This Marcella Hazan-inspired, three-ingredient Tomato Sauce Recipe with Butter and Onions, is a quick and easy pasta sauce, ready in 45 minutes.
Step by Step Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce Recipe with Butter and Onions
When you want a great pasta sauce, then this Tomato Sauce Recipe with Butter and Onions, is just the ticket. Three ingredients, the best sauce—ever!
No, you don’t need a counter full of ingredients to make great pasta sauce, only three ingredients are required for this Marcella Hazan’s-inspired Tomato Sauce Recipe with Butter and Onions.
Long story, short: I was looking for a tomato sauce recipe, not marinara, when I came across this recipe by Marcella Hazan. It looked too good to be true. Three ingredients? San Marzano tomatoes, butter and onion? No way!
My first inclination was to turn away and try another recipe, when I started to read some of the background on Marcella and how she came upon this recipe.
It was an homage to the tomato sauce that she remembered growing up in Cesenatico, Italy. The sauce that her family made was simple, rustic and flavorful. Made with fresh San Marzano tomatoes, well, it doesn’t get any better.
Fast forward and Marcella, a well-known chef and James Beard winner, translated these memories into reality. And this recipe was the result. It was even highlighted in her cookbook: Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, which garnered rave reviews.
So back to why I decided to make this sauce. The reason was that I was tired of paying big bucks to taste the essence of tomatoes nestled in a rich tomatoey sauce—perfect for pasta—or more closely: pasta-perfect. I wanted to make my own authentic Italian sauce from scratch.
It was this challenge I placed upon myself to join the thousands who had come to enjoy this same recipe and keep its memory alive by sharing it with you.
Three Simple Ingredient Tomato Sauce Recipe
This recipe can’t get any simpler: tomatoes: blanched, peeled and chopped or canned whole tomatoes: San Marzano or not; yellow onion that has been peeled and sliced in half, width-wise; and, butter: I will say salted or no-salt version—you choose, only keep in mind that once you place salted butter into the sauce, it cannot be taken out of it.
For me, I prefer to control my salt, so it’s no-salt butter for me.
Start by opening your can of tomatoes or follow the video below to prepare fresh tomatoes for cooking (see next paragraph). I like to use a scissors or even my hands to crush the tomatoes into smaller chunks.
Want to use fresh tomatoes for this recipe? Here’s how:
Note: When using fresh tomatoes (2 1/2 cups), chop them up into small chunks and add approximately 2/3 cup of water, along with the tomatoes.
Then, everything goes into the sauté pan and simmer this for approximately 45 minutes. Stirring occasionally.
I like to move the onion halves around, now and again along with the tomato bits, mashing any offending tomato chunks into the smallest of pieces.
While the tomato sauce cooks, cover the pan.
Note: The original recipe says to cook this sauce without a cover, but my experience has always been a messy stovetop when cooking tomato sauce sans cover and I didn’t want that. Instead, I compromised by allowing some of the steam to escape by tipping the cover ever so slightly.
Covering the pan keeps the mess at bay and the flavors within the sauce.
Do You Need More Ingredients? Some Say Yes—Others No
Here’s the tricky part: not everyone is in agreement whether you should stop at just these three ingredients. Obviously, Marcella Hazan thought so, so I have to side with her, as I’m not from Italy but having tasted great tomato sauce from Italy, many years ago, this is as close to a purist version as ever I tried or made.
After you make this recipe at least once, you decide. There’s really no right or wrong way.
Vinegar and Sugar
Some folks say to add a bit of vinegar and a touch of sugar. Not sure why you need to add more sugar, since here in Wisconsin, our tomatoes tend to come out very sweet, indeed. Even the canned versions seem to be very sweet. But, if you must, go ahead, it’s all right with me.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky…quite a number of folks at Food52 commented that they were taken back by the lack of salt. For me adding too much salt is a no-no for health reasons. So, I’ve acquired a taste for “less is best” when it comes to salt.
