Long Reads

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

August  3, 2011

Every Wednesday, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius. This week: the most famous tomato sauce on the internet, from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Tomato Sauce

- Kristen

Shop the Story

It was only a matter of time. The sauce was always there, seeping into every discussion of this whole genius recipe premise. It might even be the reason we hatched the column at all.

Because all you do is simmer tomatoes for 45 minutes with butter and an onion. The full, true tomato flavor is a revelation in itself -- as is finding out you don't need to cook in all those layers of garlic and herbs and whatnot to get there (and you might even be better off without them).

Marcella Hazan  Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion

How fitting that this should come to us from Marcella Hazan -- who, with her husband and writing partner Victor, has been credited with making simple, good Italian food accessible to American cooks ever since the publication of her first cookbook in 1973.

Admittedly, this sauce won't be news to a lot of you. Many of our favorite bloggers already had beautiful epiphanies about it years ago. In fact, we could even play a game: Where were you when Obama was elected? ... When you heard Gourmet was folding? ... When you first tried the sauce?

My initiation came late. It was last August, and my CSA was heaving flats full of bursting yellow tomatoes on us. It was too much. It was glorious. And we're already coming up on that tomato tipping point again.

Tomato, Butter, Onion  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

In a few months, we'll be giving the evil eye to $15/pound heirlooms shipped in from warmer climes -- but as of this moment, the farmers markets around here are fully armed with tomatoes in all colors and sizes. You could run through Union Square, pelting aggressive Greenpeace pamphleteers with warm, delicious rainbow pulp. Or you could leave me with my fantasies and gingerly gather up as many as you can, and turn them into sauce that tastes like pure summer, to stock your freezer and get you through gray months to come.

And to me that's the most exciting thing about the sauce. Most bloggers have zeroed in on the fact that Hazan's recipe is tailor-made for a 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes. It does make an excellent year-round sauce that way and is outrageously convenient. But fresh tomatoes are really just better.

    Peeling tomatoes

Inevitably, they'll require one extra, rather satisfying step: peeling. There are a few ways you can attack this tomato prep, depending on whether you have a food mill, your disposition toward said food mill, and whether you feel like boiling water or not.

Food mill lovers:
1. Halve tomatoes and warm them briefly in a covered saucepan before passing through a food mill, leaving all the bits and scraps behind.

Food mill haters/abstainers:
2a. Boil the tomatoes for a minute, with an X cut in the bottom if you want to show off. Peel like a slippery banana. Chop rustically.

2b. Newly learned, via David Tanis via The Kitchn: Stick your tomatoes in the freezer. As they freeze, the water in the tomato's network of cells expands and bursts the cell walls -- terrible texture for a caprese salad or pico de gallo, but here they'll be getting broken down into sauce anyway, so that's okay. Then, as they thaw, they get slumpy and the skins slip off easily. No boiling and no food mills!

food millPeeling tomatoes

You then simmer away with the swirling butter and bobbing onion, till "the fat floats free from the tomato" -- which of course you should just stir back in. Then Hazan has you discard the onion, but I think you should actually eat it. Chopped up, it would make a fine relish for a grilled Italian sausage -- a Marcella-worthy hot dog onion sauce.

And the rest, as they say, is just gravy. There, I think I just cured your seasonal affective disorder.

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce


Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Serves 6.

  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes
    5 tablespoons butter
    1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
    Salt to taste
    1 to 1 1/2 pound pasta
    Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more genius recipes? Try Crook's Corner's Green Peach Salad or Eric Ripert's Crispy-Skinned Fish.

Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by William Brinson (except for author photo of Marcella Hazan).


Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Amy Townsend Smith
    Amy Townsend Smith
  • NotTooSweet
  • Julie @ HostessAtHeart
    Julie @ HostessAtHeart
  • Taylor
  • SusanR
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Amy T. April 20, 2015
Stumbled upon this recipe tonight after the sauce we tried was not quite "it." Researching for a fresh tomato sauce for my daughter's graduation party - she's wanting chicken schnitzel with a fresh tomato sauce spaghetti for one of her main dishes.
My question is this: Has anyone made this ahead? If so, how did you keep it until serving time and how long did you keep it?
Thanks ever so much!
ibbeachnana April 21, 2015
I always make enough to freeze as it comes in handy for many dishes. I also add a big clean carrot cut in 3rds and now and then fresh basil. A good sauce to hijack. I love schnitzel and often make Thomas Keller's recipe panic crusted version.
NotTooSweet September 18, 2014
My husband loves Spatini spaghetti sauce; yep - that stuff you may have enjoyed or endured in the cafeteria of your elementary school. He just loves it; so I actually buy large packets through Amazon to make it for him (no grocery stores carry it anymore). I never look forward to spaghetti and meatballs because I know I won't enjoy the sauce. Until now - finally an easy, quick and very delicious sauce that I can make at the same time the spatini is sputtering away on the stovetop. Tonight my husband and I both enjoyed our pasta with Rao's meatballs and I have found my dream sauce for many pasta nights to come. Used canned San Marzano tomatoes and it was delicious.
Julie @. July 23, 2014
I can't wait to try this! I have tomatoes in my freezer and new ones are ripening as we speak.
Taylor April 27, 2014
Better than I could have imagined! I used italian tomatoes and threw in a handful of basil. Can't wait to try this with heirloom tomatoes from my garden this summer.
SusanR February 10, 2014
OK, All I can say is Perfection! Love this recipe! Simple and delicious. I made Rao's Meatballs and finished cooking them in this sauce. This will be my go-to tomato sauce. Thanks for sharing it!
Loraine January 29, 2014
Wish you hadn't made the mention of Obama in the introduction. I definitely wasn't orgasmic when he won the election in 2008 and the re-election. But I will try this recipe. I'm always looking for new recipes to try to broaden my horizons and repertoire, and to learn new cooking techniques. Can't wait to try this since we are almost once a week pasta/spaghetti eaters and it gets a little boring with jarred sauce or not very good homemade sauce.
e January 29, 2014
Hi Kristen- can you pls let us know where we can purchase those beautiful looking jars (containing the sauce in the photo)?
Kristen M. January 29, 2014
That jar is made by Bodum -- pretty cool, huh? https://www.google.com/search?q=bodum+jar&oq=bodum+jar&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.1505j0j7&sourceid=chrome&espv=210&es_sm=91&ie=UTF-8#q=bodum+jar&tbm=shop
Eileen December 20, 2013
Made this last night with Rao's meatballs. Can't say enough about the simple goodness of so few ingredients! I did add a couple of parmesan rinds while the sauce simmered. The whole family loved this. Used San Marzano canned tomatoes. For me, one can equaled two cups.Can't wait for next tomato season to try with fresh ones. Thanks for sharing!
suzygregory November 6, 2013
I have made this sauce for years, it is amazing! Simple, classic, sweet tomato goodness...I have been known to stand at the pot and eat it by the spoonful, so good! Please people, try it exactly as written, you will not be disappointed.
Panfusine November 7, 2013
I totally agree, not to mention practically wiping clean the pot with bits of bread (or even Basmati rice, it makes for a splendid tomato rice)
Isabelle L. November 6, 2013
Yes, the sauce is a classic, but where can one get the gorgeous jar in the photo with the two tomatoes?!
Katbelle July 23, 2013
Thank you, for sharing your awesome tomato sauce recipe!! I have home grown San Marzano tomatoes hanging in clumps in my garden like grapes! Great way to make use of all those tomatoes....the next batch gets frozen for a cold rainy winter night here in CA. No SAD disorder for me this winter!!
Marian B. June 12, 2013
Okay so I finally made this last night and now my life has officially changed. I also didn't add butter, and I cooked it to quite thick. And I'm not sorry at all.
PAMELA S. November 11, 2012
I would like to make a spaghetti sauce with cooked sausage in it. Could I can this in canning jars for gifts in a basket? Would rather not freeze if I don't have to.
MrsWheelbarrow November 11, 2012
If you are an experienced canner, and have a pressure CANNER (not a pressure cooker - it's a different piece of equipment,) and you have a trusted sauce recipe designed for canning, the answer is yes.
BakerMary November 11, 2012
Even with the butter in it?
mrslarkin October 15, 2012
Totally agree with you, Kristen, you should eat the onion. Made this using a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes. So delicious. The stewed tomato-y onion was perfect with a generous grating of Parmigiano.

