5 Ingredients or Fewer

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter

June 16, 2021
136 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Serves 6, enough to sauce 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta
Author Notes

The most famous tomato sauce on the internet, from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Editor's note: Marcella called for 2 cups of tomatoes when using canned, but feel free to use a whole 28-ounce can (closer to 3 cups), if you like. You can scale up the butter and onion, if you like, or don't—it's genius either way.

Helpful tools for this recipe:
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Test Kitchen Notes

This sauce is one of our 10 most popular of all time for good reason: It's the definition of quality ingredients (and restraint!) going a long way. All you need are super-ripe tomatoes (or your favorite canned San Marzano tomatoes, which have fewer seeds and a sweeter, rounder, less acidic taste than other canned tomatoes), a big knob of butter, a peppy white onion, and salt. There's nothing to hide behind, no extra fanfare or filigree.

In its original form, this is the purist's tomato sauce. And as a result, it goes well with just about everything: It's an ideal bed for spicy meatballs, a perfect partner for al dente strands of spaghetti with flecks of Parmesan strewn on top, and—perhaps our favorite use—a welcoming landing pad for heels of crusty bread. And we wouldn't dare forget the soft, jammy onion swimming in the tomatoey mixture; Marcella instructs us to remove it from the sauce and use it for something else, but we've found it's a pretty excellent cook's treat.

While we love this sauce in its purest form, there are all sorts of ways to dress it up, should you feel the need: Use ramps or leeks instead of the onion. Throw in some red pepper flakes as the sauce cooks. For a vegan take, use olive oil instead of butter. Cloves of caramelly roasted garlic tossed in at the end wouldn't be out of place, either. But never, ever change the good-quality tomatoes and salt. Those are fundamental to the dish. —Brinda Ayer —The Editors

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter
  • For the Sauce
  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, prepared as described below, or 2 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt to taste
  • Making Fresh Tomatoes Ready for Sauce
  • fresh, ripe plum tomatoes (or other varieties, if they are equally ripe and truly fruity, not watery)
  1. For the Sauce
  2. Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.
  3. Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon.
  4. Taste and correct for salt. Before tossing with pasta, you may remove the onion (as Hazan recommended) and save for another use, but many opt to leave it in. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table.
  1. Making Fresh Tomatoes Ready for Sauce
  2. The blanching method: Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or less. Drain them and, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, skin them, and cut them into coarse pieces.
  3. The freezing method (from David Tanis, via The Kitchn): Freeze tomatoes on a baking sheet until hard. Thaw again, either on the counter or under running water. Skin them and cut them into coarse pieces.
  4. The food mill method: Wash the tomatoes in cold water, cut them lengthwise in half, and put them in a covered saucepan. Turn on the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Set a food mill fitted with the disk with the largest holes over a bowl. Transfer the tomatoes with any of their juices to the mill and puree.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Miranda Baxter-Russell
    Miranda Baxter-Russell
  • hdjukic
  • Smaug
  • Mark Hartman
    Mark Hartman
  • Mark Block
    Mark Block
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Recipe by: Genius Recipes

