Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter

August 3, 2011

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

Serves: 6, enough to sauce 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta
Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 45 min


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


For the Sauce

  1. 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.
  2. Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon.
  3. 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.

Making Fresh Tomatoes Ready for Sauce

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

More Great Recipes:
Condiment/Spread|Italian|Tomato|Butter|Onion|Vegetable|Make Ahead|5 Ingredients or Fewer|Serves a Crowd|Summer|Vegetarian|Gluten-Free

Reviews (374) Questions (8)

374 Reviews

Frank November 17, 2018
If every college kid learned how to make this sauce, the world would be a better place. As for canned tomatoes I have found Mutti dieced tomatoes work really well. Italian butter is a nice inclusion. Simplicity can be a good thing.
debdesires November 4, 2018
My favorite “go to” Marcella Hazan sauce is from her “Italian Kitchen” book I’ve had since the mid-1980’ muss, no fuss....Sugo di Aglio, Olio e Pomodoro...takes about 20 minutes! I use a large can of Marzano tomatoes cut up with their juice for 1-1 1/2 lbs. of pasta. Since I prefer not to “drown” my pasta in sauce, this version fits the bill! Topped with freshly grated pecorino-romano cheese!
John K. October 30, 2018
Tasted like tomato soup
Sharon October 31, 2018
Yep. Campbell's for kiddies.
Margaret B. October 31, 2018
I hear you, Brother. Hi
Wendy October 7, 2018
This sauce with fresh pasta and parmesan cheese is heavenly. My family does not like chunks of tomato so I puree the sauce. The sauce is so, love, love!
Suse August 27, 2018
I've been making this sauce exactly as written by Marcella for years. It's absolutely delicious when made with the best tomatoes, fresh high quality butter, and sweet onions. I like making sauce with lots of other ingredients at times, but this simple sauce over spaghetti with parmesan is the ultimate comfort dish.
Laura August 22, 2018
I've put off making this sauce for a long time. Didn't believe the hype, how good could it be? Uhmm. That good. I did use canned tomatoes and removed the core and any skin before throwing them in. I think I sipped a cup of spoonfuls during "tasting" - it could be soup just on it's own. Reminded me of my college days cheap and easy meal of spaghetti with melted butter and ketchup (gasp - the horror), but in such a better way. Wow!
Fred R. August 22, 2018
Butter and ketchup...thanks for the 50 year memories. And, the fat little wine bottle had a raffia wrap halfway up.
Kirsten P. August 19, 2018
I like the clean simplicity of this sauce and have liked the flavor ever since I found this recipe. I use tomatoes fresh from my garden and 1 can to tomato sauce. I add a few cloves of garlic, pressed, and some dried Italian seasoning. I am making the sauce today and will add some zucchini and chicken meatballs and will let them simmer in the sauce and will serve them over pasta, or on a hoagie roll for meatball subs. I am using a BHG recipe for the meatballs. I will serve with grated Parm/Romano cheese and a sprinkling of shredded basil from my garden. I highly recommend this sauce!
Fred R. August 19, 2018
Nice recipe, but it’s not Hazan’s. More like what most of us do.
LULULAND November 7, 2018
Sounds good to me. I am just making the sauce now, I used fresh tomatoes, the onion, and butter. But I am using a crock pot, we will see how it turns out!
Yosuke K. August 8, 2018
Mine came out very sour. Well that was disappointing.
Edgewatercook August 8, 2018
I'm sorry it came out sour. This can be for a couple of reasons: the canned tomatoes were sour at the start. I always taste them and if they are sour I put a whole, cleaned carrot in for the duration of the cooking. Test, test, test. If the tomatoes are REALLY our, you can resort to white sugar. Not too much. Sometimes if the onion is old it will be harsh. That can be a problem too. I tend to use a sweet onion (like Vidalia) for this recipe for just that reason. Also, you really do need to use the full amount of butter. Cutting down on the butter can also make the sauce very bland. Please try again: either fresh of REAL Marzano tomatoes, full amount of butter and if needed, a carrot. This is the most versatile sauce, I really hope you have success the next time. Kim
Yosuke K. August 9, 2018
Thank you. <br /><br />I will try again with your method. <br /><br />Btw I have hard time believing that the butter shown in the video is 5 table spoons. Isn’t that a whole bar of butter?
