put together. If you have twenty minutes, you can easily cook this dish. Once it is in your cooking rotation, I guarantee that you will never buy jarred tomato sauce again.

How to Make a Marinara Sauce in 20 Minutes

1. Finely chop your garlic. Let the size of your cloves and how much you like the flavor of garlic be your guide. I like about four cloves.

 

2. If you are cooking during the summer or fall months, use fresh, ripe, locally grown tomatoes. I like to chop cherry tomatoes, skins and all, but if your tomatoes are very thick-skinned, give them a quick blanch in boiling water before peeling and dicing them.

If using canned tomatoes, splurge on an excellent brand, preferably with little or no salt and no added herbs, packed in their own juices (not tomato sauce). Drain canned tomatoes and reserve the liquid, so as to avoid an overly watery sauce. If you are using whole tomatoes, my preferred method is to squeeze the tomatoes with my hands to create small chunks. Warning: this is kind of messy because tomatoes will squirt — I recommend wearing an apron! Diced canned tomatoes can be used as is.

 

3. Coat your pan with olive oil and sauté the garlic over low heat. (If you are serving pasta, now is the time to put your salted water on to boil.) When the garlic is soft and fragrant, add prepped tomatoes to your pan.

 

4. Turn up the heat and let the tomatoes reduce and thicken slightly. I like to add a handful of fresh herbs (both leaves and stalks), such as basil and parsley, and let them poach in the sauce — a tip that I learned from Lidia Bastianich's wonderful cookbook, Lidia’s Family Table.



5. If your marinara is looking too thick, add some reserved tomato water or pasta water. Add salt and a grind or two of black pepper until flavors taste balanced. Remove herb stalks and leaves from sauce. That’s it! Marinara sauce is now ready to eat.

How to Use It
If you have a basic marinara in your pantry, you have the building blocks for many delicious dinners. I use it to top homemade pizza, stuff calzones, and to make fantastic chicken and eggplant parmigiana. A spoonful or two transforms risotto into something special. But it’s pretty darn good, just on its own, served with pasta (fresh or dried), frozen ravioli, or even cooked farro. If you are serving with pasta or farro, combine preferably in a skillet over medium heat, so that sauce and pasta can marry together.

Variations
Marinara has a beautiful simplicity that I adore. But when a straight marinara just won’t do, there are some easy ways to fancy it up.

  • Make a quick puttanesca. If you have any anchovies, chop one or two up and add them to your sautéed garlic before you begin reducing your tomatoes. Add a spoonful of chopped capers and a handful of chopped, pitted olives to the sauce during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
  • To add depth of flavor to a marinara, begin by sautéing some diced pancetta or guanciale (or even bacon in a pinch) with a little olive oil.
  • Make a vegetable ragu. Sauté half of your minced garlic along with a chopped onion or leek. Add whatever vegetables you have in your fridge, cut into bite-sized pieces, such as fennel, asparagus stalks, tender chard stems, blanched fava beans, or mushrooms. When vegetables are just fork tender, remove from pan and add them back in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Fresh or frozen peas, asparagus tips, or julienned Swiss chard can also be added at this point.

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Photos by James Ransom

Tags: not recipes, how to, tomato sauce, pasta, Italian food, how-to & diy

Comments (29)

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22 days ago Monica

how much of everything???

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3 months ago minissimus

You left out the most important part--get San Marzano tomatoes. The best are those canned without garlic and/or basil leaves. Who wants basil that's been sitting in a can for months?

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6 months ago swobohe

what knife is that?

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6 months ago pierino

pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.

It looks like a Japanese damascus steel chef's knife. You can find them through Sur La Table. Shun is excellent brand. Sur La Table has some under their own label which are a little less expensive. Top of the line are the Bob Kramer ones (they are forged in Japan). The bevel on Japanese knives is different than western knives in that it's asymetrical. One side is flat.

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6 months ago swobohe

That doesn't look like a Shun to me. The Shun Premiers are similar but different.

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8 months ago Natasha Szolomayer

I used fresh Campari tomatoes and sauce came THE BEST I EVER HAD!!! Thank you sooooooooooo much!!! You right,cookinginvictoria, I will never buy the jarred stuff again. ;) :)

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11 months ago pierino

pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.

