5 Ingredients or Fewer

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter

August  3, 2011
99 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten
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. —Genius Recipes

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

Watch This Recipe
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Serves 6, enough to sauce 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta
  • 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)
In This Recipe
  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.

  • debplusthree
  • Smaug
  • Franca
  • StevenJC123
  • carol
Genius Recipes

Recipe by: Genius Recipes

    522 Reviews

    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!
    Julie I. January 14, 2021
    After trying this recipe the first time it became my favorite go-to pasta sauce. It's so delicious and easy to make. I like to puree the sauce after it's finished cooking... including the onions. Also, I always use good quality San Marzano tomatoes.
    Emily January 1, 2021
    I have to say that I absolutely love this sauce! It’s such a simple sauce, and couldn’t be easier to prepare, but with a surprising depth of flavor. I’ve even made it with good quality canned tomato sauce (pantry staple), and I’ve also tried using olive oil for half the butter (just for health reasons) —all with excellent results. Oh, and I leave the onion in. It truly is genius!
    Trock December 13, 2020
    There is only one way to make a good tomato sauce, and that is with olive oil. Nevertheless, I decided to try it this way and the result is truly disgusting. Avoid!
    Trock December 13, 2020
    There is only one way to make a good tomato sauce, and that is by using olive oil. Nevertheless I decided to try it this way, and it is truly disgusting. Avoid!
    Franca February 22, 2021
    As an italian, I can tell you that you are wrong. Butter in tomato sauce is widely used in Northern Italy.
    ShenAnno November 29, 2020
    Love all these people who claim to cook Italian who clearly have never met a Marcella Hazan cookbook, filled with hundreds of her recipes. She makes magic of zucchini, celery, pork and swordfish, not to slight her other skills. This sauce may be one of her best and can be used as a base for ratatouille, soup, stew, pizza, anything that requires tomato. An Italian friend once told me that her even easier Tomato Sauce with Garlic (5 cloves) and Basil is the equivalent of Italian cereal — you can eat it anytime, anyplace, for any meal. She was absolutely genius, and four words prove it: Chicken with Two Lemons.
    StevenJC123 February 2, 2021
    Hi ShenAnno, thanks for sharing the garlic and basil variation! Might you be able to share any additional details such as at what stage of the process the recipe suggests adding them and any differences in steps / cook time?
    ShenAnno February 2, 2021
    Yes, it is an entirely different recipe called Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil. You need: 1 large bunch fresh basil; 2 lbs fresh or 2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained and cut up; 5 garlic cloves chopped fine; 5 T olive oil; salt and freshly ground pepper; 1 lb pasta. 1. Wash, dry and tear garlic by hand into fine pieces. 2. Put everything but the basil into a saucepan on med high. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until oil floats free. Taste and correct for salt. 3. Off-heat, add in all basil except a little for garnish. Toss with pasta and serve, with garnish. Enjoy.
    Glvilla83 September 28, 2020
    I hate when people leave bad reviews such as “this was too bland”, so on and such forth. You have eyes, you obviously see that it only has 4 ingredients in it. If you’re someone that loves spices this isn’t the sauce for you. Also, this is a simple sauce, no need to butcher it with all your additions. Again, a simple sauce that is delicate on its own. It’s supposed to use quality tomatoes and the butter compliments the tomatoes. It’s perfectly fine on its own. Marcella Hazen was a chef, it doesn’t matter if Italians made this in Italy or not. Just because she is Italian doesn’t mean this is common in Italy. She’s a chef, chefs experiment and make their own recipes. This is hers and it is marvelous just the way it is. 🤦🏾‍♀️
    Linda W. September 28, 2020
    Hear, hear!! I totally agree! (And I love this recipe. Its simplicity is what makes it so good)
    Lilyp September 28, 2020
    I agree, too. I love this so much I made an additional 3 quarts and have more tomatoes to use so I'll be making more. It's so good I drink it as soup as is, no pasta for me (I do blend in the onions rather than remove them). I think I've made about 14 quarts in the last couple of weeks!
    Lilyp September 18, 2020
    I made this with 8 pounds of tomatoes, 4 onions, a lot of butter and salt. I cooked it much longer than the recipe called for and then rather than removing the onions, blended them in with an immersion blender. The result was a little thin for sauce, I thought, but made for a delicious soup. I liked it so well as soup, I made additional batches with 14 pounds of tomatoes (it was a very good year for tomatoes in the garden). This is now my tomato soup recipe. I might add that I have never been a big fan of tomato soup. I now have at least 8 quarts of homemade tomato soup in my freezer.
    Fred R. September 18, 2020
    That’s what many have said: As a soup, fine, but as a sauce, not so much.
    carol September 19, 2020
    I do the same, although I do add some milk or h & h when I serve it as soup. I think the key here is the type of tomatoes you use p fresh tomatoes give off a lot more water than canned -this the longer cooking time to reduce the sauce down.
    Lilyp September 19, 2020
    I may try adding som half and half the next time we have it. I also strained the sauce/soup to give to the generous provider of the tomatoes (she can’t eat seeds). It was very thin, but the flavor was still good. Next time (she gave me more tomatoes today!) I will cook, remove the onions, strain the seeds and then blend the onions back in to give it more body. I have to say, I love this recipe for soup.
    saatchi September 13, 2020
    I wonder about some of the conversions here...a can of tomatoes is Just over 3 cupS and 1.64 lbs. Not sure how equivalencies would work here.
    Karthurs September 14, 2020
    the recipe addresses this.
    saatchi September 15, 2020
    The point I was making is that the equivalencies seem quite a bit off if you do the conversions.
    louise61 September 12, 2020
    This is so simple and so phenomenally good. I didn't even use imported canned tomatoes, just a good quality store brand. I chose to use a stick blender to include the onion in it, but it would also be great as written if you want a more delicate flavor. I've spent years tinkering with olive oil, fresh garlic, fresh herbs, blah blah blah but now I'm just making this.
    StevenJC123 February 2, 2021
    Hi Louise61, might you be able to share the details on how you've successfully tinkered the original recipe using olive oil (which I also enjoyed replacing), fresh garlic, fresh herbs, etc.? Looking to extend / try the sauce out in new ways! Thank you :-)
    rodders September 4, 2020
    Marcella I am a neophite but I know what I like. I am sure they will debate your sauce until the end of time, what a legacy you have left
    debplusthree August 24, 2020
    Once again, my mind is blown! I made this tonight exactly as it is written, and it is positively dreamy. Thank you for taking the time to hunt down these amazing recipes that I would probably never find without you. This one is for sure a keeper.
    back T. May 26, 2020
    Spend a lot of time in Italy and cook many Italian food. This recipe is perfect for many occasions when I just want some simple and quick tomato sauce without a fuss, like making ravioli and I want two different sauces, the other one being the sage butter. My Italian friend from Alto Adige always adds a little cream to her sugo, akin to the butter effect. We add parmesan at the end, which is also a daily, right? Sometimes I make tomato sauce with olive oil but Hazan's is my go-to recipe.