Edgewatercook August 9, 2018
I don't know really - I use 5, sometimes more if I think the tomatoes are really sour. I think that it is important to adjust your expectations about this sauce. We have been conditioned to taste all kinds of stuff in our "spaghetti sauce." This is - and supposed to be - the most simple, clean, unadorned sauce you can make. Over polenta and grilled Italian sausages - the flavors of all three main ingredients stand out and shine separately. It's a beautiful thing. Let me know how your second version works out.
CS M. August 7, 2018
Marinara certainly is one of those recipes that starts arguments....this thread alone has more than 350 comments! I’ve added comments to it, and I will again: After using canned a couple of times (pretty good), last year we grew many tomatoes, San Marzanos and a couple of big meaty heirlooms. Made a lot of sauce (per the recipe, although less butter) and froze it. Just used the last container the other day.....and in my opinion the flavor of the tomatoes drives it! Fresh, really ripe San Marzano are the best, and the beauty of the recipe is that because it is a simple base, you can add to it a desired. We usually go with traditional garlic, mushrooms, bay and oregano. It works with any protein you choose, and regular or gluten free pasta (or spiral squash!). <br />I have found that the cooking time needs to be increased. A big pot of fresh takes an hour and a half to cook down. Otherwise it’s a classic I will use forever!<br />
Gammy August 7, 2018
Made this tonight with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and wasn't overwhelmed with the final result. Sorry. I followed the recipe exactly and thought the sauce was very reminiscent of tomato soup. Again, sorry. Took about 2x as long to reduce to a usable sauce. Very sweet although there were only tomatoes, onion and butter. Will try again with different varieties of tomatoes and add in some fresh herbs, maybe a bit of red pepper flakes and I will also try the suggestion to add vinegar. I so wanted this to be amazing and it just wasn't.
Edgewatercook August 8, 2018
Hi. See my comment above about sweet onions, the tomatoes, etc. And, I am curious - tomatoes don't usually need any more acid - it is the acid that makes them taste harsh. Why would you add more acid? If anything, to counter the acidic taste, i'd try the carrot trick, or a tiny bit of white sugar. Or alternatively to outright sweetness, a small piece of a rind for Parmeggiano Regianno or Romano would add depth and sell wit the acid. Good luck.
Gammy August 11, 2018
Hi Edgewatercook.... Thanks for your response. I did use a Vidalia onion along with the tomatoes and butter, I don't know why I would want to add a carrot or a bit of sugar when the sauce was too sweet to begin with. Several others mentioned adding a touch of vinegar to cut the sweetness and that sounded like it might help balance the sauce. I served with Rao's meatballs and simmered them in the sauce for about 15 minutes. That recipe does include fresh grated Romano cheese, so I did get a bit of the umami flavor in there. I will definitely try again to see if maybe a change in the tomato variety will make a difference. I also have a can of Cento Italian San Marzano tomatoes I will try in the Fall. Too many people have raved about this sauce for me to give up on it!
Margaret B. October 31, 2018
I hear you, Sister.
Karoonyskitchen July 26, 2018
This recipe is amazing all on its own. For a twist though, I add some pureed sauteed (in butter of course) mushrooms. This how an Italian Momma taught me. Thanks Mrs. C! :)
Chris B. July 19, 2018
Sweet coincidence, I was making my version of this sauce just last night, contemplating how this method, and a couple of trips to Italy, have shifted the way I approach tomato sauce. “Keep it simple, don’t upstage the tomatoes” is the lesson Hazen’s method taught me. <br /><br />Before, I was inclined to go the kitchen sink route. Now that I get the Zen of simplicity, I am careful with and confident that my subtle variations don’t overstep.<br /><br />I’ve settled into the habit of always keeping the onion by finely dicing. I have learned (by error) not to overdo the onion—1/4 cup, diced, is about right for 28 oz of tomatoes. I almost always add a small clove of fresh garlic, sometimes smashed whole, then removed, sometimes finely diced and left in. Occasionally I go with all butter but most times I combine with olive oil. And always, I slowly simmer the onions and fat with black pepper because that’s how I learned to do it in Rome. When the oil is fragrant and onions soft, I add 28 oz of Cento Chef Cut San Marz tomatoes (lengthwise strips that mostly stay intact without potassium chloride) and a pinch of sugar. I know. Just let me do it. <br /><br />When using as the base sauce for an al forno dishe like manicotti, lasagna, or eggplant rollatini, I shorten the simmering time.