Best of the Hotline: How to Make Tomato Sauce from Canned Tomatoes

May 31, 2014

Some questions on the Hotline have staying power, and for good reason -- they cover the questions we ask ourselves time and time again. Join us as we revisit some of the most popular.

Today: The best ways to make tomato sauce from canned tomatoes, because we're still waiting for the heirlooms to make their debut at the market.

Best of the Hotline: How to Make Tomato Sauce from Canned Tomatoes

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When we’re too tired to come up with an elaborate meal, and the fridge is looking bare, we often turn to pasta -- you have a box lurking in your pantry right now, don't you? Perfectly sauced pasta makes for a relatively quick and easy meal, yet feels more complete than other scavanged dinners. (Merrill, we're looking at you and your "dinner" of cheese and crackers.) In the peak of summer, we smother our pasta with batch after batch of Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter made with fresh tomatoes, and then we keep eating it all week long. But just because tomato season isn’t in full swing yet doesn’t mean that you should resign yourself to a mediocre jarred version. Cris wanted to know how to make spaghetti sauce from canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, so the community noodled around and came up with answers:

Step by Step

  • Kellysm99 reminds us that Marcella’s tomato sauce works just as well with canned tomatoes as it does fresh, exclaiming: “This is so delicious you can eat it straight out of the pot with a spoon,” and suggests serving the onion as a side dish sprinkled with coarse salt.
  • Sam1148 offers a basic option: “Warm the tomato sauce, add a touch of garlic, some oregano and thyme (or Italian seasonings), and a pinch of sugar, and let it simmer about 30 minutes,” as well as a more involved meat sauce: “Brown some ground beef with some onions, mushrooms, and bell peppers. Then add spices, garlic, tomato sauce, and optionally, a touch of sugar.”
  • GIOVANNI50 claims: "It is simpler than all of the above. If you have crushed tomatoes, or passata, just put the amount you wish in a pan and let it reduce for 20 minutes on medium to high heat. Sure you can start with garlic and onions, but a simple tomato sauce (with perhaps a bit of oregano and salt and pepper) works for me every time," adding, "San Marzano tomatoes are the best of course."
  • Cookinginvictoria suggests following her guide to making any marinara sauce in 5 steps and 20 minutes.  

Best of the Hotline: How to Make Tomato Sauce from Canned Tomatoes

Quick Tips

  • Amydonovan likes the addition of white wine or vermouth.
  • SKK shares troubleshooting tips: "If it is too thick, thin with chicken stock. If it is too thin, let the sauce cook down." 
  • Referencing roots in Naples, Italy, Cannizzo recommends staying true to Italian methods -- steer clear of the stock and add water instead if the sauce becomes too thick.
  • Fhp suggests crushing some fresh basil and adding it to the tomato sauce when you turn off the heat: “Cover and let the fresh basil permeate the sauce. Remove basil before serving,” and seconds the recommendation of using San Marzano tomatoes.

Tell us: How do you make tomato sauce?

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Barbara
  • Nancy Barbarino Pendleton
    Nancy Barbarino Pendleton
  • Aliwaks
  • CondimentQueen
  • Moe Rubenzahl
    Moe Rubenzahl
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Barbara June 8, 2014
Olive oil in heated pan, add crushed garlic, crushed black olives (Gaeta preferred), some fresh basil, and some capers. Add canned tomatoes just before garlic browns, and cook as long as you like.
Nancy B. June 2, 2014
I make about 7 different sauces... one not shown - light summer sauce. Grape tomatoes added to hot olive oil cover, as they start to pop add some garlic. When you smell the garlic pull off heat. Add pasta, fresh basil, cheese and enough pasta water to bring together. I like a little red pepper flakes on top. If it takes more then 10 minutes your doing it wrong, so easy you don't even need a knife.
Aliwaks June 2, 2014
I do just like Cucina for a basic Pomodoro, but will add that sauce from canned tomatoes is ALWAYS better when you've gotten the seeds out, if using whole tomatoes i run them through the food mill. Also sometimes I add an anchovy or two along with the garlic, or a bit of pancetta (Guanciale if I can get it) or a Parmigiano rind to add some richness.
CondimentQueen June 1, 2014
I love the tomato sauce that results from my variation of Merrill's Braised Chicken Thighs so much that I make extra sauce just so I can freeze it. I double the sauce ingredients and I change it up a bit by using a generous splash of white or red wine instead of the chicken stock. It comes out a bit thicker than the recipe intended but it is sooo delicious. (I also cool it and remove any extra fat that comes to the surface before I freeze it). Here's the original recipe:
Moe R. June 1, 2014
Love this. I often forget about the simple elegance of tomato sauce for a lighting-fast meal. I use one of three styles -- all good, just different.

1. Fast and fresh: Not much more than tomato sauce, simmered briefly, with a smattering of fresh herbs, a little salt, and perhaps a grating of parmesan. A tiny amount of sugar if it's too acidy.

2. Marcella Hazan's magical onion and butter recipe.

3. What the Italian Americans in New York called "Sunday Gravy." Takes all day, but it's mostly unattended. I'll write it up one of these days but the idea is: Brown some lesser pork parts (neck bones, shoulder, ribs, especially the trimmings from having made spare ribs) and onions. Add tomatoes and cook in the oven for 3 hours.
Kristin June 1, 2014
I love making tomato sauce on a busy day -- it can be ready just as fast as the pasta with great results. Here is my recipe. Take about a teaspoon of red chili pepper flakes and heat them on high in a frying pan. Once fragrant, add olive oil. When sizzling, add one can of San Marzano whole tomatoes (with basil if possible, my favorite is La Strianese). Turn to med/low and add 1 ts each of dry basil, marjoram, oregano, 2 Tbs of tomato paste, wine to taste, salt and cracked pepper. Break up the tomatoes as you stir. The sauce will be done at about the same time as the pasta. Adding fresh basil is a nice touch. Serve with pasta, add a lot of freshly grated parmesan on top.
cucina D. June 1, 2014
I have stuck to the old traditions of my famiglia from Lazio (Roma). The very best quality San Marzano tomatoes (canned while & passata). A good healthy dose of extra virgin olive oil, statue garlic until fragrant (do NOT brown) add the canned tomatoes and a bit of water to thin it out a bit, season with salt and simmer until reduced. I never use stock or butter as I want the tomato sweet delicious flavor to shine. Add water as needed until the sauce reduces, remove from heat and serve with pasta and tons of fresh basil and drizzled olive oil.
cucina D. June 1, 2014
my apologies, I meant whole canned tomatoes and to sauté the garlic :)