Making the Sauce

Like many discoveries in food and wine, we’ve figured out what centuries upon centuries and generations upon generations of Italian cooks have already discovered—there’s no substitute for low and slow.  When it comes to making a basic marinara, this truth is in full evidence.  You just can’t rush good sauce.  This is our recipe for simple marinara that stands on its own and also serves as a
foundation for as many variations as we have imagination.


  • 1 ½ medium white onions
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 3 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon marjoram
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a drizzle
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1-2 cups red wine, preferably Tuscan

A note on the tomatoes:  Yes, canned.  We’ve found the absolute best to be San Marzano, and only make sauce without them in a dire situation.

First we take the onions and garlic and chop them in the food processor.  Like with many large-scale dishes, we use the 9 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven for this one.  We heat the olive oil, then sauté the garlic and onions on a low-medium heat.  We add a teaspoon of salt, just to have the onions give up a little of their water.  The lower heat also keeps the garlic from burning. I also like to delay this process a little, because there is no smell like onions and garlic sauteeing in olvie oil.

Once the onions are tender, we add the tomato paste and cook on the same heat until the mixture browns, about four minutes.  We then use some of the wine to deglaze the pot.  We add the 28 oz cans of tomatoes, mixing them well with the onions and garlic.  While that’s simmering, we process one of the cans of diced tomatoes with the herbs
and spices except for the bay leaves, just a few pulses to get it all mixed together, then add it to the pot, stirring very well.  We add the other can of diced tomatoes, the bay leaves, and one can (14oz) of water, reduce the heat to low, and cover.  Then we wait.

About an hour later is the first time we really taste the sauce.  Tomatoes are notoriously irregular in their acidity, so that’s primarily what we’re testing for.  If it’s not acidic enough, we add more of the wine.  Obviously, we also check for the seasonings level, understanding that they’re not quite fully integrated.  At this point, we also drizzle a last bit of olive oil over the top.  I think this has become more of a ritual that an actual necessary step in the recipe.  We cover it again and wait some more.

The minimum amount of time I like to have the sauce cooking for is about four hours.  Anything less, and the flavors just don’t seem to come together well enough.  The sauce is then ready for use however you see fit, whether that’s layering it into a lasagna or simply ladling it across your favorite pasta. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves first.

One of the recent variations we made on it borrowed pages from both puttanesca and arrabiata sauces.  Instead of crushed tomatoes, we used all diced, giving the sauce a different heft.  Along with the onions and garlic, we sautéed in about half a small jar of kalamata olives and an ounce of salt-packed capers (which we had thoroughly rinsed).  After the onions had gotten tender, I added three pounds of spicy Italian sausage, sautéed it until it was done, then removed the sausage from the pot and continued with the normal cooking process.  After the sauce had been cooking for about an hour, I added back in the sausage and another two tablespoons of crushed red pepper.  The result was a chunkier, aromatic sauce with quite a bite to it. It’s a variation I’ll add to the rotation for sure.


About sheldonmenery

Sheldon Menery is a self-taught food and wine aficionado who has circled the globe in search of the riches it has to offer. He's wined and dined at some of the best (and worst) places in the world.
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2 Responses to Making the Sauce

  1. Ute says:

    That more or less describes my way of making classic italian pizza sauce (I find US sauces tend to be sweeter and less strong in taste).
    Which reminds me, though you have one of the most awesome pizza places nearby, did you ever think about acquiring a pizza stone for the oven (or have one)? I used mine a lot (before it broke). Freezing some of the sauce in small amounts means you can more or less always have a delicious home-made pizza when you feel like it.

  2. Pingback: Making the Lasagna | Discoveries in Food and Wine

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