Easy traditional tomato sauce is the simplest way to bring warm and rustic Italian flavors into your home for countless different meals.Jump to Recipe
TRADITIONAL ITALIAN TOMATO SAUCE
Whatever you call it, (sauce, gravy, spaghetti sauce) tomato sauce to me means it's Sunday. Maybe you woke up to the smell of bacon on a Sunday morning – but what got me out of bed throughout my childhood was that irresistible smell of garlic being sautéed in olive oil. In my opinion, nothing smells better.
As my nearly 105-year-old grandpa told me once, garlic is the Italian flower.
I think I probably learned to make tomato sauce at around age 8. Everything I learned to cook after that has been built upon this recipe. Whether it’s for another dish that calls for sauce or just being able to carry on techniques used. And that’s why this was the first recipe I ever published for my blog!
Tomato sauce is also a great place to start learning to cook because of how versatile it is. What starts as “pasta” sauce easily gets used for pizza or eggplant parmigiana or further becomes the base for an a la vodka sauce, chili, or even – BBQ sauce.
Tomato sauce is one of the five “Mother Sauces” – which sounds super intense, but just means that it starts as a foundation and influences hundreds of other recipes.
HOMEMADE TOMATO SAUCE
There’s nothing quite like a homemade tomato sauce that’s been treated with care and steeped in tradition. Each ingredient carefully selected for quality. A jarred sauce almost never lives up to that level of freshness and attention.
Tomato sauce is so simple – yet no two recipes are alike. Butter or olive oil? Boxed or canned tomatoes? Tomato paste? Red wine? Chunky or smooth? Sofrito (onion/carrot/celery)? Fresh or dried herbs? 30 minutes or a day-long simmer? What it really comes down to is your own personal preference.
The foundation for this easy homemade tomato sauce is simple. I’ve left it fairly similar to the way I learned it from my mom. Which also means that it's similar to the way she learned it from her mom – and so on.
I’m sure the recipe has changed a little from when my great grandparents would make it back in Italy – between preference and resources. But this recipe is my take on an heirloom from Italy.
So, what makes a good sauce?
Everyone (even in Italy) claims that their sauce is the one sauce to rule them all. And it's no doubt that mindset has transferred to America where everyone is trying to make the “most authentic” homemade Italian tomato sauce. In my opinion, the perfection is in the simplicity.
Let’s further break this down.
ITALIAN TOMATO SAUCE INGREDIENTS
- Garlic & onion – Aromatics serve as the base of any dish. It’s the first thing you start with, and it just adds a base of flavor. You normally don’t see them in the finished dish, but you would think something is missing without them.
- Minced vs diced onion –This slight difference will change the texture of your sauce. Use minced for a smooth sauce (like a marinara) or diced for a chunky sauce (like puttanesca)
- Whole garlic cloves – of course, there is also much debate on leaving the garlic whole or diced. I say, do both! No one is disappointed when they get that rare crushed whole garlic clove.
- Sofrito – a mixture of diced onion, carrot, and celery. It’s like the Italian mirepoix. It will give the sauce more of a “base” and makes the flavors a little more complex. However, it’s not often necessary for quick sauces, but when making a Bolognese, it’s a MUST.
- Butter or olive oil – You may be asking, huh, butter? But it’s true. Southern Italy wouldn’t think to replace their precious EVOO, but northern Italians use more butter than oil! The famous Marcella Hazan in fact swore by using butter in sauce.
- Red wine – Adds an intensity to your sauce that helps to make the tomato flavor richer. Alcohol helps tomatoes release a deeper flavor that wouldn’t otherwise be released! A little goes a long way though (¼ cup). Typically, dry Italian reds, like a chianti, will taste better.
- Tomato paste – Tomato paste is concentrated tomatoes, and this also helps to add a deeper tomato flavor, though not as deep as when adding red wine.
- Dried herbs vs fresh herbs – If you only have access to dried herbs, that’s fine, however, fresh herbs are going to give you a stronger aroma. The common herbs and spices to choose from are basil, parsley, oregano, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and ground black pepper.
- Sugar is used sometimes to take the acidity out of tomatoes, but I find this makes the sauce taste off. If the sauce tastes too acidic to you, try adding half a cup of water and cooking for another 15-30 minutes.
- Tomatoes – Ah, yes, the most important part. What tomatoes do you use?
- Fresh tomatoes – You should try making tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes just one time. This is really its own separate post, but it starts by picking juicy, deep red tomatoes. Boiling them so you can get the skins to slide off, then stewing them into a sauce until they break down completely. It is worth all the effort.
- Whole peeled tomatoes – this is a great in-between because these tomatoes are canned and packed at their peak freshness. The skins are already removed for you, and you know they don’t have added sodium or chemicals.
- San Marzano plum tomatoes – this right here is the crème de la crème. If you can afford to make your entire tomato sauce from just San Marzano tomatoes, do it. Be aware though, these tomatoes are only grown in San Marzano and if the tomato can does not have the DOP label, it’s a fake! The geography these tomatoes are grown in and the specific type of tomato they are, make them ideal for Italian cuisine.
