Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recipe: Outstanding Marinara Sauce

Marinara sauce is a pretty simple affair of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil.

Contrary to some accounts, it is not named for the men of the sea (mariners) based on its ingredient list. While fish (most commonly in the form of anchovies) feature prominently in some marinara recipes, the name apparently derives from the old Italian grandmothers of Naples who served this delectable sauce to their sons and husbands upon their safe return from the sea.

Of course, tomatoes didn't exist in Italy until mariners brought them from the new world... so perhaps there's more to the story of how this sauce got its name.

Full disclosure: this recipe is adapted from the Cook's Illustrated "Best Quick Tomato Sauce" recipe from the May / June 2009 Issue.

I didn't change much.

As is true with many a great recipe, this recipe's brilliance stems from its expert pairing of sweet, salty, acidic, and bitter flavors—along with a proper dose of savory (also called Umami).

Unsurprisingly, the saltiness and sweetness come from... salt and sugar. The acid comes from the tomatoes. The bitterness comes from the seared garlic, olive oil, and oregano. The savory flavor comes from butter and the fond developed during caramelization.

This recipe is cooked in stainless steel as opposed to cast iron.

I bring it to you for the following reasons:
  1. Stainless steel is safe cookware, and affords the cook the development of a robust fond (browned bits of goodness that stick to the pan) for later deglazing.
  2. This recipe is really easy to make, and the flavor far surpasses anything you will ever get from a jar. Seriously.
  3. This marinara sauce is featured in several other recipes on this blog, and thus it would seem a disservice not to provide it.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, pressed (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 - 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 - 14 ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste
Heat a medium stainless steel saute pan on medium heat. While the pan is coming up to heat, grate the onion using a coarse grater (your garden variety grater, the one with roughly 1/4 inch holes). A third of a cup is about a third a medium onion.

When the pan is warm, toss in the butter, and then immediately add the grated onion. Stir things around frequently to avoid burning. You'll caramelize the onions for 5-7 minutes, until they reach a golden brown. Because the onion is in such small pieces it can burn quickly, so stay nearby during this part!

Once the onion is well-caramelized, clear a spot in the center of the pan and drop in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Immediately add the pressed garlic and black pepper. Stir the garlic and black pepper around for 30 seconds or so, and then add the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, sugar, and oregano.

Simmer for no more than 10 minutes, during which time you should salt it to taste. You'll probably add between 1/4 teaspoon and 1/2 teaspoon of table salt (more if it's kosher salt). How much salt you add depends on how much salt is in the canned tomatoes, and of course your preferences. If in doubt about whether you've added enough salt, add (a little) more and taste again.

Just before serving (or using the marinara in another recipe), add that last tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to freshen up the taste.


  1. Hi Derek,

    Peter here in London UK. I very much enjoy your site - it has inspired me to try bare cast iron which is great.

    Like you, I have never bought any non-stick because it seems to me like a bad deal for many reasons. I love cooking with what we call here "Black Iron" which is low carbon pressed steel that requires seasoning - great for searing but hates acidic deglazing. Also, I've just realised that SS is great for browning stuff as it "releases" when done or acid sauces as per your Marinara but not so good, for example, for searing delicate fish where cast iron or black iron excel.

    I could go on - but as your site so clearly shows, you need to choose the right pan for the job in hand.

    Anyway keep up the good work - now I'm off to buy some popcorn maize.


  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the note and kind words. Great to hear that people across the pond are finding this blog useful. And yeah, I definitely go to stainless steel for high acid dishes, or those that want a good deglazing.

    Let us know how the popcorn turns out!



  3. I can't find your lasagna recipe i tried a few months ago. It turned out great. Can you repost it?

  4. Hi there,

    While it is on my list of recipes to post... I have not yet posted a lasagna recipe here. I'm guessing that you are thinking of someone else's lasagna recipe! All the more incentive to get my own lasagna recipe posted... since it's REALLY good! And as you guessed, I use this marinara sauce when I make it!


  5. Interesting! I use 2 anchovy fillets, a pinch of baking soda and no onions in mine. I use it on pizza, stews, as grilled chicken sauce etc.

  6. I'll have to try the anchovies, that sounds tasty. I like the sweetness and savory from the caramelized onions, as those flavors complement the salt and tang from the tomatoes. Thanks for stopping by!



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