Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter

August 3, 2011

Test Kitchen-Approved

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|Butter|Onion|Tomato|Vegetable|5 Ingredients or Fewer|Serves a Crowd|Make Ahead|Summer|Gluten-Free|Vegetarian

Reviews (399) Questions (8)

399 Reviews

Linda W. January 21, 2019
I love this sauce! One hint for “perfect” every time: if you are not using those amazing, straight from the garden, summer tomatoes, but are instead using a good quality of canned tomatoes, add a teaspoon or two of sugar and a tablespoon or two of either lemon juice or vinegar. The tiny extra bit of sweet and the extra acid bring back the taste of perfect summer tomatoes. Try it, and you will never use another red sauce but this one.
Fred R. January 20, 2019
While some have given me grief for downplaying the recipe as not all that interesting, give me this; Indian butter chicken is one of my favorites. Put enough smooth butter into anything, any you have a keeper. This has enough butter.
arbeenyc January 20, 2019
I tried this and it came out shockingly good. Very delicious. However, the trick is to use fresh, very ripe, and plump tomatoes and skin them properly. Pass them through a hand-cranked food mill to puree them a bit. Make sure the sauce has good consistency. I served it with the onion (which was soft at this point). Also, I put the butter in first, then the onion, and let that cook a while before adding the pureed tomatoes. Might try with a can of good San Marzano tomatoes next time since fresh, ripe, fleshy sauce tomatoes are hard to come by in NYC.
SM D. January 23, 2019
Great idea about the canned San Marzano tomatoes. I feel your pain, we are going through a brutal blizzard with intermittent ice storms in Illinois. It’s beautiful to look at, but not to drive in! The thought of going to the grocery is enough to make me scream, at least I have the ingredients for a wonderful bowl of pasta to keep me warm!
Victoria C. January 20, 2019
I love this recipe. I often make it served over rigatoni on the same plate with lima beans cooked in cream. That sounds crazy, but it's a delicious combination. This is, of course, Marcella's very well-known miracle of a recipe, but she has another plain tomato sauce in Marcella's Italian Kitchen called Simple Tomato Sauce, and it's scrumptious too. In the article Top Foodies Choose their Favourite Recipes of All Time, Ruth Rogers said this about it, "My husband is Italian and that's what he loves the most. When we entertain, which isn't very often, people always expect a fancy meal but I often make this dish because it's the nicest dish there is."
Nicole H. January 13, 2019
I've been making this recipe for years and it's my favorite party trick - i.e. you rent a house for the weekend and start happy hour a little too early, and lose all ambitions to cook so pull this one out of your back pocket. I've had groups of people watch me toss the halved onion and butter into a cold pot of tomatoes and gasp, jumping in fear! But every single time it's perfect. For those who have complained, make sure you're using the correct amounts of butter and salt. I have cooked this sauce on the stove or put the whole thing in the oven when I need the space (or don't want to watch the pot). I also always puree the sauce with the onion which lends more sweetness and body, usually with an immersion blender - and add more butter if I'm feeling frisky. It's truly genius.
Mike R. December 10, 2018
Anyone who finds this sauce bland or tasteless is simply not using quality ingredients. With so few ingredients ever one matters. Use the highest quality butter you can find, go the extra mile and use fresh tomatoes (seriously blanching and skinning takes 5 mins) or at least a can imported from Italy. I’ve impressed many old school Italians with this sauce and they couldn’t believe it took less than an hour and used three ingredients. Let the ingredients sing for you here.
mboerner December 1, 2018
Sad to say, the references to the Boiardi family recipes do not disclose the ingredients in a can of Chef Boyardee. Admittedly, Hazen's sauce is better than (but, to my mind, just as tasteless as) the Chef's which lists the following as its ingredients:<br />Tomatoes (Tomato Puree, Water),<br />Water,<br />Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2] And Folic Acid),<br />Beef,<br />Crackermeal (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid),<br />High Fructose Corn Syrup,<br />Soybean Oil,<br />Salt,<br />Textured Vegetable Protein (Soy Flour, Soy Protein Concentrate, Caramel Color),<br />Carrots,<br />Onions,<br />Modified Corn Starch,<br />Caramel Coloring,<br />Citric Acid,<br />Enzyme Modified Cheese (Cheddar Cheese [Pasteurized Milk, Cultures, Salt, Enzymes],Cream, Water, Salt, Sodium Phosphate, Xanthan Gum,Carotenal [Color]),