    People, I question the meaning of "authenticity" speaking of food, which varies in its history and continues to evolve. Dishes refuse to be defined. And also, the cook's nationality or the "blood" doesn't all that relates to how "authentic" the food is produced. I was born in Asia, grew up in different places but my Italian food isn't any less "Italian", I swear.
    Smaug May 26, 2020
    I don't think that the effect of cream is at all like the effect of butter. Authenticity is always a thorny question, though I'm not sure anyone is seriously questioning the authenticity of this sauce, just whether they really like it. Aside from the fact that there are something like seventy million people in Italy and probably a lot of them are rotten cooks, there are always variations from region to region, from cook to cook, and- for many adventurous cooks- from day to day. But just because there's no clearly visible line doesn't mean you can't cross it (lawyers love that sort of fallacious argument). Chili, even if you go beyond the basic Mexican stew that it derives from, should at any rate be defined by the flavors of chilis- beans and tomatoes just isn't chili. A pizza needs a yeast dough for the crust and for the toppings and crust to be cooked together- it just isn't pizza otherwise (not to say that it can't be good). A hamburger simply isn't made of soy beans- etc. etc.
    Margaret B. May 26, 2020
    Is there anyone here--including Food 52--who cooks this sauce as written? I don't think so. All add herbs and subtract fat. No one really like the sauce. Nor do I. It is fatty. It uses butter instead of olive oil, it ruins fresh tomatoes.
    Peter P. July 28, 2020
    I cook it exactly like this, and have since I first came across this recipe a decade or so ago. It is perfect as-is. The butter is a treat, and doesn't "ruin" fresh tomatoes. It complements their sweetness and makes for a lovely, delicate yet decadent sauce.
    TeaForMe August 14, 2020
    I also make this (ingredient wise) as is -- it's my favorite tomato sauce! Just got finished with a triple batch today! I've still got oodles of roasted tomatoes from last year -- so this year, the Amish paste tomatoes are going into this wonderful sauce. I DO cook it much longer so it gets more "saucy" but that's the only deviation from the recipe.
    Stir those pools of fat in! Go one better and drizzle some lovely olive oil on top before serving:)
    Matthew M. August 23, 2020
    I 100% cook it as is. It’s fantastic and not at all ‘fatty’. This recipe brings out the taste of the fresh tomato’s and gives a better mouthfeel by using butter and not olive oil.
    Karthurs September 14, 2020
    I make the sauce as written. It is delicious! Of course it can be a base for adding Italian sausage, mushrooms or other things that get added to pasta dishes regularly.

