Staple Sauce: My fool-proof (usually) marinara sauce recipe


Guest post by LC
marinara sauce
By: londonlooksCC BY 2.0

Growing up I was an utter disaster in the kitchen. I actually lit my parents' oven on fire attempting to make a cookie pizza in high school. I mean, who knew that silver, metallic-looking pans could be plastic? (Side note: My dad actually shellacked the disaster, hid it in his garage, and has informed me he will be presenting it to whoever I end up marrying. Sweet Dad, thanks.)

It wasn't that I didn't have anyone willing to teach me — every woman in my very Italian family seems to have this innate ability to cook, even without recipes. One of my aunts can even replicate any meal she has at a restaurant because she can pick out every damn flavor… it's seriously her superpower. But I guess their incredible skill was always my problem: whenever I would get into the kitchen, I'd get intimidated and give up (or panic and ignite things).

However, a few years ago I started dating someone who had never before been exposed to home-cooked food. The bar was set so low, and his appreciation was (and still is) so genuine, I that I felt no fear when trying out new things in the kitchen. So with that being said, here is one of the first recipes I tried on him when we decided to make homemade pizza.

I started with a family recipe and tweaked it until it fit my taste. This recipe is a great one to start with because it's simple and once you become comfortable with the bare bones, you can add or substitute ingredients until it becomes what you want.

Ingredients for about 3 cups:

  • 1 28-oz can peeled, Italian plum tomatoes (drained, reserve liquid)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, chopped or minced (your preference)
  • 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pinch of dried oregano
  • 2 rounded tablespoons of Parmesan Romano cheese, grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
  • Sea salt (to taste)
  • Hot pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 1 6-oz can of tomato paste

Prep your ingredients:

There's no easier way to make a mess (or a mistake) than by attempting to boil, cook, chop, and measure all at the same time. Here's my recommendation for prep work to help you feel a little less frazzled as you cook…

1. Chop up your onion and garlic to your preferred size. I'm not a fan of big chunks so I like to mince both. Chop your fresh herbs (or measure out if you are using dried). Set aside in a small bowl so you can pour them into your pan easily.

2. Open your tomato can but do not drain the liquid. Individually de-seed each tomato by gently breaking them open over your sink and scraping out the seeds with your fingers. Place these tomatoes into a bowl. My grandma would hit me for saying this, but you can use a gentle, cool stream of water to get the seeds out more easily. However, this will take away some of the natural juice and flavor. Warning: Tomato juice will squirt EVERYWHERE if you're too aggressive about this process so make sure you do it carefully into a sink.

3. Using your hands, mash the tomatoes into tiny pieces. This can be done on pulse in a food processor if you like a very smooth sauce and enjoy washing dishes. Again, your preference here as to whether you enjoy chunky sauce or smooth. I've always thought the texture created by using your hands is more authentic.

Cooking:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium-low heat.
  2. Once hot, pour in the onion, garlic, herbs, black pepper, salt and red pepper flakes. I like to let this sauté for about two minutes until my kitchen smells like I know what I'm doing.
  3. Stir in the tomatoes and 1 tablespoon of cheese. Once mixed, allow to simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often.
  4. After 10 minutes, check your texture. You should use your reserve liquid from the tomato can and the tomato paste to play with the consistency of your sauce.
  5. Taste! At this point I also add my second tablespoon of cheese but based on what you like, you can skip this step. You can also add more of your favorite herbs or perhaps additional red pepper flakes for a bit of a kick.
  6. Once you're happy, turn off your burner and serve.

Support for mistakes I've made:

If you are adding salt, pepper, or dried herbs from a jar, always pour them into your hand first so you don't end up with an aggressive amount of any-one flavor…like my sauce that ended up tasting like straight salted tomato.

Don't forget to stir your sauce often and ensure that the heat is at or below medium (or a simmer). If you leave it unattended and, for example, try and shower while your sauce simmers, it will most likely dry out or burn. You know, just as a hypothetical example…

If you are planning on using this for pasta, make sure you start boiling salted water before you begin this cooking process. Waiting for water to boil when you're hungry and your kitchen smells delicious is completely miserable…and you may end up eating a sleeve of cookies…

Again, the beauty of this recipe is that you can play with the flavors and because it's to your taste, if you take your time it's nearly impossible ruin. Bon Appetit!

  1. Why deseed? Unless you want something baby food smooth, seeds are fine and tasty 🙂 I tend to just use tinned chopped tomatoes, or fresh (or both, if I'm feeling decadent) and I cannot be having with fiddling around with stuff.

