Recipe Off-Roading

How to Make the Internet’s Favorite Tomato Sauce Your Own

May 20, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

Add bonuses.

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:

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“It's apparent that this sauce isn't as popular as advertised, since practically no one (judging from comments on the recipe around the internet) is actually using the recipe- it's always questionable how far you can change a recipe and call it a "variation", but with something this simple, not much. If all you're taking from the original is the notion that cooking tomatoes will reduce them to a sauce, you're not making this dish.”
— Smaug
Comment

And that's Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce, off-roaded edition. Thank you so much to everyone who participated!


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Have you ever made (or off-roaded) Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce?
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

14 Comments

Bonny M. July 1, 2019
I love this sauce, make it often. The only thing I change is I leave the onion in the sauce after cooking, and blend it if I want a smooth sauce. I think that for those that think it lacks flavor, they are doing one of two things: a. using tomatoes with no flavor (I use fresh garden tomatoes or Italian canned) or b. not cooking it long enough for the onion to work its magic--just cook until it has cooked all the way through...turning translucent. It is a magic process, but it takes time.
 
Mary E. June 8, 2019
Try making it exactly as written but substitute a large piece of ginger for the onion. Or add a large piece of ginger to the onion. Either way, you'll get a fabulous tomato-ginger sauce. I don't use it on pasta, but it's wonderful on vegetables and chicken
 
Sarah Y. May 29, 2019
I love this recipe--it's a staple in our house. I leave the onion in and blitz the whole thing at the end with the immersion blender so that it's smoother for my chunk-averse kids. I love it that way, too, actually.
 
kimmiebeck May 21, 2019
I love this sauce! I do cut back on the butter (3 tablespoons) and use less pasta. I like lots of sauce on my pasta. Don't discard the onion. It's delicious added before serving.
 
Kendall B. May 21, 2019
my go to secret ingredient for tomato sauce is....wait for it. Hersheys cocoa! I tablespoon for a large batch.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 21, 2019
Whoa, cool!
 
Smaug May 21, 2019
I've used that as a solution to an oversweet sauce, which can happen with in-season tomatoes. You want to be very cautious with the amount, though.
 
witloof May 20, 2019
I dice the onion and serve it in the sauce. I also add some garlic and a bay leaf. I use canned cherry tomatoes from Italy.
 
Caralyn H. May 20, 2019
It made it once. It lacked herbs, flavor. I like mine much better.
 
Smaug May 20, 2019
It's apparent that this sauce isn't as popular as advertised, since practically no one (judging from comments on the recipe around the internet) is actually using the recipe- it's always questionable how far you can change a recipe and call it a "variation", but with something this simple, not much. If all you're taking from the original is the notion that cooking tomatoes will reduce them to a sauce, you're not making this dish.
 
Ashley May 20, 2019
Agree with your takeaway but actually, I do make it almost exactly as is and I do like it. The only change I make is that I fish out the cooked onion and dice it - I find that it takes on a nice almost caramelized quality (though very soft obviously) and that I don't need to add any sugar or anything because the onion adds a nice sweetness.

No changes beyond that and I do like it a lot.
 
Smaug May 21, 2019
Not up there with "I used cherry tomatoes and added a cup of wine and a pound of spare ribs and a stick of celery and five garlic cloves and 1/4c. sugar and pureed it all before cooking and cooked it in a 250 oven for seven hours...", but I'd still count that as a pretty significant change, given that the way the onion is used (which seems very French to me- they love putting things in and later removing them) is one of the most unique features of the sauce.
 
BeyondBrynMawr May 28, 2019
"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."

The whole point of this was to change the recipe - that doesn't mean that it "isn't as popular as advertised" or that there aren't huge numbers of people who use the recipe without changes.
 
Smaug May 28, 2019
This recipe has appeared all over the internet for years, this is not it's debut. Should you trouble to look at comments on any of those postings, you will find that the vast majority of respondents changed the recipe.