    But for delicious fresh flavor, canned Italian pomodoros, an onion, butter, salt and 45 min is all that is needed
    Margaret B. May 26, 2020
    The truth of this sauce is that no one actually uses it, including those who recommend it highly--including food 52. No italian uses butter in ragu, and this sauce is not Italian in any general sense. I don't know what Marcella Hazan was thinking. I love her books, but she simply erred here.
    Karthurs September 14, 2020
    wow you certainly are bold to speak for me.

    I love this sauce. Was first made for me by a friend as we cooked a meal.

    And I have never bought sauce again. I love it, just as it is.
    Smaug May 26, 2020
    Sorry, I love Marcella Hazan but I don't think you can consider a sauce with this much butter a purist's tomato sauce- it is a simple way to go if you like a lot of butter. I also question the designation of "most popular recipe" as judging from printed comments, the great majority of users change the recipe.
    Margaret B. May 26, 2020
    You are so right. To me, the sauce is more like Chef Boyardee than an Italian sauce. Ugh to all that butter.
    nancyet May 26, 2020
    I DID cut down on the butter via others (great) suggestions, and kept the onion quarter pieces in the sauce to have as an occasional treat with this dish...as you would a meatball. I automatically slipped and added a tiny PINCH of garlic powder before realizing that it wasn't in the recipe.
    Please give this another try....it's sooooooo good.
    Smaug May 26, 2020
    What we really come down to is the quality of the tomatoes. I don't go this way because I simply don't like fatty sauces, but in tomato season I often don't go far beyond tomato, basil and salt.
    Karthurs September 14, 2020
    ridiculous...geez so many naysayers.
    Kayla May 8, 2020
    Does anyone have any ideas for what to do with the leftover onions?
    Margaret B. May 8, 2020
    Eat them.
    carol May 8, 2020
    I totally riff on this recipe by using a hand held blender after it's cooked - pop it right into the slightly cooled sauce along with the onions - it makes it creamier and the onions add so much to the flavor i don't even add salt or pepper. I suppose if you wanted to stay truer to the recipe - take the onions out and blend just them - a fantastic spread on bread, etc.
    inpatskitchen May 8, 2020
    I do the same but also add a fat clove of garlic and blend that in also.
    fayehess May 8, 2020
    Pour a bit of balsamic vinegar over with a quarter inch of water. give it a pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt, thyme sprig and a bay leaf. Let it simmer until tender. Serve as a side to steak, pork or chicken.
    CS M. May 8, 2020
    Eat them! I use sweet onions and they are great in the sauce.
    signe February 11, 2021
    I used to leave them in the sauce as-is, but now I take them out with a fork, purée them in my bullet blender, and add them back to the sauce. I like chunky tomato pieces, and the puréed onion makes the sauce thicker. It adds another thing to wash, but that’s fine with me!
    Kayla May 8, 2020
    Does anyone have any ideas for what to do with the leftover onions?
    Ivy H. May 8, 2020
    I ate them. Yummy. Better than the sauce.
    T May 6, 2020
    I made this so many times..this review is long overdue...ditto what every one has commented....so simple..so easy....so delicious...
    This is the best sauce I have ever made. I always missed a basic tomato sauce without all the extra stuff in it. Who would have thought such a simple recipe can be so delicious! I usually cut the onion into my sauce and I love it.