Best recipe for Tomato sauce for pasta

So I’ve decided to try to add something new to my cooking repertoire, and that something is tomato sauce. It seems like everyone has their own recipe and I’d actually like to hear them. Anyone?

(BTW, in particular I’m looking for one that is simple and uses canned tomatoes.)

I’d gladly give you the Riviello family recipie, but it’s not exactly, y’know, written down with actual measurements anywhere…

Here’s my basic tomato sauce, adapted from THE GREENS COOKBOOK recipe for basic tomato sauce.

Chop a medium yellow onion and set to sauteeing in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste (teaspoon of one, half teaspoon of the other) and a teaspoon of dried basil. Stir occasionally.

When onions are limp and beginning to brown (about 8 minutes, add six minced garlic cloves and a bay leaf, and saute for an additional minute.

Pour in a half-cup of decent red wine and deglaze the pan.

When the wine has nearly cooked away, pour in a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes and stir. Turn heat to low and allow to simmer for a half hour or so. Discard bay leaf before serving.

(the red wine “livens up” the canned tomatoes. Dried basil is used because of the fairly long cooking time; fresh basil only needs a few minutes of cooking. You can add some crushed red pepper at the onion stage if you like red pepper.)

Here’s a tip (I don’t have a recipe, usually it varies with my mood): If you make the sauce and it doesn’t taste quite right to you, consider adding some sugar. Actually, the safest thing to do is to take out a small scoop of sauce and add the tiniest bit of sugar to it, and then taste. Keep doing this and tasting it to see if you think it’s improving the flavor for your palate. If not, then discard this small amount and cast about for other fixes (you won’t have changed the entire batch). If it does work, then start adding sugar tablespoon by tablespoon to the sauce, tasting after each addition.

I find a little sugar brings many tomato sauces up to my (admittedly pedestrian) taste expectations.

Some of the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had was made by a friend of mine a month or so ago. I’m shamed to admit it, but it was better than mine.

What I usually do is similiar to Ike’s recipe, except I tend to throw some anchovies and garlic in with the onions, and put the red wine in at the end rather than the beginning. This friend does the same, but her recipe calls for canned whole tomatoes, drained and the juice tossed out. She then dices the tomatoes, and uses only them in the sauce, not the tomato water. It was heavenly.

Ok, so I know you specified simple canned products–but I’m throwing in my fave recipie anyway. What’re you gonna do about it, huh? It takes fresh tomatoes–at least 8 or 9–so it’s perfect for the end of 'mato season when you’ve got lots of extras that would otherwise go to waste.

Heat a medium onion, diced, in olive oil (just enough oil to cover bottom of the pan)

When onion turns clear, add 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced. Cook another minute or two.

Now dump in 8-12 medium fresh tomatos (peeled, de-seeded, and chopped should be around 5 cups)

Add about two teaspoons of dried basil, bring to a boil, then turn the heat WAY down. Simmer for at least two hours. (the longer–and gentler–the simmer, the better the sauce, plus it makes your whole house smell like heaven in a box)

About 5-10 minutes before eating, you can add some fresh basil for texture and added POP. This is optional but highly reccommended.

This makes a light, fresh sauce that coats your noodles almost like a dressing, rather than covering them like traditional sauces. Soooo Goood! And the “freshness” really is worth the extra trouble, if you ask me.

Have fun!


a) Mmmmmmmm…anchovies! I’ve got to try that next time, possibly in conjunction with crushed red pepper…

b) You do the garlic in with the onions? Interesting; I almost always give the garlic a fraction of the time in the hot fat that the onion gets. I read an article in the Times last week about the author of The Firefighter’s Cookbook, where he gave his recipe for one of those simmer-forever Sicilian-style meat sauces…he said to saute the garlic first, THEN put in the meatballs, spare ribs, sausages, etc., and brown them. I was sure he had it backwards, but he protested in the article that “if the garlic burns a little, the sauce gets a better flavor.”

c) I find that wine, and alcohol in general, likes long cooking; I never add it towards the end of a simmer. Doesn’t that give it a “winy” flavor?

d) I read something recently where it was pointed out that, when you buy a 28 oz can of CRUSHED tomatoes, you get 28 oz of tomatoes. When you buy a 28 oz can of WHOLE tomatoes, you get a lot of heavy water around fewer tomatoes.

Ike, your point about crushed vs. whole tomatoes is good, and I wish I could say I was smart enough to know that when I bought crushed. However, I just bought crushed because then I didn’t have to mash 'em up in the sauce myself.

And SmackFu, if you ante up a a little more moola and buy high-quality canned tomatoes like Muir Glen Organic or even those great canned-in-Italy plum tomatoes at the Italian grocery, your sauce will be even better. The higher end canned tomatoes are redder, riper and taste a lot better.

All suggestions above are really good ones.
An additional “secret” ingredient:


It gives it a nice “kick”, and almost no one can quite nail what the extra “spice” is. Use as much or little as you can handle…I like a lot of the super hot stuff…this is also a great substitute for chili powder in chili.