584 Reviews

CookingMom July 25, 2023
This recipe is so deceptively simple. I thought the sauce would taste like tomatoes and butter and onion, but the sum of ingredients are transformed into something bigger than its parts. I used one 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes, 1 stick of butter (scaled), 1 onion halved and a little salt. I couldn't believe the results. I diced up the onion to add back to the sauce. I think that was too much onion for me and next time I will maybe add half of the onion. Definitely a keeper and what an incredible base to work from!
Miranda B. June 20, 2023
Amazing, delicious! Help me out though, what recommendations can anyone give about a protein to serve with this for entertaining. I was wondering about serving this over a small portion of freshly made spaghetti, topped with a few fresh king prawns? Or would a fish fillet work? I need to make it into a complete meal to serve as a main.
[email protected] June 22, 2023
The ski is the limit with this, even if you simply put some in in a martini glass along side mini meatballs as a passed hors D’oeuvres. HEAVEN!
hdjukic May 14, 2023
This recipe is so simple and so perfect, if you can exercise restraint. Do not add any additional ingredients and use high quality butter (Kerigold) and tomatoes (San Marzano whole & peeled).
Smaug April 16, 2023
After following comments on this recipe for some time, I finally decided to try it- I had some frozen tomatoes left from last years crop (Costoluto Geovanese, mostly- not that big a fan of Romas). I used Hazan's recipe (even the tiny amount of sugar); the recipe published here is altered some, which didn't seem like a good idea for something this simple. Also not so accurate; the butter did not separate out; the texture was actually pretty good. A food mill is really much the best way to prepare the tomatoes. I have a lot of respect for Hazan, and had hoped for something greater than the sum of its parts, but this seemed to me exactly like the sum of its parts; it tasted like tomatoes, way too much butter, and a trace of onion; took a lot of salt. If you like buttered noodles it might appeal; I do not, and found it pretty heavy, while quite thin nutritionally. I often make fresh tomato sauces that are no more complicated; a bit of basil, garlic and a touch of olive oil will do nicely with good tomatoes- this seems more like a butter sauce than a tomato sauce; just not my thing.
gravityace April 7, 2023
I left a review a couple of years ago and still stand by it. I love this sauce. Its what I use as a BASE. I can add basil or other seasonings to build what I want for a meal. Love to simmer meatballs in it or italian sausage or just a bit of salt and its always terrific. Like Mark H replied, this makes a great pizza topping and yes it makes a fabulous soup.
I do think that the brand of tomatoes makes a big difference in the finished sauce. If crappy tomatoes are used....well that would be a factor. I use fresh tomatoes in the summer or romas that Ive frozen in the winter. As for canned, I prefer the Sclafani brand crushed tomatoes from new jersey. It is reasonably priced and very flavorful. I've recently started blending the onion in with a stick blender after it is fully cooked. I usually let it simmer in a dutch oven for a good hour or two. I make this sauce at least two or three times a month. Everyone I've made it for loves it and asks for the recipe. Wow. 547 reviews now.!!!
Mick April 6, 2023
The BBC Radio 4/made the Essential cook book of the year when first published. I bough 4 copies for Christmas presents always go back to the toms and onion sauce, the best, cooking in Spain right now. The book was just out when we bought it.
Mark H. February 7, 2023
This is one of the easiest sauces around short of opening a jar, and so much better than any jarred sauce. We use it by itself strictly by the recipe (with the onion on the side so as to not waste it) on spaghetti or other long pasta, we cook meatballs in it for spaghetti and meatballs, and we even use it as a pizza sauce when we fire up the backyard pizza oven. We’ve also used it in a slightly modified form to make tomato soup and that was the best!

Blanchie November 15, 2022
I tried this-completely baffled by all the great reviews. Did they actually make it? It was so bland, it actually tasted like nothing more than just a plain can of tomatoes. The onion didn’t really impart any flavor to the sauce. I think this is one of those recipes I call a “myth.”
jangold December 13, 2022
To each their own but I suspect your sauce needed a good salting. Assuming you let it simmer for the full 45 minutes, the onion and butter meld with the acidic tomatoes and wonderful flavor develops. But like any dish the flavor is brought out by ample salt.
Bmillward December 23, 2022
Using really good quality tomato and onion does wonders!
caseyjones125 November 2, 2022
I already have a good recipe for Marinara and was looking for a recipe for a good tomato sauce when I came across this one and thought that I'd give it a go.
I live in England where,unfortunately, access to good tomatoes is pretty woeful so, tinned tomatoes it was.
I learned quite a while ago that, whilst everyday tinned tomatoes are fine for everyday use, when it comes to sauces, especially pasta sauces, there really is no substitute for San Marzano ( and even that is variable. Find a brand you like and stick with it - I am using Coppola at the moment.)
When cooking a new dish for the first time, I always stick to the recipe exactly.
How people can add lots of extra flavours to a dish and then review the original recipe is beyond me. Don't get me wrong here, my cookbooks/scrapbooks are covered in hand written notes about things to put in/take out along with altered cooking times and temperatures.
So, my thoughts on this recipe as is -
I thought that it was absolutely delicious !
I served it with a decent dried Bucatini pasta cooked 2 minutes under and finished off in the sauce with a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water.
I tried it with both grated Parmesan Reggiano and Pecorino Romano and ,surprisingly, the Pecorino gave a noticeably better result.
I had half of the sauce and the 2 onion halves left so, for lunch the next day, I blitzed 1 half of the onion , added it back to the sauce and served it with Linguini .
Still a tasty sauce but, the onion had taken away some of the bright, tomato taste that the original recipe was all about. Essentially, it had turned it into a different sauce.
I can see where some people are comparing this to tomato soup are coming from and, indeed, I will be trying this sauce with the addition of some stock and fresh basil and I have high hopes of producing an equally good tomato soup. ( Paired with a nice grilled cheese sandwich of course ! ( thank you America for that pairing !)Tip :- try and find some Raclette cheese and wild garlic leaves for the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich.)
I will definitely be making this sauce again, without any changes.
Regards from across the pond,

