Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

By • August 3, 2011 • 181 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. Discard the onion before tossing with pasta. 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.

Tags: pasta sauce

Comments (181) Questions (7)

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14 days 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.

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23 days ago Heidi

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

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24 days 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.

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25 days 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!!

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27 days 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.

Ashley

27 days 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!

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28 days ago AlyssaM

Oh, and forgot, Debbie, this sauce doesn't need to simmer "for hours" I typically let it go for an hour or a bit less.

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28 days ago AlyssaM

Debbie, yes a medium yellow onion is best, as I've tried it with both white and vidalia and it wasn't as good. Medium onion is larger than the size of a lemon, maybe baseball size, but not softball size. Also, I prefer salted butter to unsalted in this recipe.

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29 days ago cookycat

The best thing about this sauce is that it really tastes like fresh tomatoes from my garden. Like a bit of summer sunshine in my mouth. I had some last night that I made last summer and froze. It was just so good.

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29 days ago Debbi Spencer

I bought the tomatoes to try this recipe tomorrow/ Can't wait to taste it!! I would never have tried it with no seasonings without all the rave reviews. One question-since I have an electric stove it is hard to let anything simmer for hours, even stirring occasionally. Would it work to let it cook in a crock pot (uncovered)? OK, 2 questions! Medium YELLOW onion? Would that be about the size of a lemon? Bigger? Smaller? I'm sure proportion is important in this recipe! Thank you!! (BTW, I was surprised to see this recipe since the only other time I've seen it was in a fiction book I read a year or so ago in which the main character made exactly this-with canned tomatoes- and I thought it sounded much too plain to be a real recipe or very good!)

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29 days ago Betty Frost

The onion should be bigger than a lemon. Since it is for flavor, it won't make a difference but medium is about the size of a fist. As for the electric stove, I have only cooked it on an electric stove. I cook it on the lowest setting and it works. Also, the time frame is only 45 minutes, not hours.

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about 1 month ago Celeste Scollan

All previous commenters who described this sauce as something along the lines of Chef Boyardee--you seriously need to give this another shot! I made this sauce yesterday to rave reviews of anyone that I could share it with--I even called my neighbor to come over and try it and, despite having just finished a large meal herself, couldn't resist cleaning the bowl. So good, and so simple!

I admit that I was also skeptical of the goodness of this sauce after reading the recipe. Something to the effect of "that's it?!" for sure sprung to mind. However, this sauce is as delicious and soul-soothing as it is simple; super comforting, lovely and delicious. It's for sure a rich sauce--with flavor and attitude of a cream sauce, while maintaining the tomato texture and flavor that is just so good. Personally, I prefer things on the lighter side, so I could even do without some of the butter, but if you are one for cream sauces (as I tend not to be), then the required amount should be perfect! I'm getting hungry just talking about it and wish there was more to return home to! Which is another thing, if you want a lot of sauce or leftovers, I would for sure double the recipe. This probably fed 4 at most. Highly recommended, everyone should try this delightful recipe!

Ashley

about 1 month ago Ashley Marie

THANK YOU! It is definitely WONDERFUL. And the Chef Boyardee references made me go a little mad.

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about 1 month ago Denise

Made this twice. First with regular butter (land o lakes). Came out greasy and oily. The second time we used imported italian butter and Good imported canned tomatoes and it came out delicious. Seems this recipe is only as good as the ingredients. Now we make it all the time.

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about 1 month ago MRubenzahl

Fascinating. I have made it about four times now, never came out greasy. I use plain old Amercican butter (not sure the brand). The food chemist in me is curious. The butter seems not to be emulsified for some reason. Temperature? Mixing the ingredients as the butter melts? Wondering...

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about 1 month ago Denise

.? Maybe I used too much, I am not good at measuring or I had it too hot. Anyway still one of my favorite go to recipes

Stringio

about 1 month ago Sandy Alaniz

I use this recipe for pizza sauce! I cook it down until it's thick and creamy and the tomato flavor is so intense! I used a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes that I had in the pantry. A little goes a long way on pizza and since I make and keep pizza dough in the fridge ready to go, this sauce is great to keep on hand for quick go to meals. I love pizza. :)

Bad_girl

about 1 month ago alamesa

I am making this again now. The reason why this is such a popular sauce is because of it's simplicity, like all good recipes and sauces. The key, of course, is good quality ingredients. I add 2 cloves of garlic and throw them into the pot with the onion. This is a basic sauce to be enjoyed on it's own, or as a base for other ingredients. In my case today, with some mushrooms and fresh basil. Just cook it on a very low simmer for as long as possible. It will thicken and sweeten. Delicious!

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about 1 month ago A.

Someone please tell me why this is so great. I'm a big lover of rich, meaty-tasting, hearty tomato sauces. With lots of garlic, not just onions. And mushrooms. And herbs like bay & oregano. In reading this recipe, my gustatory response is: ewww, weak, watery, thin. So someone please tell me why I should try this!

