Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

By • August 3, 2011 • 204 Comments

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Author Notes: The most famous tomato sauce on the internet, from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Editor's note: Marcella called for 2 cups of tomatoes when using canned, but feel free to use a whole 28-ounce can (closer to 3 cups), if you like. You can scale up the butter and onion, if you like, or don't -- it's genius either way.Genius Recipes

Serves 6, enough to sauce 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta

For the Sauce

  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, prepared as described below, or 2 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt to taste
  1. Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.
  2. Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon.
  3. Taste and correct for salt. Before tossing with pasta, you may remove the onion (as Hazan recommended) and save for another use, but many opt to leave it in. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table.

Making Fresh Tomatoes Ready for Sauce

  • fresh, ripe plum tomatoes (or other varieties, if they are equally ripe and truly fruity, not watery)
  1. The blanching method: Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or less. Drain them and, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, skin them, and cut them into coarse pieces.
  2. The freezing method (from David Tanis, via The Kitchn): Freeze tomatoes on a baking sheet until hard. Thaw again, either on the counter or under running water. Skin them and cut them into coarse pieces.
  3. The food mill method: Wash the tomatoes in cold water, cut them lengthwise in half, and put them in a covered saucepan. Turn on the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Set a food mill fitted with the disk with the largest holes over a bowl. Transfer the tomatoes with any of their juices to the mill and puree.
Jump to Comments (204)

Tags: pasta sauce

Comments (204) Questions (7)


16 days ago julita84

SOOO simple, SOOO delicious! I am however wondering if it is really necessary to put as much butter.. I will try with half the butter portion next time!


about 1 month ago Amy Gutman

When it says "with their juice" for canned tomatoes, does that mean dump in all the puree that's in the can or just the juice that is in the tomatoes themselves?


about 1 month ago AlyssaM

They mean just dump the entire contents of the can in the pot!


3 months ago Julia W.

I love this recipe! If you don't have a food mill, I cut the tomatoes in half and use a grater on the cut side. The largest side of the grater gets you a nice consistency and leaves you with the tomato skin. It really cuts down on prep time!


3 months ago Janet Story Susmark

This recipe appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 9/17/14 and it was so simple and I had SO many plum tomatoes ripened from the garden vines that it was a GOTO. I halved the recipe and cooked in a 2 qt. saucepan. Richened and became more flavorful with each bite. I heated up some Trader Joe's meatballs for the side and realized that we had forgotten about them as we ate. Five stars!


4 months ago stephen mindich

I made the recipe yesterday for a dinner party - I used two 28 oz cans of crushed Italian Plum Tomatoes for 6 adult eaters - added 1 tbs of sugar, 2 bay leaves and after cooking, cut up the onions and left them in the sauce. Tossed it with linguine and served with sides of meatballs and sweet Italian sausages. It was very good, probably a little lighter/creamier than I normally like. I believe the onions made it better). And while none of us had ever made it or knowingly ate it before - it did have a familiar taste - leading us to conclude, given its popularity, we may have had it before at a restaurant. ??? Because it is so easy and tasty I will definitely make it again.


4 months ago Jill Ann Veneracion

Wonderful recipe. Simple yet delicious and it goes well with grilled eggplants.


4 months ago Brenda Feick

Wow I can't wait to try this! My husband is Italian and misses his Moms sauce so I'm gonna give it a shot. Not being the best chef (there's a couple things I've mastered) this sounds way easy for me to make and possibly impress my hubby and maybe even some dinner guests :) I love the fact that you can use can or fresh tomatoes too. Also we both hate onions so nice to see you take it out after.


4 months ago cmpollard

I made this sauce recently with fresh garden tomatoes, decreasing the butter slightly. It was waiting in the fridge when I harvested three Asian eggplants (about a foot long each and a little over an inch thick.) I sautéed the sliced eggplants (half-inch slices) with a little garlic in olive oil, then stirred in the Marcella tomato sauce and some cooked whole wheat penne. Topped it with some grated parmegianno cheese. Didn't take the time to add chopped herbs, but they would have been welcome. I don't think it's "too early" for this.


5 months ago s

So is the onion ruined in the process? I am finally going to try this but have always wondered if discarding the onion is a must or if I can chop it and use it in this or another recipe after simmering. Thanks!


4 months ago cookycat

I made this last night and saved the onion. Today I made a couscous salad and added some of the onion to that. Yum.


4 months ago CFrance

Why do the pictures of this show the onion on the plate but the directions say to discard it? I would serve it with the sauce, as pictured.


4 months ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

Great question -- Hazan originally recommended removing it, but we've come to like leaving it in (and many commenters have discussed the various ways to make use of the onion, below). I've updated the recipe here to reflect both options.


6 months ago Transcendancing

Wow - what an amazingly simple pasta to make, so rewarding and flavourful. I decided to make this because it looked super easy and it was essentially a pantry dish and I'm just blown away by both the ease and the impact. Definitely going to become a regular in our eating.


