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Making Marinara Sauce: The Basics

Written by Danielle Travali.

When you visit an Italian restaurant, you're likely to see different types of pasta and several different sauces on the menu. Chances are, you'll want to go home and show off to your friends by cooking these sauces in your own kitchen. But if you've got little-to-no experience making sauce, it's a good idea to start with the basics. And what better way to begin than with a traditional marinara sauce? A staple to nearly all Italian cooks, marinara is simple to make.

We'll take you through the process right now. Before you know it, you'll be moving on to more complex Italian sauces!

First thing's first: know that you don't need to go and crush up fresh tomatoes to make marinara sauce--not unless you really want to. Canned tomatoes work extremely well.

You can either use crushed canned tomatoes or canned peeled plum tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are usually very juicy and have a delicate sweetness to them that balances out the naturally-occurring acidity in tomatoes. But I always recommend that you specifically use plum tomatoes from San Marzano. Why? Because these Italian-imported tomatoes are grown in the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius, which gives them an especially sweet and delicious flavor. Several cooks all over the world recommend these because of this reason alone. They cost a few dollars extra, but if you really want to impress your dinner guests with the best-tasting pasta sauce, San Marzano is the way to go. If you can't find these tomatoes in your regular supermarket, try searching an Italian specialty store.

 

Whenever I visit the world-famous Puglia Restaurant in Manhattan's Little Italy, I chat with Chef Sebastian Zapulla about his cooking techniques. For marinara sauce, Sebastian has a few secrets. He dices up a carrot and a sweet yellow onion, then sautés these vegetables in a sauce pot with a little bit of olive oil before adding the tomatoes. He says the natural sweetness of the carrots and onions helps to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. And boy, does Sebastian's sauce taste delicious! I'll show you my version of this quick and easy sauce. 

What you need for the marinara sauce: 

  • A large sauce pot (check out our article on how to select a pot here)
  • A chopping knife (article on knives to come)
  • Kitchen tongs
  • An apron (to prevent sauce from splashing you!)
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 medium-sized yellow sweet onion (should be about the size of a tennis ball)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • A good brand of olive oil (one that's slightly fruity tasting and pleasant on the palate so it balances out the flavors of the tomatoes)
  • 4 29-ounce cans of canned crushed or canned peeled plum tomatoes imported from San Marzano, Italy
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • Fresh basil
  • Optional: pork and beef bones (ask the butcher to wrap some of these up for you next time you're at the supermarket). These add tremendous flavor to the sauce, as the marrow from the bones will flavor the sauce as they simmer slowly in the tomatoes.

How to make the sauce

1. Slice the ends off your onion and peel the skin off. Then, dice your onion into small pieces. They don't have to be perfectly sized.

2. Wash, peel and chop your carrot into very small pieces so that you won't see the bits of carrot in the sauce.

3. Peel the garlic and carefully chop it into tiny pieces.

4. Add about 1 tablespoon olive oil to your sauce pot, then turn up the heat to medium-high. When the oil starts to develop a "skin," or start to pull away from the pan slightly, that's when you're ready to add your onion and carrot. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. The salt will help the onion to release its natural moisture and help it to "sweat," which makes it much easier for cooking. Then, once the onion has wilted and become soft, add the garlic and cook for about one minute BEFORE the garlic turns brown. I like to add the garlic once the onion has finished cooking. Why? Because if the garlic burns, your sauce will taste bitter. You don't want that! 

5. Add your canned tomatoes SLOWLY and pour very close to the bottom of the pot instead of high above the pot. Here's why: if you do this too quickly and from too high above the pot, the sauce will splash you and whatever shirt you're wearing. You can get burned this way, so please be careful. This is something many people fail to realize until their shirt gets ruined! It's a good idea to wear an apron--or even wear RED while you're cooking with tomatoes.

6. Reduce the heat to medium, stir the tomato-onion-garlic mixture very well, and add some fresh basil to the pot--about 4-5 leaves, washed and chopped. Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of black pepper. At this point, you'll also add your pork and beef bones if you'd like to use them in the sauce. Again, this is optional, but it does add wonderful flavor. Congratulations. At this point, your tomatoes and other ingredients have officially become "sauce" in the simplest form. 

7. Put the lid on the sauce and allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes for the quick version of the sauce (without the bones), 30 minutes for the semi-express version, and up to 3 hours for the slow-cooked sauce (with the bones - because a lengthy cooking period will ensure that you glean all the flavor from the pork/beef bone marrow). 

Be advised that the longer you cook your sauce, the darker it will get. You also must make sure it doesn't burn on the bottom. The only way to do this is to check it every 10-15 minutes and to stir it well each time, with your spoon scraping the bottom to make sure it hasn't begun to stick. Also, be sure to taste it and see what you think it needs. A little more salt? More pepper?

TIP: Some people think that it's necessary to add honey or sugar to marinara sauce if it tastes too bitter.  My opinion: if it still tastes bitter halfway through cooking, peel another onion, slice it in half and add it to the sauce. Onions will always add the necessary "sweetness" you're looking for in any sauce or soup. And if you don't like to eat the big piece of onion (some people actually DO like to eat it), you can simply remove it and throw it away when you're finished cooking the sauce.

8. Turn off the heat and set the pot aside. If you've added bones, remove them from the sauce using kitchen tongs, and throw the bones away. If you have a lot of small bone pieces in the sauce, you can use a mesh strainer to make sure no pieces of the bones remain in the sauce. After the sauce has cooled a bit, transfer it to another pot with a mesh strainer resting on top so you can catch any remaining pieces of bone. Carefully pour the sauce through the strainer. Now you're ready to toss your pasta in the sauce (we'll be sharing an article about cooking pasta very soon)!

9. Once the sauce is lukewarm, you may transfer it to smaller containers and freeze it for about a month. Be sure to put the date on the lid and seal the lid securely. You can easily defrost the sauce by removing it from the freezer, popping it out of the freezer container and into a sauce pot over medium heat, stirring and breaking up any pieces of frozen sauce until the sauce has defrosted completely. You could also do this in the microwave, especially if your freezer container is made of microwave-safe material. 

So, now that you know how to make your simple marinara sauce, it's time to get cooking! Use this article as a step-by-step guide to help you along the way. And up next, we'll be sharing an article on how to properly cook pasta. So stay tuned! 

Danielle Travali, MS
Danielle Travali, MS

Danielle Travali, also known to many as the Web and television personality "Holly Pinafore," is a journalist, entrepreneur, and food & wine enthusiast. She is a certified food coach, stress management coach and fitness trainer who studied mindful eating and food psychology. Danielle also holds a master's degree in Journalism from Quinnipiac Un.. Read more

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