Basic Tomato Sauce–Five Minutes and a Catnap

I love tomato sauce so much, you’d think I had an Italian grandmother (I’m of French and Irish descent). Indeed, I spend our hot summers growing all kinds of tomatoes—from heirlooms like A Grappoli D’Inverno to Brandywine to San Marzano to little cherry tomatoes as sweet as candy. At least once a week, I gather tomatoes, along with garlic, peppers, herbs and onions, and I cook down this quintessential taste of the summer garden into sauce for us to enjoy in the chilly tomato-less days of January and February. But invariably, no matter how much I make and freeze, we run out of sauce right about now.

As much as I adore that summer garden sauce, this basic tomato sauce is just as good, and a whole lot less work. There are renditions of this tomato sauce by some of the world’s most illustrious cooks (Marcella Hazan, M.F.K. Fisher and Marco Canora come to mind) and lots of grandmothers, too, so I certainly can’t claim that it is original. But I will give you a few tricks that I’ve learned while playing around with it. This basic tomato sauce has only a few key ingredients—canned San Marzano tomatoes, good olive oil, garlic, onions and butter. I recommend that you make big batches of this basic sauce, and then freeze it into one or two quart portions to use whenever you need it.

Once you have this basic sauce handy, you can play with it to your heart’s content. Stir in your favorite fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, oregano!) towards the end of its final simmer. Add your favorite sweet or hot Italian sausage or brown up some ground been and stir into the sauce. Add olive, capers and anchovies for some sexy Puttanesca sauce. Add Pasilla chili peppers, cumin and a hint of dark cocoa to make the base of the best chili you’ve ever had. Cook the basic tomato sauce down until it’s really thick, and you’ve got gorgeous pizza sauce. Cook it down more and stir in cider vinegar, brown sugar and a shot of Worcestershire sauce, and you’ve got homemade ketchup. I’m sure you can come up with another 100 ways to use this basic tomato sauce!

Basic Tomato Sauce

The basic tomato sauce takes about five minutes to prepare. There’s no need to cook it for longer than a half hour or so, but I like to bring it to a boil and then turn it to a low simmer, so that its rich aroma wafts through the cottage for a couple of hours (while I take a catnap).

Basic Tomato Sauce



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Basic Tomato Sauce in Five Minutes (and a Catnap)
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
: Italian
Serves: 10-12
  • 3 28 ounce cans whole San Marzano tomatoes (look for San Marzano on the label)
  • ¼ cup good olive oil
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  1. In a large saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions and cook for a few minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes, crushing them by hand into the pot (I swear it gives them the perfect consistency!). Turn up the heat and bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for at least a half hour or as long as you’d like. Remove from heat, and stir in the butter. If you prefer your sauce very smooth (I usually do), let it cool a little and use an immersion blender to achieve the consistency you like, or use a conventional blender and whir up in batches. Freeze in one-quart portions. There’s no need to thaw it when you want to use it—just dump it in a saucepan and warm it up.

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