There’s only one tomato sauce recipe that I’ve ever truly, madly, deeply followed. It has three ingredients—sort of four—and you probably already know it: Marcella Hazan’s, with onion and butter (and salt). But, I’ve made oodles of others—sans recipe—just a wooden spoon in one hand, glass of wine in the other.
How? Think of it like kitchen improv (or that night you get home from work an hour later than usual and you're hungry and you don't have dinner planned). Tomato sauce is the chameleon of the sauce world, a real weeknight mensch. It can be pared down or dressed up, creamy or punchy, soupy or jammy, incorporating whatever you have on hand or need to use up. Here are my go-to blueprints, plus how to redraw, scribble on, or even tear them up—all while drinking a glass of red (or two).
Theory #1: A little goes a long way. Marcella's sauce is an exercise in minimalism: canned tomatoes, a halved onion, more butter than you'd expect. And don't be shy on the salt. The overarching rule: Never include more ingredients than you can count on your hand. This is for those weeknights when you just can't even. How to adapt:
Theory #2: A lot goes a long way. The opposite approach. Instead of staying minimal, go all in. The good news: This doesn't take that much longer. Classic puttanesca calls for garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and crushed red pepper flakes. Each of these can be riffed to infinity and beyond. Punchy sauces are ideal for pasta, of course. But I also love pouring them all over vegetables: big, plump beans; roasted cauliflower steaks; buttery spaghetti squash. How to play:
Theory #3: Adjective goals: boozy, creamy. Alcohol adds brightness and amplifies tomato sauce's flavors. And fatty dairy rounds it all out. The classic combo is vodka and cream, but don't stop there:
Theory #4: Concentration is key. Tomatoes are umami-rich, which means the more you reduce them, the more intense that flavor becomes. (This is why sun-dried tomatoes are a salad's best friend. And why tomato paste is such a workhorse.) You can take advantage of this in three ways:
Theory #5: The new meat and potatoes: meat and tomatoes. There's more to meat sauce than bolognese. As the butter in Marcella's masterpiece shows, tomatoes love fat—their acidity needs it. Meat supplies that, while also bulking up the sauce with hearty protein. Your options:
Which tomato sauce camp do you frequent the most? Let us know in the comments below!