There are as many different interpretations of marinara sauce as there are pasta shapes. Does marinara have onion? Carrots even? To add basil or not to add basil?
When making marinara, I let the future accompaniment steer these types of decisions. For example: When coating delicate pasta shapes or landing on a pizza, smoothed-out tomatoes do the job better than chunky ones.
To me, marinara is what I'd call a “back-pocket tomato sauce”—the building block for countless great meals. Think: weeknight pasta, weekend lasagna, mozzarella-melty sandwiches...
Your tomato quality is of the utmost importance here, be it fresh or canned. Try to source the best available to you. Have a potato masher or, my preferred tool, (clean) hands ready to break up your tomatoes.
Side note: Big pieces of garlic and onion lend a warmer, sweeter flavor to the sauce—infusing it with flavor, rather than competing for the spotlight. If whole cloves aren’t your thing, feel free to fish them out when the sauce is done simmering. You can give them a rough chop and add them back in, or forgo them all together.
This sauce keeps well in the fridge for several days, or in the freezer for several months. If you want, you can multiply the batch and reap the rewards for many meals to come. —Anna Billingskog
1 hour 5 minutes
5 cups (4 to 6 servings with pasta)
extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
medium yellow onion, peeled and halved (quartered if larger)
In a large sauté pan over low to medium heat, warm the ¼ cup of olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and a generous pinch of kosher salt, and give it a stir. Let the olive oil come to a gentle simmer and cook until the onion and garlic are softening and very lightly browning, 3 to 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, roughly chop your fresh tomatoes or smash your canned tomatoes. For the latter, I like to empty the can into a large bowl, liquid and all, and use my hands and make a fist around each tomato, breaking it into irregular and smaller chunks. (A potato masher works well, too.) This step is not only fun, it’s important—this is where you’re able to get a sense of the tomatoes’ firmness. If they resist crushing, know you’ll need to tack on a few extra minutes of cooking time, and even add a little bit more liquid to your sauce.
Once your tomatoes are prepped, add them to the pan with the onion and garlic, along with your sprigs of basil or oregano. Raise the heat to medium high and bring to an assertive simmer while stirring. Lower the heat and let cook uncovered, gently bubbling, stirring frequently, for 40 to 60 minutes. When the sauce is done, it should be thick and concentrated in flavor, with soft, broken-down tomatoes. Stir frequently.
Once your marinara has thickened, it’s time to make some choices: If the sauce looks chunkier than you’d like, blend half of it and add back to the pan. I prefer a rustic marinara that has some body. Whenever you’re happy with the texture, finish by stirring in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Taste for seasoning and add more oil, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes flakes as needed.