gravityace April 7, 2023
Caseyjones125. I see that you are enjoy toying with this recipe as much as I do.!! I live in the US in the rainy pacific northwest and the tomato situation is grim here as well. For this recipe to work, the ingredients have to shine. Once I found a great brand of tinned tomatoes Ive never looked back and ditto on the pecorino cheese. Delicious. Happy cooking!
Fred R. September 8, 2022
Like most of us, everyone seems to add a bit of “something else” here and there. Now, it no longer is Marcella’s tomato sauce, it’s ours.
Smaug November 2, 2022
I'm not sure that "us" shares a coherent philosophy. If anyone cares to diagram that sentence, please don't tell me about it.
[email protected] September 8, 2022
The ultimate pasta sauce! The only additions for me, marjoram and roasted fennel seeds. Perfection!
gravityace April 7, 2023
That sounds delicious... I'll be trying that too. Thanks for the suggestion!
Laura August 21, 2022
This was fabulous. So far I’ve put it on pork carnitas, eaten as a soup with a dash of my “special” olive oil and tomorrow will serve on pasta as it was originally mean to be. I could eat this all day long and it was a great way to use my abundant tomato supply. I imagine this will be great with canned tomatoes as well. PS - I kept the onions in because once tasting it, I decided they really added great sweetness and texture although I think they could also be pureed too.
gravityace April 7, 2023
Hello Laura. I recently started blending the onion in after its a mush with an immersion blender. Delicious!
Mark B. February 11, 2022
I used grass-fed, cultured butter, which makes a nice difference. After tasting, I had to add fresh-ground pepper and some sweetness. I used Keys Beez honey, which I love, but brown sugar would have been fine. I think tomato sauce needs sugar, always. Sorry! I couldn't bear to throw away the onions, so I served them on the side. I put this sauce over gorgonzola-stuffed gnocchi, which cries out for a simple, buttery tomato sauce. Mind blowing.
AlanBruno November 2, 2021
As someone whose sauce has around 15 ingredients, give or take, it astounds me that this is so popular. Cook the onion without sautéing and then remove it? Unconscionable.
Emily November 2, 2021
I know what you mean, but once I tried it, it’s become a regular in my rotation! I leave the onions in. I just couldn’t do that!
Julie I. November 2, 2021
Don't knock it until you have tried it. I also leave the onions and lightly blend the sauce before using. It's easy, light and delicious. The key is using good San Marzano tomatoes.
ShenAnno November 2, 2021
If you're counting ingredients for success, Marcella might be a good guide for you. Sometimes, simple is better.
carol November 2, 2021
have you tried it though? it's very different than a traditional sauce but still very good!!!
Blanchie November 15, 2022
Tasteless! Don’t bother. How anyone thinks this is actually like some awesome thing is beyond me. Was basically a can of tomatoes, the onion doesn’t really impart any flavor.
Nancy November 1, 2021
This sauce as soup. Another site (sorry, forget where) recommends using this sauce to make tomato soup. I tried it and it's great!...plain or with some added liquid (broth, milk or cream). Genius (yes, true) pantry save.
Miranda B. June 20, 2023
Any chance you have a link to the recipe?l for the soup?
Sonsam13 October 8, 2021
My friend told me about this recipe ( he loves it). I however didn’t care for it all that much. It’s good, but I prefer a marinara that is light and fresh tasting. The butter, and it’s a lot, just weighs this down and blankets any freshness; which is further compounded by the fact that there is no Basil in the recipe. If I’m going to use this much butter and have the added calories I’d rather do it making Alfredo. To each their own .
Wade M. October 8, 2021
Watch "Adam Ruins Everything"--calories are basically a modern myth.
Scott C. January 27, 2022
You've grossly misrepresented the point he's making. Calories are not a myth. They way we count them and the recommendations the government makes about them are.
Sonsam13 February 11, 2022
Calories are a form of energy and fall under the first law of thermodynamics which is no myth! Do I bother to count calories…hell no, it’s stupid, but I do know what foods are high in calories and butter is one of them. So is olive oil but I don’t use nearly as much as this recipe calls for. Butter also has a lot more saturated fat which for me blankets the freshness of the other ingredients. My review is fair….I acknowledged that some people love this recipe and others don’t (myself) . If there was truly the perfect marinara there wouldn’t be 1000 variations - to each their own, like I said.