That being said, add salt if you like but first taste the sauce it before adding any salt to your pasta sauce. If you find it lacking, then add salt, a pinch at a time.
The trick to good tomato sauce, especially with one that has onions and butter (the salted or non-salted kind), is to balance both the sweetness and saltiness per your taste buds, not mine or someone elses. That’s the way it goes and rightly it should be.
You might be tempted to add more liquid, but I would say wait and see what the sauce looks like after 30 minutes or so of cooking at a simmer.
Really, the recipe should be reduced down to a thick sauce that you should see bits of tomatoes and little liquid.
If you are using canned whole tomatoes, you should have more than enough juice to take it to its end point.
If however, you are using fresh tomatoes, that’s another story. You may have to add a smidgeon, and I mean a smidgeon amount of water. But see how it goes.
And, yes, you could use broth, if you must.
Some folks like spaghetti, others, rigatoni, still others penne and more. Use whatever pasta you like. Purists will say to use thin spaghetti. I’m with the purists on this one.
But keep this in mind: this recipe only ends up making 2 cups of tomato sauce, which relates to approximately four half cup servings to one half amount of cooked pasta (when cooking a 1-lb package). Roughly: one cup of pasta to one-half cup of sauce.
If you want to eat it like the Italians do, then don’t apply more sauce to the pasta, so much so that the pasta is wading (or drowning) in the sauce.
Still, if you like yours with more sauce, then you will need to double the tomato, onion and butter amounts to coincide accordingly, otherwise the sauce will change in taste and consistency.
Onions or No Onions
Use onions. I would suggest trying first Spanish onions (larger) or yellow onions (smaller). These are very flavorful versions and pair well with long cooking times and tomatoes.
Once cooked, some folks like to take the onions out and chop them up and put them back into the sauce. You can do that or do as Marcella suggests and remove the onion altogether.
For me, I removed the onion and used it in a breakfast omelet the next day. Delish!
But what about other onion types? To remain true to the recipe, my recommendation would be to try the recipe as is and then if you want, try it with a red onion or even Vidalia. These may be good options.
More or Less Butter
Onto the butter. Marcella Hazan made her recipe starting with 2 cups of tomatoes and five tablespoons of butter—along with the onion halves, of course.
In my case, I had to improvise, since my canned tomatoes came out to about three cups of tomatoes and juice so I increased the butter amount to a stick of butter or 8 tablespoons.
Don’t be put off by this, you won’t even know there’s butter in this sauce, honestly.
Spice of Life
This sauce is so creamy and flavorful, you’ll wonder how you ever pulled off this recipe without adding garlic, basil, oregano—just to name a few.
But there’s no one who will stop you if you feel you need to add a pinch of this or that.
All I ask is that you give this sauce a chance on its own. Make this sauce per the instructions below and then add any additional spice(s), vinegar, sugar, salt, etc. once the sauce has come to completion. You’ll get better results by far than trying to concoct something ahead of time.
Remember, if we go back to the beginning of this long story, short version, it really has to do with rustic simplicity and this sauce is that and more.
Give this recipe a try and let me know what you think in the comments below. Enjoy!
For more delicious Italian-inspired dishes, be sure to check out Wisconsin Homemaker’s Recipe Section.
Tomato Sauce Recipe with Butter and Onions
- 28 oz whole tomatoes canned
- 1 Spanish onion peeled and sliced in half
- 8 tbsp butter
- 1/2 lb dry spaghetti cook to package instructions
- Parmesan-Reggiano grated (optional)
- Open can of tomatoes and crush or cut them into small pieces with a scissors.
- Peel and cut onion. Place that along with the tomatoes and butter into a large sided fry pan or sauce pan.
- Cook on a simmer (covered slightly) for approximately 45 minutes. Stirring occasionally.
- Cook until the sauce is thick. Remove onion if wanted, or chop into small pieces and add to sauce.
- Spoon sauce over cooked pasta. Serve with grated Parmesan-Reggiano. Enjoy!