I have made a terrific (and delicious) discovery. Making a marinara sauce that makes you feel like you are actually in Italy (or at the most authentic italian restaurant you can think of) is one of the easiest things to do in the world. Marinara sauce is so versatile, and when made from scratch with quality ingredients, potentially one of the best things in the world to eat. After living in Italy for two summers during college, jarred sauce just doesn’t cut it for me. I made it my mission to make the perfect multi-purpose marinara sauce to pair with pasta, put in lasagna, use as pizza sauce… I am actually planning on making all three of these meals this week with the sauce I am making today! This is the best marinara sauce I have made, and it’s one of the most versatile ingredients ever. It really is one marinara to rule them all.
After trying a few recipes over the years, I’ve learned a few secrets to making the ultimate marinara sauce. Here they are (in order of importance):
- Use Quality Tomatoes. Don’t buy the grocery store brand of crushed tomatoes. Imported from Italy is best. My favorite brand is Tutto Rosso, followed closely by San Marzano.
- Cook low and slow. This recipe does not have added sugar, but has a slightly sweet flavor. When you cook on low heat for a few hours, the onions have a chance to caramelize, releasing natural sugars into the sauce.
- Use plenty of strong red wine. Zach and I love red wine, but we bought a chianti a couple of weeks ago that was just too strong to drink alone. It was overpowering. I kept it corked in the fridge to use for cooking and used it to make this sauce. Buy a good, strong red wine, preferably chianti, and add plenty of it to the sauce.
- Use fresh herbs. And add half in the beginning and half toward the end of cooking. When you add them in the beginning, the flavor will be sucked out of them and become part of the sauce. Yes, “sucked out of them” is the technical term. When you add them in the end, they will retain more of their flavor to add an extra kick. Use any combination of italian herbs- basil, parsley, oregano, thyme. Be generous with the amount you use. (Note: I’ve made sauce with dried herbs before and it was also extremely tasty. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, you should still make this recipe with dried- it will be delicious. Promise!)
First things first- finely dice the onions. After dicing, I go through them one more time with the knife to make very small pieces. I’m not a big fan of large onion pieces in marinara sauce- they demand too much attention and don’t blend in.
Saute the onion in two or three generous tablespoons of olive oil on medium-high heat in a large skillet or saucepan. The onions should brown and become translucent. If some are sticking to the pan don’t worry too much- the wine should take care of that in a sec! You will end up cooking the onion for about 10 minutes. As I am typing this I am wondering what this sauce would be like if you cooked the onions for even longer and allowed them to caramelize before adding the other ingredients. Hmm, next time I think I will have to try this!
Once the onions look done, add four large cloves of minced garlic to the pan and saute for one minute. Garlic cooks (and burns) extremely fast, so you don’t want to add it until that last minute. I use a microplane zester to mince garlic. (Trick stolen from Rachel Ray. Very clever!)
Now comes the extremely satisfying part of adding red wine to the onion garlic mixture to create an awesome sizzling sound. Love this. Add about a cup of red wine and stir- anything that was stuck to the bottom of the pan before should come up from this addition. Let it simmer for a few minutes so some of the liquid evaporates.
Add crushed tomatoes, herbs, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste. This time, I only used parsley. I never measure my fresh herbs- I just go for it. It’s not worth getting a measuring cup dirty and I feel like you really can’t go wrong. But if I had to estimate how much I added it would be about a half a cup (1/4 cup in the beginning, 1/4 cup in the end) of finely chopped parsley.
And now we wait. Stir, put the heat on low, cover, and simmer for one, two, or three hours. Or more! I usually aim for three. This gives me plenty of chances to do some quality control (aka, get spoonfuls of it and taste it frequently just to make sure nothing is going wrong. This is very important.) :-)
Waiting… waiting… tasting… waiting… omg yum.
Here’s a helpful hint. If you think your sauce is looking too thin, leave the lid ajar for a while. The steam will escape and the sauce will thicken up. Or, you can always add some tomato paste to the mixture. Too thick? Add just a little bit of water, or more wine!
OK. It has been three hours. The best thing about cooking anything low and slow is the amount of time you have to be productive around the house while it’s cooking! Maybe taking a nap wasn’t the MOST productive thing but I sure did that. And I started the new J.J. Abrams book, which is amazing. AND I cleaned! And of course, worked on this post. I think sometimes it’s daunting to think about devoting a few hours to cooking but when you really think about how long it takes to prep vs. cook, it’s really not much of a commitment. Plus I have so much sauce to use this upcoming week, which is going to make busy work-night dinners a breeze.
The time has come for the last step. Just chop up any remaining herbs you want to include and add to the sauce, continuing to simmer on low for about 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow to cool before storing. This recipe makes enough sauce for approximately three meals. I divide mine into mason jars and store in the refrigerator or the freezer, and defrost when necessary.
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup strong red wine (like chianti)
- 2 28-oz cans good quality crushed tomatoes (like Tutto Rosso or San Marzano)
- approx. 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, basil, thyme, and/or oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
- Saute onions in olive oil on medium-high heat until browned and translucent, approx. 10 minutes.
- Add minced garlic and saute for another minute.
- Add wine, stir to life any browned onions/garlic from bottom of the pot, and simmer for a couple of minutes.
- Add tomatoes, half of the herbs, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Stir, and let simmer on low heat for 3 hours, stirring and tasting occasionally. Add seasoning as needed.
- If sauce is looking too thin, leave lid ajar for a while.
- During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add rest of the herbs.
- Use the sauce immediately or store in containers/mason jars for months in the freezer or about a week in the refrigerator.