There may be no tomato sauce more famous—or minimalist—than Marcella Hazan’s. Deemed Genius in 2011, the recipe’s ingredient list is as simple as can be: tomatoes (fresh or canned), butter, onion, and salt. That’s it.
I’m supposed to tell you to leave this alone. To resist the urge to accessorize something so pure. To celebrate this celebrated sauce exactly as it is.
But a few weeks ago, I did just the opposite. For our Recipe Off-Roading article series, I asked the Food52 community to make some of our most-popular recipes—but change at least one thing.
And so Marcella’s sauce became Gyulshat’s sauce and Jordan’s sauce and dozens of others (find the full group of testers here). Below are my takeaways from their experiments. I hope you’ll take bits and bobs of inspiration, and turn this sauce into your own.
Change the butter.
The original: 5 tablespoons butter
The findings: Butter may be the most famous element of this tomato sauce, but that doesn’t mean our recipe testers were afraid to mess with it. A couple of you browned the butter, adding toasty, nutty flavor to the otherwise sweet sauce. Stephen opted for extra-rich European-style butter. And some of you skipped the butter completely, replacing it with olive oil in a vegan-friendly riff. Speaking of olive oil, why not use infused olive oil? Westcoasty added garlic-infused olive oil due to a dairy allergy and “also, I love garlic!” Me too.
Change the onion.
The original: 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half (and recommended to be removed at the end)
The findings: Wait, why are we removing the onion? is a good question that many of you wondered. Many of you incorporated it into the final sauce—say, by dicing it or chopping it. Others went a little more rogue: Quin used red onion (“because it tends to be a bit milder and sweeter than white or yellow onions”). And Agi skipped the onion altogether. Scandalous!
Change the tomatoes.
The original: 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, prepared for sauce-making, or 2 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
The findings: If you change the tomatoes, is it even tomato sauce? Many of you thought not and left this part of the recipe alone. But, there were a few that had fun with this component. Megan swapped in 2 pints of cherry tomatoes. Mary added sun-dried tomatoes for extra umami. Meanwhile, others change how the tomatoes cooked—like Nicole, who used a mix of grape and Roma tomatoes, roasted on a sheet pan.
The original: None!
The findings: Without doubt, this was the most popular way to off-road the tomato sauce. Testers added everything but the kitchen sink. The cheatsheet:
- I wish I had a dollar for each person who added red pepper flakes, garlic, basil, and sugar.
- Also popular: onion’s cousin, the shallot, and everyone’s favorite little fish, the anchovy.
- Less-traveled paths brought us other vegetables like ramps, fennel, eggplant, kale, and even a romesco-style version with red peppers (and almonds, smoked paprika, and sherry).
- With respect to spices, I loved the idea of fennel seeds and can’t wait to try adding a bay leaf.
- All sorts of meats came to the party, such as ground beef, Italian sausage, bacon, and pancetta.
- Cheeses were invited too, like halloumi, burrata, and even Parm rind.
- But, out of all of these, the three iterations that are on my must-make list: lemon zest, nutritional yeast, and fish sauce.
Change the application.
The original: Serve on pasta.
The findings: This tomato sauce is good for a lot more than that. Dede went off the road and then some by pouring in an entire bottle of pinot grigio and cooking the pasta in the sloshed sauce. Terra made a creamy vodka sauce and then put that toward a scallop and bacon pizza (when can I come over?). Bridgette transformed the sauce into a bread-thickened soup. Ani put her own twist on the Armenian macarón, “a potato-crusted mountain of tomato-y pasta goodness.” And Licole used ginger, sesame oil, mirin, and rice wine vinegar to create her new favorite dumpling dipping sauce.
And that's Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce, off-roaded edition. Thank you so much to everyone who participated!
Tell us about it in the comments!