5 Ingredients or Fewer

5-Minute Tomato Sauce From Heidi Swanson

September  7, 2022
9 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Molly FitzSimons.
  • Prep time 2 minutes
  • Cook time 3 minutes
  • Serves 8
Author Notes

Weeknights, we're ready for you. In this sneak peek from the Simply Genius cookbook, we see how 101 Cookbooks founder Heidi Swanson squeezes big, bright flavor into an all-purpose 5-minute tomato sauce, despite it barely cooking at all.

The secret star of the recipe? Lemon zest, which won’t turn the sauce particularly lemony or more acidic, but makes tomatoes taste brighter and juicier. A good amount of olive oil, quickly infused with garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt, doesn’t hurt either. Starting from a cold pan and stirring until it sizzles maximizes the flavor drawn into the oil, without risking burning.

A few more tips: The full amount of red pepper flakes makes this sauce deliciously spicy, but it’s just as good with the spice scaled down, if you (or your kids) are not in the mood for heat. Crushed, canned tomatoes are perfect for this recipe because they’re basically already in sauce form, but if you have whole or diced instead, feel free to buzz them with a blender and simmer until it’s as saucy as you like. Heidi also recommends riffing with capers or black olive paste, and writes on 101 Cookbooks, “There are times when I'll add a splash of cream at the very end, totally changing the character of the sauce.”

Adapted from Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks for Simply Genius: Recipes for Beginners, Busy Cooks & Curious People (Ten Speed Press, September 27, 2022).

P.S. For a sneak peek of 14 more new recipes and riffs with all preorders of Simply Genius, head here.

Hear what cooking this recipe in real life sounds like on our podcast The Genius Recipe Tapes.Genius Recipes

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
5-Minute Tomato Sauce From Heidi Swanson
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 (28-ounce/794g) can crushed red tomatoes with no added herbs or seasonings (basil is okay)
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  1. In a cold saucepan, combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, and garlic, then set over medium-high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon as it heats and, once it starts to sizzle, cook just until everything is fragrant without browning the garlic, 45 seconds or so.
  2. Stir in the tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, carefully taste, and add salt as needed.
  3. Stir in most of the lemon zest, saving a bit to sprinkle. Serve with any pasta you like.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Kary Wayson
    Kary Wayson
  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
  • DKS
  • gandalf
Genius Recipes

Recipe by: Genius Recipes

9 Reviews

Kary W. September 27, 2023
every time i make this sauce it is THE BEST. i use half the amount of chile flakes b/c—HOT!!—currently using it as a dip for cheesy bread, but am happy also to eat it by the spoonful. yumbah!
DKS October 2, 2022
I'm sorry to be a naysayer here, but I really didn't like the sauce. The garlic and hot pepper utterly overwhelmed the taste of the tomatoes, which had had no time to acquire the sweetness that is a tomato's raison d'être. The lemon zest is a great idea, though; it made it possible for me to the pasta with this sauce.
gandalf September 8, 2022
Kristen --

How do you compare this sauce, taste-wise, with Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce with butter and onion? Do you have a preference and, if so, why?
Kristen M. September 19, 2022
Hi gandalf, thanks for asking—I talk about this a bit in the video and article. I love them both, for different situations:—here are my full thoughts!

"Now, as you may recall, there’s another Genius tomato sauce out there—Marcella Hazan’s, the cover star of the first cookbook and the most popular Genius recipe of all time, in fact. I will still make it forever.

But I will turn to it in different moments, when I have 45 minutes and I want to let tomatoes, onion, and butter blub along on the stove while I putter. Then I end up with a sauce that’s sweet, rich, and purely tomato, I’ll make Marcella’s.

When I want something a little feistier and more savory, to quickly layer onto a pizza or lasagna or eggplant parm—especially when I have no time at all—Heidi's is it."
gandalf September 19, 2022
Thank you very much!
Angie September 7, 2022
I made this tonight after listening to Kristen's adorable podcast featuring her little chef buddy and it was DELICIOUS! I loved the technique and how simple this was, and was very pleasantly surprised at how much flavor came through in the end sauce. It was a bit spicy for my kids so I may tweak that a bit in the future, but otherwise this was fantastic! and I didn't even have to go to store to make it - everything is in your pantry!
Kristen M. September 19, 2022
Thanks for reporting back, Angie—so glad you liked it and I can attest that adjusting the heat down for little tastebuds doesn't compromise the bright flavor.
JG September 7, 2022
Lemon zest is the bomb. I started using it in tomato sauce when I had only lack luster fresh tomatoes in winter. The zest is a great save. I'll buy grape tomatoes, let them sit until they ripen, about a week, then cut SLABS of garlic (thick slices), start the garlic saute w/a chopped, dried red chili and when only a little cooked, put whole, dried, washed grape tomatoes on top, turn the heat on low, let the tomatoes heat up, explode/pop, then the tomato sugars fall and caramelize the thick garlic slabs below. Sometimes I will pop the un-popped tomatoes with the back of a spoon though be careful of hot tomato spatter. I cool it and then puree in a vitamix and with the lemon zest. I probably got the lemon zest from one of Heidi's old books that I have from way back when!
okaykate September 7, 2022
This turned into my go-to recipe for tomato sauce after Heidi posted it to her blog ages ago. It is stellar! The zest truly makes the sauce sing. I tend to have to dial down the pepper flakes a bit (or swap out for something a little milder) and I like a little heat! but this simple, genius recipe is a keeper!