This delicious 5‑ingredient marinara sauce recipe is SO easy! You only need 30 minutes to prepare it and your family will never want store-bought, again.
What is Classic Marinara Sauce?
Homemade Marinara Sauce is the base for so many of our favorite Italian-inspired dishes. Many people mistakenly think that marinara sauce, spaghetti and tomato sauces are essentially the same things. But, they’re really quite different.
Classic marinara sauce is just a very simple tomato-based sauce. It has few ingredients and doesn’t contain meat. Homemade marinara sauce is thinner than tomato sauce. It’s commonly used as a dipping sauce, but is also delicious tossed with almost any pasta dishes. Marinara sauce is the traditional sauce in Chicken Parmesan, can easily stand in as a pizza sauce and is a quick and easy flavor-enhancer in many other dishes.
What are the Usual Ingredients?
Classic marinara sauce typically contains only tomatoes (canned tomatoes work great!), garlic and traditional Italian herbs like dried or (chopped fresh) basil or dried oregano. Modern versions often add onion and crushed red pepper (chili) flakes. It’s cooked for only a short amount of time, around 30 minutes on your stove top. You can make marinara sauce with almost any kind of tomato, but plum or San Marzano tomatoes are usually preferred.
And in my recipe you can used canned, instead of fresh tomatoes, to save even more time. Fresh marinara sauce would certainly be scrumptious, but I opt for great flavor without the extra work of peeling fresh tomatoes.
What is Tomato Sauce?
Tomato sauce is a much thicker tomato-based sauce than marinara sauce. Typically, the tomatoes have not only been peeled, but also had the seeds removed. Canned tomatoes don’t work as well in this instance. Tomato sauce has more ingredients than homemade marinara sauce, along with a deeper, richer and more complex flavor.
And, believe it or not, traditionally, tomato sauce was not vegetarian. It was based on the French “mother sauce”, Sauce Tomat, and started with a roux made with pork fat. It’s more suited to blanketing or enrobing foods, almost like a gravy. In some areas of the United States, one version is actually called Tomato Gravy.
Most of us think of modern tomato sauce as vegetarian and containing no gluten. It comes in a can and is used as an ingredient, rather than being it’s own version of a full-bodied, rich and flavorful tomato-based sauce. It’s the “start” of pizza sauce, pasta sauce and other dishes. What a shame. A delectable and truly homemade tomato sauce is mouthwateringly delicious and stands on its own as an extraordinary sauce.
Then What is Spaghetti Sauce?
If you polled people on the street, my guess is that many of them would say that classic Marinara Sauce and Spaghetti Sauce are interchangeable and other than the addition of some sort of meat, basically the same thing.
Before I started looking into the origins of these delicious sauces, I would have agreed with them. But, in truth we seem to picture thicker, tomato based sauces with meat and even cheese, when we think of sauce for spaghetti.
Whichever you prefer, marinara sauce or spaghetti sauce can be tossed with any pasta or served over the top, as you prefer.
More than One Way to Sauce Your Pasta
In all honesty, there are many types of pasta sauce, though. While the tomato-based is usually the first to come to mind, a further extension of it, bolognese, is also commonly used for spaghetti. To be a true bolognese, it will have dairy components, meat and even more vegetable ingredients added to tomato sauce.
Pesto, carbonara, cacio e pepe, alfredo and a multitude of other simple sauces also pair well with pasta and in some households may be what they think of when someone says pasta sauce. The possibilities are as varied as the people who enjoy them.
Understanding Pasta Sauce Traditions
Obviously, over centuries, what we know as either marinara sauce and tomato or pasta sauce have each evolved to suit the needs of the people making them.
Their recipes for marinara sauce and other pasta sauces are varied and steeped in family and cultural history. They use ingredients that are available in the regions where they live.
The common threads for most households seem to be tomatoes, pasta and a strong sense of family connection around food — preparing it and sharing it.
Creating Your Own Traditions
Remember these tips and start creating your own recipe and food traditions.
- Take the best of what you find in the recipes of others and make them your own.
- Add and subtract ingredients that make it better for your family. I’m not a believer in a right or wrong way to make a recipe. The “right” way is the one that works best for your budget and your people.
- You’ll enjoy food so much more when you start with the recipes you trust and tweak them to make them the recipes that your family loves. I hope you and they will enjoy what I think is the best Marinara sauce recipe.
My recipe is based on Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich’s marinara sauce recipe. She is one of the first “TV chefs” I ever watched, (way back in the 90’s before TV chef’s were superstars, to anyone but me) lol . I first saw her on Julia Child’s cooking show.
Later, when she had a show of her own on PBS, she didn’t know it , but she became my “mentor/authority” on Italian cooking. I have so much respect for the way she cooks for her family and the way she shares her recipes and techniques with the rest of the world. Like me, she shares love through food, as a way to build family and community.
Here’s What You’ll Need:
- Avocado Oil I use it in almost all my cooking and baking. It is flavor-neutral, so it doesn’t alter the flavor of the dishes you create. It also has the highest smoke point of the healthy oils. Olive oil would be a good alternative to sub in this recipe if you don’t have avocado on hand. Be careful to use a quality one, however. Olive oil WILL affect flavor.
