Sep 8th 2015

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

It’s the heart of tomato season and pantries everywhere, no less my own, are overflowing with incredibly ripe tomatoes of every size, shape, and variety. If you’re at all like me, the sheer number of options and possible uses is enough to make you go a little bit crazy. While that’s certainly a good problem to have, sometimes it’s nice to fall back on old favorites. It’s even better when those old favorites are versatile enough to be used as a building block for countless variations. With that in mind, here’s a little ode to my all-time favorite tomato recipe, Marcella Hazan’s classic “Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter.”

  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled (or unpeeled, if you don’t mind tomato skins) and chopped OR 28oz can of whole tomatoes, cut up with their juice
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt to taste (optional)

  1. Put the tomatoes in a medium saucepan and add the butter and onion.
  2. Cook uncovered at a light, but constant simmer, stirring from time to time, for as little as 40 minutes, or until the sauce reaches your desired consistency and the butterfat has separated and floats free from the tomato.
  3. Taste and season to your desired level of saltiness.
  4. Remove onion halves and discard or, better yet, reserve for another use. *
  5. Serve over freshly cooked pasta and top with some of your favorite grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

*I’ve always loved these sweet and mild, tomato-y onions by themselves on some toast, but they’re also great on salads.

-Use the 40 minutes of simmering as the lowest end and go from there. I’ve had great results letting the tomatoes go on a bare simmer for about two and a half to three hours.

-You can pretty easily scale things up or down, but be aware that it’s probably best to add a small fraction less butter to the sauce as you multiply. That said, this is probably a matter of taste, so feel free to experiment.

-Speaking of which, feel free to experiment; in fact, I almost demand that you do so. Like your sauce a little less sweet and a little more assertive? Add only one half onion or only three tablespoons of butter. Like things sweeter, but not as rich? Buy a larger onion or a sweeter variety of onion and cut down on the butter. And so on and so on.

The simplicity of this sauce is where the genius lies. It contains three, four ingredients at most and they all work in service of the tomatoes. It’s both easy to make – it won’t test the technical ability of even the most novice of cooks – and relatively quick to complete – it’s at most ten to fifteen minutes of active time and it can take as little as forty-five minutes from start to finish. Another positive attribute this sauce has is its versatility along several dimensions. One aspect of this quality is that perhaps my favorite way to use this sauce is not as a sauce qua sauce, but rather as a base for other sauces. Want to make a great pasta all'amatriciana? Thinly slice some onions and garlic, sauté them in olive oil with some lightly browned guanciale, and add a batch of the sauce and you won’t be disappointed. Looking for something a little bit sweeter and creamier? Sauté some garlic and a touch of tomato paste in olive oil, add some vodka and let it come to a boil, add a batch of the sauce and a good bit of cream and you won’t understand why you ever made it any other way.

Another way in which the sauce is versatile is that it works as well with fresh tomatoes as it does with canned tomatoes. Certainly, it’s a joy to use fresh tomatoes and one would be silly not to do so when, as now, they’re at their peak, but this recipe is also perfect with canned tomatoes on a cold winter night. Indeed, it’s one of the easiest ways I can think of to bring you and your loved ones the warmth of the summer. So, please do yourself a favor and try this recipe out. It elevates even the most basic canned tomatoes to a delightful taste of summer, but give it beautifully fresh and ripe summer tomatoes and you’ll be blown away by the results.

Jesse Galdston wears many hats at Formaggio Kitchen. You can find him behind the cheese counter, coordinating deliveries, or concocting new drink recipes.