FYI, this sauce is the bomb on top of roasted spaghetti squash, all covered with cheese. Parmigiano, that is.
Frank P. July 28, 2012
The recipe even is TAILORED PERFECTLY???????? to A 28oz CAN of good-quality tomatoes -


LAST TIME I LOOKED 2 CUPS = 16 oz NOT 28 oz.


I certainly can use it for something else, BUT, THE POINT IS don't say a 28 oz can IS TAILORED PERFECTLY !!!!!!
Kristen M. July 28, 2012
Hey Frank -- a 28-ounce can is 28 ounces by weight, which turns out to be close to 2 cups, once chopped. And anyways, why be so angry about it?
I_Fortuna November 6, 2013
Use those 12 ounces like I do. Add them to soup, canned or from scratch. I also use tomato sauce and tomatoes for one of my versions of huevos rancheros. Fry up some corn tortillas (5 to 6) until soft in oil or butter, fry up 2 or 3 eggs (over medium or hard), cut up the tortillas, top with the cooked eggs and tomato sauce mixed with salt and pepper, minced onions, oregano, minced tomatoes, minced Anaheim chiles and sage or not. You can use any or all of these suggestions. For the herbs, just use a pinch rubbed between your thumb and forefinger. Or, you can put your left over tomato and tomato juice in a blender with other veggie juice for a great veggie cocktail. Just strain out the pulp or use an electric juicer instead. Or, you can cook it all up and save the excess in the fridge for a couple of days and use it on rice or pasta. Best of luck!
Panfusine July 27, 2012
Made a batch with golden yellow tomatoes.. No pasta.. Just freshly cooked basmati rice folded in. Unbelievably great tomato rice! Thanks for this recipe over &over again
Panfusine July 27, 2012
Made a batch with golden yellow tomatoes.. No pasta.. Just freshly cooked basmati rice folded in. Unbelievably great tomato rice! Thanks for this recipe over &over again
Siempre July 27, 2012
I buy tomato sauce in the can to use to add to many of my Puerto Rican dishes. Is this sauce a spaghettis sauce, since all are writing that that is how they have used it, or can I use this as a tomato sauce for my receipes?
Kristen M. July 28, 2012
Yes, you can use this anywhere you would use a tomato sauce! It has a very straightforward, pure tomato flavor.
A C. September 14, 2011
After reading all the rave reviews, we were very excited to try this recipe. We were fortunate enough to have locally grown San Marzano tomatoes, however, we were disappointed by the results. This recipe was only "good" at best - certainly not worthy of all the hype.
msitter September 14, 2011
Hi. We made this recipe for years before discovering its simple secrets. The tomatoes must go through the fine blade of the food mill for best results. The onion should not be too big or impacts the flavor. And, most importantly, the sauce should be simmered at a reasonable pace. Occasionall bubbles in the simmer will not work. And, simmer it until it is quite thick, then, put in your wet pasta and a touch more pasta water if it is still too thick. The result is a wonderful, dense, very red film of tomato sauce on the pasta.
mainecook61 September 11, 2011
Lovely sauce---but it's all about the tomatoes. If fresh, they should be impeccable. Late summer/early fall tomatoes in northern New England have a lot of liquid and may take a bit longer to cook down to the proper consistency. (I used a combination of Opalka paste tomatoes and some heirlooms that needed using up.) To compensate for not having San Marzanos growing up the slopes of an Italian villa, I added a tablespoon of tomato paste and cooked the sauce 15 minutes longer. The result was delicious and almost helped me to forget that temperatures dropped into the forties last night (September 11) for the first time since early May.
dymnyno September 12, 2011
I have been making this sauce for many years. I thought that what was "genius"about this recipe was the way you could transform a can of San Marazano tomatoes into an amazing sauce with this method. I have never used it to make sauce from scratch...too much added fat.
I_Fortuna November 6, 2013
Five tablespoons of butter is a perfect amount of fat and fat is needed for the body to process certain vitamins and minerals. In fact, we use coconut oil mostly in cooking. It is not susceptible to turning to cholesterol when heated as corn, soy and other veggie oils. It can take high temps and we have both lost weight since I started using it and hubby's cholesterol is now in the normal low range. I even fry chicken in it and it comes out wonderful. I can use less oil and cook my food longer without it burning.
Just google Dr. Mercola on oils to find out more.