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 (388) Questions (8)

388 Reviews

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 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.
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
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.
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:)