<br /><br />When using as a pasta sauce, I allow myself to step up the flavor, adding red pepper flakes and a few herbs, then an extra stir of butter before saucing. At table, I add a swirl of olive oil. If it’s summer and there’s fresh basil, I sprinkle some leaves on top with Romano or Parmesan cheese.<br /><br />Probably some of the dislikers of this recipe and the purist adherents of it who follow the comments here will take issue with my interpretation. Fine.<br /><br />I just slipped in to say that this simple, surprisingly controversial (?), method has completely shifted the way I understand and appreciate all the tomato sauces I am served or make. It’s even changed the way I shop for premade pasta sauce—passing over the overly chunky, multi color, ingredient- and herb-filled jars for the simplest, brightest red ones like Colavita or Cento. Thanks, Food52, for facilitating that reset years ago.
Wonder W. July 5, 2018
I’ve tried this three times and it was relatively bland until the last time I made it. The first time I used whole, peeled Cento tomatoes and it wasn’t very flavorful (though the onion was great for other dishes) and the second time I did the same, using the whole can each time. The third time I stuck to 16 oz of the canned, DICED Cento tomatoes (instead of 28 oz of whole peeled) and used more than 5 tbsps of salted butter (I used about 7 total, adding the last 2 at the end) and a cube of beef stock (I make mine and freeze them in ice cube trays and keep them in the freezer for occasions like this). Only after the addition of that beef broth and extra butter did I have a winner.
cosmiccook June 14, 2018
Yes, increase all ingredients and cooking time. If the recipe doesn't float your boat, use this one for #10 can (or even two) once summer is over.
Doug June 13, 2018
I tried this with the suggested 28 oz. can, and liked it. I have a large #10 can of DOP that I want to try next time. As the onion is only 1/2'ed do you think I should scale up all the ingredients proportionately? Also should I extend the cooking time? FYI # 10 can is about 103 oz. Thanks:)
Ellen E. June 13, 2018
I tried the recipe as written but added some whole garlic cloves along with the onion. The sauce came out great. I want to make larger quantities, do I have to add 5 TBS. of butter for each can of whole tomatoes?
garycunnane June 13, 2018
I have tried it. Sorry it is just fair. I do not understand the hype.
denise M. June 13, 2018
Well I am trying this recipe tonite , for the first time and I will follow recipe just as it is printed. If I make again, then I will get daring and add some stuff , but for now stick 2 recipe. And I will be using Muir Glen Organic San Marzano tomatoes....wish me luck.
Jaye B. March 29, 2018
I live in the desert and it's impossible to find fresh tomatoes that are juicy and sweet, even at Whole Foods or Sprouts or farmers markets. I moved here from the Midwest and over the last 10 years the weather became increasingly stormy and wet which resulted in mediocre, waxy, mealy, tasteless tomatoes even from farm stands. The closest I've come to a real tomato taste like my Dad grew in his small garden when I was growing up are Campari but they are very small so you'd need a ton to make a sauce. I use canned whole San Marzano tomatoes for sauces, but I'm looking for any suggestions on other canned brands that are good?? Thanks.
Margaret B. March 29, 2018
I have taste-tested many brands, and the one I have settled on is Cento's San Marzano whole canned tomatoes. Never watery and always consistent in their real tomato taste.
Connie T. March 31, 2018
I was shocked to read a review of canned tomatoes by ATK, and they rated the utterly New England local, most economical Pine Cone Brand. They rated them superior to all San Marzanos. I used to use Pine Cone years ago but thought they might be a bit too cheap to be good. I am looking for them again. I'll see if I can locate them online now.
ALLEN L. May 18, 2018
Me too. Are consistent quality.
toweringinferno March 26, 2018
This is a great, simple recipe and easy to riff on. If you go with canned tomatoes it's important to use Italian as specified - domestic products (whole or diced) often have calcium chloride added, which helps the tomatoes hold their shape and can prevent them from breaking down.