Matt H. December 29, 2018
It's clear you didn't bother reading the recipe, but correct me if I'm wrong. There doesn't seem to be any of those ingredients listed here:
Matt H. December 1, 2018
Personally when I make this sauce I like to leave one half of the onion whole and slice the other half. That way when I use the sauce I get nice plump slivers of onion with each tomato bite. I prefer to eat this sauce with gemelli, so each fork full has one onion and one gemelli on it. The tomatoes I use are diced brandywines. I use Delita butter of parma. The milk from their cows comes from the Parma area of the Emilio-Romana.
Matt H. December 1, 2018
I see a lot of ill tempered and mean spirited people in this comments section. The comments seem to fall into two camps: those that think this recipe somehow isn't Italian enough, and those that think this recipe tastes like spaghetti-os (theres a subset of these people who are then bullying others who like the recipe and saying that they have an infantile palate for liking it.<br /><br />If ignorant people would bother to educate themselves before they open their mouths, people would stop to learn that Marcella Hazan and Chef Boiardi (Boyardee in American) were both born in the same region of Italy—the Emilio-Romana. Hazan is from a town called Cesenatico, while Boirardi is from Piacenza. This is a very common style of tomato sauce in this region. It tastes like spaghetti-os, because this is the sauce that the Boyardee family brought to America with them and used to start their company. <br /><br />If you look through the Boyardee family cookbook here through this Amazon link, you see that the cookbook even has a recipe for this same sauce in it:<br /><br />It's amazing how many people are trying to doctor this sauce. It seem they're upset that this isn't mariners sauce, so they're trying to turn it into marinara. It's not a marinara sauce; it's it's own style.<br />
Matt H. December 1, 2018
There's a lot of ill tempered and mean spirited people in this thread arguing about how much they dislike this sauce. I'm seeing the comments fall into two camps: that this sauce is somehow not Italian enough and the other camp saying that this is spaghetti-os (a sub camp is then bullying people for liking this sauce by calling them babies with spaghetti-o palettes).<br /><br />It's a shame how ignorant people are always so eager to open their mouths before speaking or educating themselves. If you bothered to read or learn something, you'd realise that Marcella Hazan and Chef Boiardi (Boyardee) are both from the same region of Italy—the Emilio-Romana. Marcella is from Cesenatico and Boiardi is from Piacenza.<br /><br />Marcella's sauce tastes like spaghetti-os cause they're the same recipe. Here's a link on Amazon to the Boyardee family cookbook: <br /><br />You'll notice that this same sauce recipe is listed in the book as well. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's wrong. This is as Italian of a recipe as they come. Now sit down, shut up, and stop being elitist.
Fred R. December 1, 2018
Matt, you miss the point. No matter the origin, the sauce doesn’t have much flavor. It’s not right or wrong; it is just bland to a lot us. And, one set of comments is good enough.
Matt H. December 29, 2018
Don't be rude. Not all of us are good with computers. We prefer to spend our time cooking good food.
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.
Kiara S. February 18, 2019
I couldn't disagree more. Diced tomatoes (even Mutti brand) aren't quality enough for this recipe. If using canned, whole San Marzano tomatoes with the DOP certification are imperative. I tried this recipe a couple times with diced tomato and it was meh. Using the real deal San Marzano tomatoes takes it next level.
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
Matt H. December 1, 2018
No surprise there. It's supposed to
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!
Matt H. December 1, 2018
How can you "highly recommend this sauce" when the sauce you described isn't this sauce at all?
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.
SM D. January 23, 2019
All of these wonderful ideas of meatball sandwiche, etc. ismaking me hungry!
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 />
SM D. January 23, 2019
I have also tried the sauce with zucchini and it was delicious, try it!
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.