- Minced Garlic You can crush or mince your own fresh garlic, if you prefer. I have worn out several garlic presses in my lifetime and now that I can buy organic garlic, already pre-minced, it is my go-to garlic of choice.
- Canned San Marzano Tomatoes (Plum), whole, peeled and canned tomatoes. You could peel fresh tomatoes and make fresh marinara sauce, but canned tomatoes make the job so much quicker. And the sauce is just as delicious. (Petite diced tomatoes, diced tomatoes and crushed tomatoes are often not as ripe or as high quality as whole tomatoes. Choose whole and break them up yourself.)
- Dried (or Fresh) Basil If you have chopped fresh basil, you can usually multiply the dried amount called for by 3 and get the right amount for fresh. (I don’t use any other herbs, but dried oregano would be good as would any Italian seasoning blend.
- optional: Crushed Red Pepper (Chili) Flakes This is a matter of preference and I don’t use a lot. But, anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon can add a pleasant kick to your sauce.
- salt and pepper, to taste. Add this at the very end, after the basil and pepper flakes have been added and cooked in. Taste your finished product and determine if it needs any additional seasoning. Sometimes, it won’t. If it does, then add more salt and pepper to enhance the flavor until it’s just right.
What are San Marzano Tomatoes?
San Marzano Tomatoes are a variety of plum tomato. I like canned San Marzano tomatoes for their excellent flavor and meaty texture. But, in truth, any quality plum tomato will work in this recipe. They can be very difficult to find fresh. And when you do, they are expensive, so I buy canned tomatoes for this recipe.
The quality and ripeness of whole peeled canned tomatoes is so much better than diced tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes. Commercial canners choose the ripest, highest quality tomatoes for the whole canned variety. They simply have more flavor. Even if they have to be broken down for my recipe, I almost always buy whole peeled vs diced tomatoes, now.
San Marzano are high-quality, Italian plum tomatoes. I’m able to buy them at my local Walmart grocery store. The San Marzanos come in 28 oz. cans and I use two in my best marinara sauce recipe.
I also like Jovial brand whole peeled tomatoes. I can usually get great sales on them at Whole Foods. The Jovial tomatoes come in 18.3 oz. jars. So, if I use Jovial, I use three jars for this recipe.
How to Make Marinara Sauce
- It’s as simple as putting everything in a large pan and cooking it down for 20–30 minutes. No special tricks or even any prep.
- Crush or chop the whole canned tomatoes. Don’t drain them. You’ll be using all the juice, too.
- Put avocado or extra virgin olive oil and garlic in a large pot and saute for around 30 seconds over medium heat.
- Toss everything else in the large pot and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
- For a complete visual tutorial, watch the How to Make Homemade Marinara Sauce video in the recipe card.
FAQ’s about Marinara Sauce and Sugar
Yes and no. It all really depends on the acid level of the tomatoes you’re using. Sugar can help neutralize highly acidic tomatoes to balance the flavor and create a pleasing harmony between acidity and sweetness.
Tomatoes are naturally both. Sometimes, however, depending on where they’re grown, when they were harvested and whether they are fresh or canned, the acid can be stronger than we like.
To tone this down and bring the sauce into a delicious balance, you can add sugar 1/4 teaspoon at a time. Stir it in. Cook it for at least a minute. Taste again, and add another 1/4 teaspoon, repeating as often as necessary to get to the flavor you want. If I use sugar at all, I never go over 1 teaspoon in this recipe.
Why Does it Matter?
Keep in mind that, particularly as Americans, our diets are inundated with added sugars and we have been conditioned to expect that sweetness in our food. In my opinion, that is having dramatic health implications, not just here, but globally.
Be sure, when you’re tasting, you taste the marinara sauce for deliciously balanced TOMATO flavor and not looking for sweet. Train your palate to taste the real flavor of foods.
According to this pamphlet from the New Hampshire Health and Human Services Department, a whopping 152 pounds! That’s THREE POUNDS per week!
In 1970, that number was still outrageous at 123 lbs. per year when compared to the average 2 pounds per year, 200 years ago.
Nutritionists suggest that we should be eating less than 1/3 of the sugar that we are currently consuming. Their recommendation is 13.3 teaspoons per day vs the average 42.5 teaspoons we eat, now. I would go so far as to say I think that number should be even less.
Common Names for Hidden Sugar in Canned Goods
Common names in ingredient lists that all mean sugar are: Sugar, Dextrose, Maltose, Glucose, Fructose, Corn Sweetener, Honey, Corn Syrup, Sucrose, Sorghum Syrup, Sorbitol, Brown Sugar, Lactose, Molasses, Syrup and there are even more. (Click the link for a list of 56 names for hidden sugar.)
In a recent check of ingredients on a spaghetti sauce can sitting on my own pantry shelf, the third ingredient was high fructose corn syrup, the fifth was corn syrup and the seventh was sugar. This is, unfortunately, not unusual for pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce or store-bought spaghetti marinara sauce. And the one I checked is a popular and common brand.