My sister growing up loved Sunny Delight. To me it was disgusting and later in life I figured out why….the second ingredient is corn syrup. It’s an orange syrup drink. My sister, her body just loves sugar, she’s also close to 300lbs. I’m 6’ 180 and 49. I know calories and Marinara isn’t a place for them for ME!
violetsandirises May 28, 2022
The first law of thermodynamics only applies in a closed system. Humans are an open system; matter is being put into and coming out of our bodies every day.
Smaug August 11, 2022
I don't offhand see the relevance to dietary calories, which are after all potential energy, not actual energy, but the universe can be seen as a closed system for many applications of the law.
Anita104 August 14, 2022
Yes, calories are a measure of energy. However, the way calories in a food are measured is in a laboratory and a computer, they are no longer actually burned. Our bodies are not laboratories or computers. Two people can eat the exact same food, same amount and extract different calorie counts. That's why listings of calories on foods is nonsense.
Smaug August 14, 2022
I wouldn't say nonsense exactly; calorie measures still give a relative measure of the potentials of different foods. Since for the most part people are worrying more about the unburnt calories than those that are burned, that's an important measure.
Wade M. April 26, 2021
Would this recipe work well as a dipping sauce, such as a marinara sauce in which to dip focaccia bread; or would I need to modify it slightly to get the texture right?
Lilyp April 26, 2021
I eat this as a soup. I’ve added ravioli or tortellini to make it a heartier meal. So when I make it it is more soup consistency rather than a sauce. However you eat it, it’s pretty tasty.
carol April 26, 2021
I think it might be too runny for dipping.
Blanchie November 15, 2022
Do not bother with this recipe, it is basically tasteless. The onion barely imparts any flavor, it’s really just tastes like a can of tomatoes, bland.
Jul March 15, 2021
Fantastic!! So simple, yet SO flavorful!
Toraaki V. March 12, 2021
I am a total rookie cook, I ain't useless, but I sure can't make any complicated stuff.
I just tried this recipe and it was gooooood!
I may used another tomato and a bit less liquid (the recipe is not clear to how much liquid to use, when using fresh tomatos) But all in all, I really enjoyed it.
Smaug March 12, 2021
You shouldn't have to add any liquid. Where did you get fresh tomatoes in March?
Toraaki V. March 17, 2021
O thanks for the tip!
I got them in the farmer's market, I live in Mexico.
signe February 11, 2021
My go-to quickie tomato-based sauce, except I use Miyoko’s vegan butter, and I purée the onions at the end and add them back into the sauce. Yum!