Okay, this one’s going to be long.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not Italian, my family is not Italian, I make no claim to that. If any actual Italians care to critique these, please do so. While these may not be “authentic”, they’re just damn good.)

I find that there are three basic kinds of tomato based-sauces for pasta.

  1. Sauces that contain meat. These include Bolognese, Genovese and the basic, simple, yet awesome ragu.
    My basic ragu takes three to five hours, takes beef short ribs (or oxtail), sausages, pork shoulder, and veal breast. Seasonings are a minimum. The emphasis is on a well-simmered, rich, meaty reduced “gravy”, which I usually serve mixed with penne, topped or sided with the meats.

In a heavy pot, brown extremely well the meats that will go in for the simmering. I usually use either beef bone-in short ribs, chuck steak or oxtail. Pork shoulder, “picnic” or butt roast is also good, but cut this off the bone. Ask your butcher nicely about veal breast, and cut it into fist-sized chunks. The sausages should be added during the last half-hour of simmering to give the sauce a freshness.
Brown them all EXTREMELY well, Carmelization adds flavor.
Once all the meats have been browned, add one or two finely minced onions, brown halfway (or until translucent), then add three or four slivered cloves of garlic. Brown these until glossy, then add approx 28 oz. of ggod quality canned tomatoes, three bay leaves, and a cup of good brown stock.Add the meats back in, and simmer until you get a good layer of orange grease forming and it tastes sweet. You can add wine or sugar if you want the taste, and add salt as the flavor progresses. Add the sausages towards the end. For service, reserve the meats, mix the gravy with pasta, coating well, and serve the meats on top or on the side. Light cheese only, as the sauce is the point here,

For simple Bolognese, add minced beef or sweet Italian sausage to a nice marinara, described below. Some people say that Bolognese traditionally includes chicken livers, and I have nothing against them in moderation. I prefer, however, to add diced sauteed chicken livers to fettucine alfredo.

  1. Cooked tomato sauces. The traditional marinara fits here, as does puttanesca and Amitriciana.
    For marinara, you’ll need the same 28 oz of crushed good-quality tomatoes, minced onion and slivered garlic. I find that crushing gives the garlic a funky texture and doesn’t get as sweet. Once you’ve browned the onions and garlic, add the tomatoes (no broth in this one) and wine if you wish. Spices are basil and oregano, fresh for preference, but dried are fine, just use a little more and crush them finely. I generally use about a tablespoon apiece for a batch, and a bay leaf or two for ggod measure. Salt to taste, but a true marinara will contain anchovies, hence the name. I usually crush mine up and add them after the first half-hour. Salt to taste, but I generally don’t add black pepper. Sometimes a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, but that’s about it.
    If you want it smoother, you can take an immersion mixer to it or put it in a blender. I generally will add brown sugar (about a tablespoon) for body, but you want some acidity.
    For puttanesca, either combine a basic marinara or crushed tomatoes with anchovy filets, caper berries and slivered oil-cured black olives .
    For Amitriciana, again, either basic marinara or crushed tomatoes with bacon or pancetta, extra garlic and a healthy shake of red pepper.

3.) Uncooked tomato sauces. Simple, basic, summery. These generally are for light pasta and the tomato is either raw or barely cooked. For basilico e pomodoro, take good raw plum tomatoes, dice them, set aside. Saute garlic and olive oil together, toss the tomatoes, add chiffonaded basil. Mix with angel-hair or spaghetti.

let me throw two recipes your way.

first is simple-- and what I’ll be eating for breakfast in a couple hours.

Take 3 T margarine, melt over medium heat.
Add 2 cloves sliced garlic (not crushed) and stir for a minute.
Add a pint of of cherry tomatoes-- whole! Let cook for 8 or 10 minutes.
Take off heat-- add 6 or 10 leaves sliced fresh basil, and stir into your pasta.
Top with about 1 t balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese (real stuff, not Kraft).

My other recipe is pretty basic–

Saute a diced onion and a clove or two of minced garlic.
Add about 10 button mushrooms (thinly sliced tastes different from chunky)
Throw in 2 t of oregano
Add half a zucchinni, sliced. Toss in some dried basil if you want it.
Now add your canned tomatoes-- or use tomato sauce if you’re in a hurry.

You can mess around with the second one a lot-- it’s pretty forgiving.


Here’s one that’s a little different than the rest of these, it seems complicated, but it’s really simple and quick:

Finely chop one white onion and a few stalks of celery. Heat two tbs. of olive oil in a large sauce pan and sweat (till they’re clear) vegetables. Add 6-7 cloves of chopped garlic and cook a little longer.

Chop 10-15 firm Roma (plum) tomatoes and add to pan with a cup of white wine. Simmer for around 15-20 minutes, salting to taste. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup of heavy cream and some chopped fresh basil. Add the whole mixture to the blender and blend away!

Return the sauce to the pan and heat to just boiling and add 1 lb. of fresh mussels (still in shell). Cook 5 minutes, serve over linguine.

P.S. If your girlfriend is squeamish, do NOT show her how to tell the dead mussels from the live ones when you are washing them.