Italian marinara sauce is the basis of so many wonderful Italian recipes! It’s simple but flavorful, and homemade marinara will elevate any pasta dish you want to make. You can grab a jarred sauce from the market, but why do that when making your own is easy, tastier, and can be made in a big batch for all your marinara sauce needs? A few common ingredients and a little time to bring them together into a harmonious whole is all you need.
Like you, I have grabbed a jar of marinara from the market when I’m in a rush, but I’m never quite happy with it. No matter what brand I try, it’s just not quite right. There is too much garlic, or too much oil, or it’s bland, or it’s too sweet. So, I’m always happier when I have some homemade marinara sauce stacked up in my freezer. When I have some of my Italian marinara sauce on hand my dinner rush becomes no problem.
Before I start talking about the secrets of my marinara sauce, I want to talk about the word authentic. This sauce is authentic to my family and to my traditions. Other families and other traditions may make a different sort of marinara which is authentic to them. I can only speak for myself and my heritage.
That said, onto the tips for my favorite, family recipe of Italian marinara sauce!
Tip #1 – Canned Tomatoes are Best
No, really, they are! Save your beautiful, fresh in-season tomatoes for Caprese Salad or Raw Tomato Sauce, pass by the out-of-season tomatoes , and grab some canned, whole tomatoes from the store. San Marzano are considered to be the best, but can be hard to find. Or least actual Italian San Marzano tomatoes are hard to find. Tomatoes labeled San Marzano are pretty easy to find, but aren’t any better than the domestic tomatoes sitting near them on the shelf. My advice is to pick a brand of tomatoes you enjoy and make sauce without worrying too much.
Tip #2 – Cook Your Aromatics Low and Slow
The key here is sweating the onions! Marinara may be a fairly quick sauce to make (especially as compared to Bolognese), but undercooked or burnt onions are nobody’s friends. You are looking for sweet, soft onions and garlic and carrots. Too high a heat and you’re likely to burn them before they fully soften. Too quick to add the tomatoes and you are going to have hard bits of onion in your sauce. Bleh!
This is especially important in an acidic, tomato-based sauce like marinara. Acid will keep the onions, and the rest of the aromatics, firm and make it more difficult for them to break down into the sauce if they are not soft and ready before you add the tomatoes.
Tip #3 – Add Dried Herbs with the Aromatics
Dried herbs need time to fully integrate with the sauce. Add dried herbs at the end and you will be hit with harsh notes of oregano and thyme which will taste separate from the rest of the ingredients. Furthermore, dried parley and dried basil? I don’t think they taste like much of anything, so I would recommend skipping them and sticking with dried herbs which retain their flavors.
However, fresh parsley and basil? Bring them on! Just add them at the end of cooking if you are serving the marinara sauce fresh, or after you’ve reheated the sauce if you are pulling it out of the freezer. In fact, fresh herbs are at their best when stirred in just as you are tossing the sauce with the pasta.
Tip #4 – Use Carrots to Tame Acidity and Add Sweetness
You can use sugar to do this, but why? Unless you have a strong need for marinara RIGHT NOW and not a carrot in the house, always go for the natural sweetness of carrot over the refined sweetness of sugar. You don’t need much, it takes only a moment to chop, and it won’t turn your sauce orange or throw off the flavor balance. One carrot for each two cans of tomatoes is just right.
Tip #5 – Puree to Your Desired Chunkiness
This is where a hand blender comes in so handy! (I love my KitchenAid Hand Blender.) Live in a household where everyone is into smooth sauces? Puree it smooth! Yes, I live in such a household. That’s why the photos are of smooooth sauce. 🙂 Like a rustic, chunky sauce? Give it a few, quick whirs to break up the tomatoes a bit. The great thing about making your sauce is you get to choose!
Extra tip – If you like a fairly chunky sauce, it’s nice to mince up the onions fairly finely. They will melt into the sauce better and not stand out.
Tip #6 – Don’t Worry, Be Happy
There are marinara sauce snobs out there who would like to tell you you’re doing it wrong. (Yes, even marinara sauce has snobs!) That there is only one right way and it’s their way and don’t bother if you are going to do it differently. Now, there is nothing wrong with learning the history of foods and trying to make the best version of the recipe as possible. But your best version may be a bit different from theirs, or from mine, and that’s okay. I just hope my tips and recipe help you to a marina sauce you will happily serve over pasta, ladle on pizza, and enjoy in lasagna.
– Happy Eating, Annemarie
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 carrot diced
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 2 28 oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium low heat until hot. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, salt, oregano, thyme. Reduce the heat to low and let the aromatics sweat and soften until the onions have no resistance to the edge of a spoon, 20-25 minutes.
Add the tomatoes. Increase the heat to bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, and breaking up the tomatoes with your spoon, for 15-20 minutes.
Either puree the sauce right in the pot with a hand blender or transfer it to a blender. Either way, puree the sauce until it's as smooth as you like it.
The nutritional information is an estimate and is included for informational purposes only. Please make your own calculations using your specific ingredients if you need an accurate calorie count.
If you wish to add fresh herbs, such as basil or parsley, add them at the end of cooking or just before serving.
When pureeing, if you are not going for a smooth sauce pulse the blender a few times, then check to see if you're happy with the sauce, and pulse a few more times if you need to.
The recipe can be doubled easily and freezes well. If you want to be able to defrost quickly, freeze the sauce in gallon sized resealable bags and lay it flat.