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about 1 month ago mboerner

The answer is that it is not great. Basically, it tastes like the sauce in Spaghetti-Os. My husband hates it. I think, pace Hazan, that it just doesn't taste Italian; rather Italian American. You can make a perfectly good vegetarian tomato sauce, marinara, for example, that tastes far better than this bland, greasy concoction.

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about 1 month ago A.

Thanks mboerner, that's what I thought. Sorry Marcella, won't waste my San Marzanos on your recipe!

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about 1 month ago MRubenzahl

It's a different style. I like big, meaty sauces like bolognese and Sunday Gravy. This is different from those.
And I have to disagree, it's not weak or watery or thin. I would not judge it by reading a recipe in any case.

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about 1 month ago A.

But the recipe is the only way I have to judge it without wasting my recourses on it. How else?? D'oh!

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about 1 month ago MRubenzahl

Well, you could rely on the dozens of people who rave about it (hundreds if you look at other sites). And it's not a lot of resources to try it. A can of tomatoes, half a stick of butter and 45 minutes. But up to you.

Ashley

about 1 month ago Ashley Marie

Wow, I'm kind of surprised to see such negative comments about this like it tastes like the sauce in Spaghetti-Os. Seriously? It's definitely a different style - it's lighter in the fact that it's not weighed down by meat and mushrooms and such - however it's rich from the butter and salt. Like lots of people have said before me, it's amazing because it's so few recipes (that everyone usually has on hand) and the end result is delicious, fresh, versatile... I could go on. But it seems even from your initial comment you had already made up your mind about it!

Ashley

about 1 month ago Ashley Marie

so few ingredients, not recipes. Sorry, I have not properly caffeinated myself yet.

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about 1 month ago mboerner

I have tried the recipe a number of times, but it continues to taste bland and greasy--all that butter that doesn't blend into the tomatoes. Not an Italian taste to my mind. I will even go so far as to concluded that Hazan's readers like it so much precisely because it does not taste Italian. Terrible sauce.

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2 months ago Sam

So easy and delicious, I found myself eating it straight from the saucepan with a spoon.

Ashley

3 months ago Ashley Marie

Before I add my personal insight, I wanted to say that I had a 28oz can of whole, peeled tomatoes with juice, from which I had previously used a 1/2 cup from - This amount of "leftovers" was perfect for the recipe, and was actually around 2 cups when measured out.

My review - amazing, divine, groan-worthy. I was SUPER skeptical of this for the shear fact that it seemed TOO easy, TOO basic - I mean, c'mon now - only FOUR of the most basic ingredients and I don't even have to dice the onion? How could it be THAT good?

Well, it is. I can't stop licking the sauce pot. I want to eat pasta every night just to make this sauce. I want to bake a baguette right now and make that our dinner tonight - bread dipped in sauce with some wine.

EVERYONE ON FOOD52 - if you haven't made this, MAKE IT TONIGHT.

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3 months ago cookycat

Had some frozen and used it in turkey meatloaf tonight. So good.

Karl

3 months ago Karl Rosaen

Karl is Food52's VP of Technology.

When using canned tomatoes, this recipe calls for 2 cups - but a 28 oz can is about 3 cups. I also notice other websites say to use a 28 oz can. So I'm curious for those making this recipe using a 28 oz can of tomatoes - do you stick with the 5 Tbs butter, one onion, or do you up the butter and onion by 50%?

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3 months ago MRubenzahl

I made a similar comment and did a test. Use a 28 ounce can and follow the recipe. Ignore the 2 cup measurement.

Karl

3 months ago Karl Rosaen

Karl is Food52's VP of Technology.

Awesome thanks!

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3 months ago kasia S.

I use two 14.5 oz cans of whole peeled San Marzano with whole onion and 5tbs butter, even a tiny bit more later with great results :) no worries it will be great.

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about 1 month ago corcooks44

Hi Karl, I have made this recipe many times and I often use one 28. oz can whole San Marzano Tomatoes, juice and all to the 5 TBSP of unsalted butter -- I have never felt the need to increase. I use one onion per can too.

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5 months ago Pat

I made this recipe and kept trying to figure out what its aroma reminded me of. Sorry to say it was the smell of Chef Boyardee ravioli in the can. It didn't taste bad, but the smell was too much to take. (And I had such high hopes.)

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5 months ago p'illar

Made this tonight with late season fresh beefsteak tomatoes (4), regular unsalted butter and a yellow onion. It was fantastic tossed with fresh tomato tagliatelle.

Chrysanthemum

5 months ago Karin Ward

One follow-up to my previous comment. When using canned tomatoes, sometimes there is metallic taste so I add a little honey to get rid of it. About a tablespoon or so and that usually works.

Stringio

5 months ago Moe Rubenzahl

So far, I have only made it with canned tomatoes (Muir Glen, 28-oz can). I add sugar to taste, which turns out to be one tablespoon.