First of all excellent job cookinginvictoria. A couple of comments, marinara means "sailor style" and one school of thought (at least in Napoli) is that it should include a bit of anchovy even if it's not "puttanesca". A chef I know uses a similar method of "poaching" the basil in the sauce. What he does is to tie it up in cheesecloth as you would a bouquet garnie. Myself I take it one step further and run the sauce in a food mill over a large bowl. And yes, the quality of the tomatoes really matters. Imported San Marzanos are the best. I know people who grow them from seed here but unless you have a volcano near your backyard the flavor is not going to be the same. A fine sauce!

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Thank you pierino for your thoughtful comments. Love anchovy in marinara and pretty much any pasta sauce. When my tomato sauces are too chunky, I will often pulse them in the food processor a couple of times. Alas, I am food mill deprived! Agree with you about using high quality tomatoes, even if they are canned. This is such a quick cooking sauce that it really does make a difference what tomatoes you select. My favorites are San Marzanos too -- they rock!

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11 months ago kath1

I have been told that whole tinned tomatoes are best avoided as they are skinned and packed unripe so they don't break up. So I always buy chopped, which are often cheaper anyway. Is this true do we think? It sounds very plausible.

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11 months ago Andreas

Chopped tomatoes are usually the bruised or otherwise damaged fruit that can't be used for other purposes.

Also, once canned, tomatoes cannot continue to ripe so canning unripe tomatoes doesn't make sense. .

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Thanks, kath1 and Andreas, for your feedback. I have never heard that whole tomatoes may be canned before they have ripened. The ones that I buy are very sweet and juicy with a lovely real tomato flavor, so I can't imagine that they were packed in an unripened state. I like San Marzanos (from Italy), if you can get them. Stateside, the Muir Glen organic brand is very good. In Canada, where I live now, I have a high opinion of the Eden Organic line.

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11 months ago Fairmount_market

So nicely put. Last summer for the first time I peeled and froze a large stash of roma tomatoes at their peek, and it made such a difference for winter marinara sauces.

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Thanks so much, Fairmount_market. I am with you on freezing extra ripe tomatoes from the farmer's market or my garden to pull out during the chilly, winter months for making marinara. They remind me of summer like nothing else!

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11 months ago kitchenfish

This is basically the recipe i use too!
I HIGHLY recommend trying this: while your tomatoes are melting down and thickening up, whip together a quickfire pesto. Mix it in and serve over gnocchi or pasta. Goodness me that's delicious.

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Yum, will have to try the pesto trick! Thanks for the tip, kitchenfish.

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11 months ago irinaleibo

I would also add a pinch of pepperoncini.
Cheers
irina

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Yes, my mother and grandmother always added pepperoncini to their tomato sauces -- agree that it adds a nice zesty flavor!

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11 months ago lapadia

Beautiful and delicious, CIV!

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Thank you, lapadia! Love the James Ransom photos too! :)

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11 months ago Andreas

Needs two more ingredients to take it from good to great ;)

A dash of balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of brown sugar - or a dash of maple syrup if you're me and lazy. The flavour profile of the tomato is sweet/acidic. Adding a sweetener and an acidifier helps tomatoes taste more like tomatoes.

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11 months ago twinwillow

I always taste my marinara sauce after it's cooked for a bit and then add a bit of sugar if needed to balance the flavor.

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Love to see everyone's different spins on making homemade marinara. Like twinwillow, I agree that it is key to taste the sauce in the last minutes of cooking to adjust the flavors and add a sweetener, if the tomatoes are tasting overly acidic. Some cooks swear by adding a drizzle of honey instead of sugar. Andreas, I will have to try adding a dash of balsamic vinegar to my next batch of marinara. Thanks for the tip!

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11 months ago twinwillow

Exactly how I've been making my marinara sauce for 35 years!

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

twinwillow, so good to hear your feedback. I hope that homemade marinara never goes out of style!

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11 months ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

I love it, CIV! Very much like the sauce my mom taught me how to make. I use it on everything, too. Sometimes, if I need a quick salsa for chips, I'll doctor it up with some cilantro and Cholula. Perfect.

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

Thank you, mrsl! Agree that this is a very versatile sauce that is not just for Italian food. Love the idea to turn it into salsa for chips. I will have to try that this summer. I also like using this sauce as the base for thirschfeld's Indian inspired tikka masala sauce. (http://food52.com/recipes...)

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9 months ago LisaLisa

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, Cholula!!!!!

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11 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Excellent piece, cookinginvictoria! So grateful that you shared this with us. I'm sending it to my sons right now. ;o)

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11 months ago cookinginvictoria

AJ, thank you so much for the kind words! I am honored that you want to share this post with your sons.