- Crushed tomatoes – These tomatoes are perfect when you don’t have a few hours to wait for tomatoes to break down. Contrary to what my ancestors had to do 100 years ago, cans of crushed tomatoes today don’t need to simmer all day long. They can actually be ready in 30 minutes.
A NOTE ON QUALITY
The quality of tomatoes you use matters so much in your sauce. The cans might increase in price steeply ($4-5 per can for San Marzano), but it is the main star of the dish, so the quality, or lack of, will be seen. Just like you can tell the difference in a bottle of wine.
As a rule of thumb, I don’t buy store-brand tomato cans. Stick to things that say imported, DOP, or something that looks like it’s made with care. These will have fresher tomatoes will less added stuff.
My grocery store go to’s:
- Cento San Marzano Tomatoes
- Cento Crushed Tomatoes
- Tuttoruso no-salt-added crushed tomatoes
(Not sponsored, just love them!)
LET’S MAKE THIS EASY TRADITIONAL TOMATO SAUCE
Garlic & onion – I like to mince my garlic, while leaving some pieces large. For the onion, I also like to mince or grate it for a really fine texture that still gets the onion flavor.
Olive oil – I like to use Filippo Berio for a high-quality EVOO.
Herbs & Spices – I use fresh basil and parsley, as well as dried parsley, dried basil, garlic powder, oregano, red pepper flakes, and ground pepper. I do not add salt to my sauce!
Tomatoes – As discussed above, I use a combination of crushed tomatoes and San Marzano tomatoes from Cento. If you’re using a different brand, just verify that the nutrition label contains 80-100 mg of sodium per serving at the max. I always opt for sodium-free sauce because then I can control the salt.
- Saute garlic and onion in olive oil until fragrant and just starting to brown
- Add in tomato paste and stir in
- Pour in your tomato cans
- Season with all of your dried herbs and spices
- Bring the sauce to a boil, and then lower to a simmer
- If you only used crushed tomatoes – simmer for a minimum of 30 minutes. If you used any san Marzano tomatoes – simmer for a minimum of 1 hour
- About 15 minutes before your sauce is done, season again with the fresh herbs
- The last 15-30 minutes of cooking would also be when you add in any meat (meatballs, sausage, braciola, spare ribs, or pig’s feet as my grandma still does!)
See the full directions below.
Troubleshooting issues with Tomato Sauce
If your sauce is salty, add in ½ cup water at a time, until it is no longer too salty to you. The added salt comes from the type of tomatoes you use. See above for my note on sodium.
If your sauce is too thick – add ½ cup water until it loosens up
If your sauce is too liquid-y – take the cover off the pot to let water evaporate. Raising the heat to a high simmer will also help the excess water evaporate
How to serve tomato sauce
So, the most obvious way to serve tomato sauce is with some pasta! Choose delicate or small pasta shapes for a smooth sauce and wider, thicker shapes for a chunky sauce. Ex: rotini for a simple marinara or pappardelle for Bolognese.
RECIPES YOU’LL ALSO LIKE
- Penne a la Vodka
- Crispy Baked Eggplant Rollatini Skillet
- Homemade NY Styke Pizza
- Baked Pasta & Sausage
One serving of tomato sauce has x calories, x carbs, x grams fat, and x grams protein.
Storing and reheating
The best part about making tomato sauce in bulk is that it stores really well. You can keep it in the fridge if you’ll be using it within the week, anything longer than that you can freeze.
To heat from the refrigerator: simply heat it thoroughly in a saucepan on the stove
To defrost: move sauce from the freezer to the refrigerator the day before you want to use it. Then follow directions above once it’s defrosted.
AS ALWAYS, IF YOU MAKE THIS – PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW!
Easy Traditional Tomato Sauce
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves minced
- ½ yellow onion minced
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ tbsp dried parsley
- ½ tbsp. dried basil
- ½ tsp oregano
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ⅛ tsp red pepper flakes
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 27 oz. tomatoes Crushed or San Marzano
- 1 tbsp fresh basil chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley
Heat the olive oil in a stock pot on medium heat. Add in the garlic and onion and saute until fragrant, just before browning, about 3 minutes.
Add in the tomato paste and stir into the onions. Let it cook for about a minute.
Add in both cans of sauce. If using two cans of San Marzano tomatoes, add ½ cup water.
Add in all of the dried herbs and spices. Combine all together.
Bring to a boil for about 5 minutes and then cover and reduce to a simmer.
If you used only crushed tomatoes, simmer for 30 minutes. If you used any San Marzano tomatoes, simmer for one hour.
While cooking, stir about every 15 minutes. Crush any large tomatoes with a wooden spoon. If the sauce starts to boil, even on a low simmer, turn the heat off for a bit and leave covered.
Add in fresh herbs or any meat 15 minutes before finishing.
See detailed instructions above for any troubleshooting.
DID YOU MAKE THIS RECIPE?
If you make this recipe or any others on Bite your Cravings, please leave a comment and a rating below! I’d also love to see and feature your delicious creations on my Instagram page, so post your recipes on social media and tag them with #biteyourcravings!