Superior Spaghetti Sauce

NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.

Have you looked at the ingredients of canned tomato/spaghetti sauces lately? You’d think they would be very simple, but surprisingly they have some hidden and unnecessary ingredients. Even Trader Joe’s organic marinara sauce has soybean oil in it, as well as parmesan cheese; I don’t find the cheese offensive per se, but does it have to be in there? So, I decided it was time to share an easy, tasty sauce of my own, which you can use as the foundation to any tomato-based sauce.

Although tomatoes arrived in Europe from the New World in the 16th century, tomato-based sauces didn’t start appearing on record until the 1790s. There is a staggering amount of variation to this seemingly simple sauce, with names to boot: In the US, marinara can mean just a tomato-based sauce, but in Italy it often refers to a seafood dish. The term tomato sauce also refers to any tomato-based sauce, except in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where it refers to ketchup (pasta sauce is the proper term there). Neapolitan is a meatless tomato sauce, linked to southern Italy. A ragù is a tomato sauce with meat (often referred to as bolognese sauce outside of Italy). Finally, call me old-fashioned, but I just like to call it spaghetti sauce.

yields approx. four cups

You’ll Need:
1 carrot, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
1 tsp each fresh chopped oregano, basil, and parsley
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
1 8oz can tomato sauce
1 6oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup full-bodied red wine (cabernet sauvignon preferred)
1 bay leaf

Using a food chopper or processor, mince the carrots, celery, and onion. This is your soffritto, which is the Italian version of mirepoix. The main separation between the two is that soffritto is usually cooked in olive oil, while mirepoix is cooked in butter. Okay, moving on.

In a pan, warm the olive oil on med/low heat, then add the soffitto. Sauté for about five minutes, until softened. You can tell that they’re ready when the carrots start to lose their color and the onions become somewhat translucent.

Next, add the minced garlic, salt and pepper, and herbs (fresh and dried), stirring together. Sauté for another two minutes.

Transfer everything to a pot, returning to the stove on medium heat.

Next, add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for at least an hour, two hours being ideal. Stir the pot every 20 minutes or so to make sure that everything is cooking evenly.

Really, that’s it. Remove the bay leaf and serve. If the sauce gets too thick for your liking, you can add more tomato sauce, red wine, or stock to thin it out.

So, there you have it. A simple, foolproof tomato-based sauce that can be put to wide use. Feel free to experiment with some of its flavors, here are some quick ideas:

– Add 1 tsp chopped red chili peppers when adding the garlic and herbs, to make an Arrabbiata sauce.
– Add 1 lb of ground beef, pork, sausage, or a beef/pork mixture to the soffritto (be sure to drain off some of the extra fat before adding the garlic and herbs) to make a Bolognese sauce.
– Add canned clams (juice included) and other seafood when adding the tomatoes to make a more traditional Marinara sauce.
– Add chopped mushrooms and/or zucchini when adding the garlic and herbs for some added texture.
– Add another 1 tbsp fresh chopped basil or oregano a few minutes before serving to make a more distinctly-flavored sauce.
– Add 1/4 cup cream during the last hour of cooking to make a Vodka sauce.
– Stir in 2 tbsp grated parmesan during the last five minutes of cooking for a little added tanginess.
– Gently blend the sauce with an immersion blender near the end of cooking to make a chunk-free sauce (goes great on pizza).
– Add 1/2 tsp lemon juice to raise the sauce’s acidity and can them using a water bath for 45 minutes (here is an old post of mine with more explicit instructions).

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52 thoughts on “Superior Spaghetti Sauce

  1. Can I make one earthshaking suggestion? You write “1 28oz can diced tomatoes,” but what canned tomatoes you use really matters. Get SAN MARZANO tomatoes. You’ll probably have to go to Whole Foods (though I have seen them once or twice at Safeway), and they’ll cost 2-3 times as much as Hunts or store brand. But I swear on the bible, the difference is MINDBLOWING.

    Indeed, if you make anything with canned tomatores, San Marzano’s will take it from home cooking to fine dining every time. Chili is a good example, though the recipe that benefits the most is Cioppino. Cioppino with quality fish and San Marzanos is the best dish I can cook, and it’s not because I’m skilled . . . .


  2. With two giant, I mean GIANT zucchini staring me in the face every morning, I know that spaghetti has been around the corner. Proud to be a kitchen gadget gizmo dork, I LOVE my spiralizer! This sauce looks amazing! Do you think a Malbec would be too light for the sauce? I just ask because we opened a bottle last night that we haven’t finished.


  3. Your introduction seems well researched. Being Italian I have strong views on tomato sauce and when in the US I always thought Americans over do it most of the times, using too many ingredients and killing the flavors. Maybe nothing tastes bland if you start with top quality ingredients and you seasoned it right. Yes , ragu’ is with meat, either alla bolognese with ground meat or in the Southern style with chunks of different meats. Bolognese outside Italy is particularly mistreated, it’s far less red, tomato is barely there and often has some chicken liver in the soffritto and used to have “ovarine” =eggs embryos.

    A tomato sauce simple with a sofritto, it is often called “sugo finto” faux sauce.
    I like this one a lot
    i don’t see why you want something acidic as wine in a tomato sauce that it is already acidic whithout having any fatty meat in there.

    BTW , I don’t want to sound petulant and Russ, I really like your style, it’ s a well done blog, that goes to the point not just for the audience.



    1. Hi Francesca, thanks for sharing! No offense taken, trust me. I had a hard time researching this recipe, mostly because there are so many varying opinions about what makes a good, basic sauce! :) My reason for adding a little wine to the sauce was based on the boldness I tasted when it was added. True, the acidity probably is raised, but I didn’t find it to be a bad thing in the dish, when paired with something like pasta or meat. Again, thank you for sharing your perspective, and for visiting the blog!


  4. OK, this is the second recipe I’ve tried that both my husband and I consider “keepers.” The other was your shepherds pie. Glad I bookmarked your site, looking forward to more delicious meals! Thanks so much.


  5. Just joined your board and this was my first recipe to try and it is amazing and perfect!! Thank you, looking forward to trying the rest!


  6. This is very similar to my sauce recipe. The main difference is the wine. I use a white [whatever we have been drinking that isn’t too sweet] and simmer the soffritto in it. When almost dry add the rest of the ingredients and complete the simmering. I don’t think it bumps up the acidity unreasonably.


  7. You can skip the garlic all together, there’s enough flavor from the soffritto, wine and tomatoes, the garlic will just cover it up, you don’t need oregano either, one herb is enough, basil or parsley, depending, add when the sauce is done or almost done. If you don’t over season your dish you let the flavor of the fresh ingredients shine through. If you don’t over cook the herb(s) you get more flavor out of them also. You may think it will be too bland without garlic but have you ever tried it? This is how I learned to make pasta sauce in Naples where they were complaining about how Northern Europeans always put way too much garlic in everything. And you only need canned peeled tomatoes, not 3 different canned preparations, the peeled tomatoes will disintegrate somewhat and give it a good consistency. White wine works very well also, even for a red sauce, some red wines will make it taste yeasty.


  8. i love your sauce dude..
    I only can say WoW to the taste..!
    but is there anything i can replace for wine bcoz im muslim..i dont put wine into the sauce..


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