    My other go to sauce is a basic roux, then add cheese or mustard or ale or whatever (all three!), depending on what it's for. Melt butter, stir in enough flour to make a thick paste, add milk bit by bit to make a sauce. If you're adding a flavour that makes it thicker, like cheese, make a runny sauce. If you're adding something that makes it runnier, like beer, make a thicker sauce (or just use beer instead of milk, and make sure you give it enough time to cook the alcohol out).

    • Ooh what are you throwing the beer sauce on?
      I can make a roux, but I usually either do a cheesy sauce or make enchilada sauce from it (same concept, but water instead of milk, and chile powder mixed in right after the flour, then followed with more spices.

      • … this comment is about to get very, very British.

        It's a good wintery catch all sauce; it goes well with almost any hearty meat and two veg type dishes. I like it especially with bangers and mash, or bubble and squeak, and toad in the hole. it's basically just a heartier and less-refined sort of gravy 🙂

      • Enchilada sauce recipe, please! I'm allergic to alliums so need to adjust recipes to remove garlic and onions. But it helps when I'm starting with a good recipe. 🙂

        • Nice! I'll try to figure out how to write up the Enchilada sauce. It's tricky because I do it by feel rather than measurement, but I'll do what i can. There's garlic in the sauce, but I'm sure you could work without it and still have a tasty sauce!

          Also super into the very very British reply! I'll have to play with the beer sauce!

        • Enchilada Sauce (obviously you'll want to remove the garlic and onions):

          3 tbs flour
          3 tbs butter / oil
          Make a roux (melt butter, whisk in flour until it becomes a paste, cook on medium for about a minute)

          Add in:
          2 tablespoon ground ancho chili powder
          1 tablespoon ground cumin
          1 teaspoon dried mexican oregano
          ½ teaspoon garlic powder
          1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
          8 oz can tomato sauce (or 2 tbs tomato paste and some water)
          1-2 cups water or broth (*If you use canned broth, be careful adding any additional salt!)

          If desired, you can also add in onions that have been sautéed until soft.
          Basically you heat it all up and whisk around in the pan until the sauce thickens, maybe 10 minutes.

          *Measurements are approximate, as I generally go by taste

        • For those of you who are still intimidated by this recipe, they are actually adding in a bunch of unnecessary steps. Marinara / tomato sauce is basically this:

          28 oz can of peeled tomatoes (whole or diced including juice, see below)
          3 tbs butter (or olive oil)
          1 onion, quartered
          Any desired aromatics (seasonings)
          Salt, to taste (see below)

          Add lid and simmer until the onion is soft. Either remove / discard the onion and mash sauce with the back of a spoon until the desired consistency, or used an immersion blender to puree the onion in.

          Aromatic suggestions: Garlic, Basil, Oregano, Parmesan, Red Pepper flakes, Black Pepper, etc.

          Diced tomatoes are actually more firm than whole tomatoes because more surface area is exposed to the calcium chloride, resulting in a chunkier end sauce.

          What Salt to Taste really means: http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/02/how-to-salt-and-season-food-properly.html

          Adding a splash of alcohol – Alcohol has a chemical reaction with tomatoes that adds a brightness to them. I usually add a splash of vodka, which will not introduce any additional flavors to the sauce, but you can also use a red wine to add depth to the flavor. Be sure to simmer for at least 7 minutes to remove the alcoholic bite.

  2. Another tip for using dried / jarred herbs: after shaking them out in your palm, grind them between your palms into a finer consistency. Breaking them up releases more of the aromatics and flavor, in my opinion. 🙂

  3. For those of you who are still intimidated by this recipe, they are actually adding in a bunch of unnecessary steps. Marinara / tomato sauce is basically this:

    28 oz can of peeled tomatoes (whole or diced including juice, see below)
    3 tbs butter (or olive oil)
    1 onion, quartered
    Any desired aromatics (seasonings)
    Salt, to taste (see below)

    Add lid and simmer until the onion is soft. Either remove / discard the onion and mash sauce with the back of a spoon until the desired consistency, or used an immersion blender to puree the onion in. If you want the onion but don't have an immersion blender, you can dice the onion up before cooking.

    Aromatic suggestions: Garlic, Basil, Oregano, Parmesan, Red Pepper flakes, Black Pepper, etc. Remember that dried herbs are about 3x stronger than fresh herbs!

    Diced tomatoes are actually more firm than whole tomatoes because more surface area is exposed to the calcium chloride, resulting in a chunkier end sauce.

    What Salt to Taste really means: http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/02/how-to-salt-and-season-food-properly.html

    Adding a splash of alcohol – Alcohol has a chemical reaction with tomatoes that adds a brightness to them. I usually add a splash of vodka, which will not introduce any additional flavors to the sauce, but you can also use a red wine to add depth to the flavor. Be sure to simmer for at least 7 minutes to remove the alcoholic bite

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