7 months ago Cinnamin

I LOVE this tomato sauce. It doesn't require much but it's rich and flavourful. This was the first thing I made from Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking! A real keeper. I make a big batch and freeze some for a busy day. I tear some basil and sprinkle it over the top once I've spooned the sauce over the pasta.


7 months ago witloof

I dice up the onion and cook and serve it in the sauce. I also use canned cherry tomatoes from Italy {La Valle brand} and they're exquisite in this. A bay leaf is good, too.


7 months ago Geri

Simply elegant.


8 months ago taochild

I made this sauce twice in one week because it's so good. I used canned tomatoes, but I'd like to try it with fresh ripe ones as well. Try it over gnocchi, like she recommended in her book. Delicious!


8 months ago ATG117

I don't know how in the world it took me this long to decide to make this sauce I've been hearing about for years. It probably has something to do with the fact that I often don't like butter in savory foods (I know, I know). BUT this is such a revelation. I get it now and will never be the same.


7 months ago kasia S.

It's amazing how some things sound too simple to have such great complexity, I've made this a few times, about to make a batch now to have with some angel hair pasta topped with fresh Parmigiano for lunch.


8 months ago Pat Rangel

There is no substitute for canned San Marzano tomatoes. Sure they cost more but with only a few ingredients it's worth the trouble. I make my sauce with 2 ea 28 oz cans of the tomatoes and half a rack of baby back ribs. Yum. Take meat off bones before serving.


7 months ago Charlie

Since it has dairy from the butter it is not recommended that you can it. Dairy products contain fat which insulate botulism spores from heat.


9 months ago Heidi

Would this recipe be appropriate for canning? I will hopefully have a garden full of tomatoes this summer.


8 months ago cookycat

I make it with my home grown tomatoes and freeze it. It freezes very well and is like a plate of summer sunshine when I use it in the winter.


9 months ago KakiSue

This is, indeed, a genius recipe. Uncuous, deep, and full of flavor. It was ready in as much time as it took me to boil and cook the pasta. I did manhandle it a bit in the cooking to aid in the tomato breakdown. Reheated for lunch the next day was wonderful.


9 months ago Debbi Spencer

I made this two days ago and am reheating it for dinner tonight. I
liked the taste, but was disappointed in the Muir Glen Organic tomatoes. Lots of hard stem end pcs, and many bits of tomato did not cook up soft in spite of simmering about 2-2 1/2 hours (to get the consistency I wanted-I know it was only supposed to be 45 mins.)! I'll look for the San Marzio (or whatever they are!), next time I'm in "the city". I used the diced tomatoes-maybe the whole ones would have been better?
It is a versatile sauce, love the creaminess which reminded me of a vodka sauce; could add whatever spices you wanted at the end. I did add two large cloves of garlic to mine, but don't really taste garlic.
I am not Italian, but we had a very close family friend whose parents were born and raised there and her sauce from "the old country" didn't have spices in it either. She said they added them at the table. It did, however have about 5 pounds of beef and pork roast simmered in it and it was wonderful! I think recipes and techniques differ greatly from region to region in Italy. I don't remember which region they were from...
Thanks for all the answers to my questions here!!


7 months ago kasia S.

I use the San Marzano Whole Peeled Tomatoes 28oz and comes out perfect every time. It's also okay to customize, you never know what greatness will come out of it.


9 months ago ski_gpsy

I've been making this sauce ever since Yahoo featured the recipe as "The Easiest Pasta Sauce Ever" or something like that. Back then I was surprised at the number of commenters who hadn't even tried the recipe, but were outraged that it was called "Italian" or "gravy" because it lacked the garlic, meat, spices, or whatever it is they felt "real" Italian sauce must have. I did a little research and found out that this simple recipe has been made in Italy for generations, using either a whole onion or whole garlic, or both.

I also read that the reason for removing the onion and/or garlic is because onions, like garlic and other vegetables in the Allium genus, are not digested in the stomach but rather in the intestines and can cause bloating, which is why many chefs cook with the onions and garlic whole, but then remove them before serving so that their guests don't feel bloated afterwards.

As to the debate over what constitutes "authentic" Italian gravy, my answer is chi se ne frega (who cares?). For heavy cheese dishes like lasagna, manicotti, etc. I like a rich, hearty sauce. But for a lighter meal, this bright flavorful TOMATO sauce that's all about the tomatoes, served over delicate angel-hair pasta with a handful of fresh tender basil leaves is Heaven on a plate.

PS. After America's Test Kitchen chose Muir Glen Organic Diced Tomatoes as their #1 canned tomatoes, I tried them in this recipe instead of my usual San Marzano DOPs and surprisingly the whole family prefers the Muir Glen.


9 months ago Ashley Marie

I too am a HUGE Muir Glen Organic tomato fan. We buy the 28oz whole peeled tomatoes in their juices and use it for this sauce as well as our homemade pizza sauce. The main reason I started getting them was because they're one of like two or three "mainstream" companies that don't have BPA in the can lining. Where I'm at, brands like Pomi and Bionature never carry the whole peeled variety that we love. Anyhoo, thanks for the info on "authentic Italian" etc. - Very interesting!