The Sneaky Trick that Fools Us
We tend to think of cakes, cookies, sodas, pastries and sweets as the culprits in adding sugar to our diets. And while those DO add sugar, we know to watch out for them. They don’t trip us up as easily. We do our best to monitor their intake and so we’re lulled into thinking we’re doing okay.
A serving of that national brand spaghetti sauce I mentioned, above, isn’t the problem, on its own.
- Problem 1: The first problem is that almost all the convenient, pre-prepared foods we eat have these added sugars.
- Problem 2: The second problem is that we vary rarely check the serving size recommended on convenience foods. A recommended serving is almost always much smaller than you would expect. So, we are often eating 2 or 3 times the sugar without even realizing it.
You can see how using multiple convenience foods in one meal and eating larger than recommended portions begins sneaking all that extra sugar into our diets. And we’re doing it daily!
Why Making Homemade Marinara Sauce is So Important
It’s the hidden sugars that are really doing the damage.
That’s why homemade versions of our favorite recipes, like this delicious marinara sauce, are so important. You control all the ingredients and you know exactly what your family is eating.
It’s more important than ever before to read labels and know what’s in the food you’re buying. And, it’s critical to learn to make things like marinara sauce, from scratch, so you can take back the control of what’s going into your family.
Delicious Ways to Use Marinara Sauce
- Any cooked pasta would be scrumptious tossed in homemade marinara sauce.
- Use it as the sauce in traditional baked ziti or even a vegetarian baked ziti.
- It’s a scrumptious dipping sauce for pizza rolls, garlic knots, bread sticks or grilled cheese.
- Use it as pizza sauce on your next homemade pizza.
- Use it recipes for stuffed shells.
Final Thoughts about Making Marinara Sauce
- Remember, it can be affordable and quick to make your own (of literally, just about anything).
- This marinara sauce recipe makes 3 pints (6 cups) of sauce and you have 100% control of what goes into it.
- The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled, so you always have a stash in the fridge and freezer. (See the recipe card NOTES for tips on freezing my homemade marinara sauce.)
- I promise you won’t be a slave to your kitchen if you cook from-scratch, healthy food for your family! Homemade can be simple, healthy AND delicious! And it can all start with quick and easy recipes like this Homemade Marinara Sauce. You’re gonna love it!
Absolutely delicious tomato, garlic and basil flavor in a quick and easy one-pot, 30 minute marinara sauce. You control the ingredients, so your family not only gets the best taste, but the highest quality and nutrition. Use as an ingredient in your favorite recipes, as a stand-alone sauce for pasta dishes and a dip for pizza rolls and grilled cheese!
- 2 (28 oz) cans of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes, [or 3 (18.3 oz.) jars Jovial brand whole peeled tomatoes], with their liquid
- 1/3 cup avocado oil (or extra virgin olive oil, if you prefer)
- 4 Tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 Tablespoon dried basil
- crushed red pepper, (chili flakes) to taste
- salt, to taste
- optional: 1/4 to 1 teaspoon sugar
- In a large saucepan, heat the avocado (or olive) oil over medium heat. I prefer avocado oil because it is flavor-neutral. Choose a high-quality olive oil if using one, as it definitely will impact flavor.
- Add the garlic and cook (still over medium heat) until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
- Carefully add the tomatoes and their liquid. I crush the whole tomatoes with my hands or a fork after they’ve been added to the pot.
- Bring everything to a boil and season lightly with salt and crushed red pepper.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Continue cooking 20 — 25 minutes or so. You can break up the tomatoes even further as the sauce cooks. You want it to end up chunky and thick.
- Stir in the basil and cook for an additional 5 minutes. If you crush the basil between your hands as you add it, you release all the oils which carry more flavor. It will definitely enhance your finished sauce.
- Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper, if necessary. This is also the time to decide if you want to add red pepper flakes and how acidic your tomatoes are. If the sauce doesn’t taste acidic do not add sugar. If the acidity seems to strong, add sugar 1/4 teaspoon at a time to balance the sweetness and acid of your sauce. Cook for at least one minute between each addition and taste, again. Never use more than 1 teaspoon, total.
Home Marinara Sauce freezes well. To freeze it, cool the marinara sauce completely before beginning to prep it for storage. Label zip-top freezer bags with the name and date. I measure two cups into each zip-top freezer bag. Remove as much air as possible as you seal the bag. Lay the bags flat in the freezer until they are solid. Then you will be able to stand them on end, like files in a file cabinet, to save storage space.
You can also freeze marinara sauce in pint or quart jars. You MUST be sure the marinara sauce is completely cooled. Fill the jars, leaving a 1‑inch head space. Freeze the jars without their lids at first. This will allow for any expansion of the sauce while freezing and keep the jars from bursting. Once the sauce is frozen, screw the lids on.
Marinara sauce should last 3–6 months in the freezer if stored properly.
- Cook Time: 25 min
- Category: Sauce, Vegetable, Dip
- Method: Stove Top
- Cuisine: Italian-American