5 Ingredients or Fewer

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter

June 16, 2021
4
119 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.

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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

Watch This Recipe
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter
Ingredients
  • 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
Directions
  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.

  • Mark Block
    Mark Block
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    Wade MacMorrighan
  • Toraaki Villalpando
    Toraaki Villalpando
  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • carol
    carol
Genius Recipes

Recipe by: Genius Recipes

570 Reviews

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.”
 
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,
Andy.

 
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!
 
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.
 
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.
 
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!
 
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!
 
Matt June 25, 2021
Tell that to the northern and central italians where it's too cold to grow olives.
 
Blanchie November 15, 2022
Amen! Tasteless! I don’t understand all the great reviews, the onion did nothing for this, so bland.
 
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.
 
shiloh October 15, 2021
Wow! I am not an Italian but I just had to respond to this review. I realize that some flavors are not appealing to everyone. BUT!!!! This is the BEST tomato sauce I have ever tasted. I use Cento San Marzano Organic Peeled Tomatoes 28 oz and a whole stick of butter with the onion sliced in half. I have Marcella Hazan's cookbook and the recipe calls for a stick of butter. I also put the canned tomatoes thru a food mill because my husband prefers the sauce smooth. We love this sauce and use it for every Italian recipe that calls for a sauce. It is also wonderful as a dip for my homemade bread. But for those of you out there who might have a food allergy like mine ..yep! tomatoes are literally the number one food allergy that showed up on my tests. They burn my hands and a lot of tomato acid causes me a fair amount of misery. Not so with this sauce ...the butter and using the Cento tomatoes calm the acid down and I can enjoy the best sauce I have every tasted. Don't let one or two reviews that do not appreciate this sauce keep you from trying it ... most find it wonderful.
 
Blanchie November 15, 2022
Wow, if you think this awful, bland tomato sauce is the best you’re ever tasted, that is really sad. It basically tastes like a can of tomatoes.
 
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.
 
Chris H. February 27, 2021
ShenAnno...I too am one of those people! I gave my Daughter a Genius Cook book who told me about the Butter & Onion Sauce. After reading your comments I want to purchase one of her Cookbooks....Which one do you recommend? Essentials or Italian Kitchen? Thank you! Agreed a genius with food!! Salt, Fat & Acid before her time?
 
ShenAnno February 27, 2021
"Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" is a compilation and expansion of her first two books. To me, it is the equivalent of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" for Italian food. Irreplaceable. Marcella's son, Guiliano, has published a book we also like, "Every Night Italian," which is simple, easy and feels like it owes much to his mother's cooking. Hope you like Essentials.
 
Blanchie November 15, 2022
Based on this recipe, you couldn’t give me a copy of her book. This was the worst, blandest sauce I’ve ever had the misfortune to try.
 
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.
 
Sheba92766 September 19, 2021
You could remove the seeds prior to cooking, be sure to save any juice to add back to the pan. Unless she likes the tomato pulp strained out as well