The Original & Still The Best Marinara Tomato Sauce
Updated: Feb 20
Everyone has their own version of a "Simply The Best" pasta sauce and why not? We all have individual preferences and tastes. I too have a go-to way of making my sauce but that's for another post. Every so often, I take myself back to basics and re-calibrate my pasta sauce making prowess. This can be useful, as over the years, you tweak, play and adjust your sauces. Then they become something new and not the original and that's great. That's how recipes evolve but it's important not to lose the roots that our new gastronomic advances grow from. Marinara sauce is a great example of that.
The first recorded Italian tomato sauce was published in 1692 in a cookbook called "The Modern Steward" by Chef Antonio Latini. Antonio was the Steward of the Minister to the Spanish Viceroy of Naples no less. The recipe is similar in nature to what we would call a Tomato Salsa today.
Marinara sauce is also often confused with Italian seafood pasta, and the reason for that is Marinara literally translates as "Mariner" and legend has it, that the wives of Italian seafarers would make pasta with tomato sauce for their husbands to welcome them home from their voyages. So you will see Spaghetti Marinara on many an Italian restaurant menu but when you do, you can now earn some Food Factoid Points by nerdily explaining that the Marinara bit is about the fisherman and not the fish itself. Then prepare yourself for nobody to care....at all.
One of the things I love most about Italian cooking (And in this way, is also how I feel about Cantonese cooking) is that it's elegance is in it's simplicity. Just a few ingredients brought together in a measured and thoughtful way to create a balance of flavours. I haven't met many people who don't like a good bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce with a sprinkling Parmigiano Reggiano and the reason for that is exactly that simple intentional balance of ingredients. At face value it's a really easy and simple to make sauce but that's where the genius lies, in that if you're going to serve your guest a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and cheese, then it better be perfect or it might as well be Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti out of a tin! I should note at this point, one of my #GuiltyPleasures is tinned spaghetti on buttered toast with cheddar cheese on top. Stop judging me.
Despite literally thousands of different versions of Marinara sauce across the interweb, the "OG" has just 5 ingredients:
Canned Plum Tomatoes (San Marzano if you can get them)
Dried Oregano or Basil (Based on our preference. If you can't decide, use both)
The eagle eyed among you will have noticed that I haven't put any measurements against the ingredients. There is good reason for that. We're going to use our senses to balance the sauce and adjust each element around the tomatoes until we have something beautiful. Let your palate do the hard work, come on, you can do this!
We're going to work around an amount of tomatoes as this recipe is infinitely scalable. I can also recommend that if you're going to take your time and make something this good, make a lot of it, it will save in the fridge for up to a week or can be frozen for however long frozen things can be frozen for, I'd guess 3-6 months. For the purposes of this exercise I'll be using two 400g / 12oz cans, which will make enough for Spaghetti & Meatballs for 4.
OK, down to business:
Start with a medium saucepan under a low heat
Add just enough Olive Oil to cover the bottom of the pan
Add the same amount of Olive Oil again (I know it looks like a lot, trust me)
Peel 2 cloves of garlic , chop them into 4 pieces each (8 pieces in total) and add them to the pan
Slowly fry the garlic (Reminder: Low Heat) until it's browned but not burning (if you let it burn the sauce will taste acrid)
With a slotted spoon, remove the garlic pieces and set aside
Add the tomatoes to the garlic oil and stir gently to emulsify the oil and tomatoes
Increase the heat to medium
Continue to stir the tomatoes until they come up to a simmer, the oil should still be visible at the sides of the pan, this is good and will stop it from sticking, if it is sticking or the oil is not visible, add a little more.
Continue to stir until the sauce begins to thicken and is no longer watery
Reduce the heat to low
Add a good pinch of salt, stir for 30 seconds and then taste
Repeat until you have the seasoning correct to your taste
Repeat the same process with the Oregano / Basil
Taste for Garlic, this is not meant to be a dish heavy in Garlic but if you feel it needs more, finally chop up your browned garlic pieces from earlier, one at a time, stir and taste until you get the flavour profile you like.
You're sauce is complete
Tips & Tricks
The first tip here is know when to stop. Their is only so much you can lift the flavours and there is a temptation to keep adding to it - Stop!
Trigger happy emotions by creating a reminiscent smell of every great Italian Restaurant you've ever been to by adding a liberal spoonful of Parmesan cheese to the sauce whilst it's cooking. By adding a little of the worlds favourite Italian cheese to your sauce, you create a pungent aroma of cheese, garlic, tomato and herbs which is present in every good Trattoria, Osteria and Pizzeria in the world. Always remember, we eat with our eyes and our nose before our mouth.
Too Acidic - if you find it to be acidic or sour tasting, a pinch of sugar will help and is actually standard in my personal recipe. If you're more into the Italian-American style of food rather than traditional Italian, this is a must do. Again go slow, you can add but you can't take away If it does get a little too sweet you can add more tomatoes and re-adjust the seasonings
Good ingredients - Like me, you're probably sick of being told to buy only the best ingredients, know where your food came from, go Organic and know the provenance of your food. I get it, and recognise the good intent but not everyone can afford to buy the best. My advice is buy the best you can but at a minimum for this dish; Use fresh garlic and not the pre-prepared stuff and use at least an olive oil blend. There's very little variance in quality for dried herbs and lets face it, apart from the advice to buy San Marzano tomatoes if you can to stick with tradition, a canned tomato is much the same as any other and I refuse to believe there is a mass variation in quality. OK, rant over, you get my point.
Add Fresh Basil at the end. This is also a favourite twist (although not exactly innovative) of mine. I make the sauce with dried Oregano but keep the spicing light. When the sauce is cooked but still warm, I chop a bunch of basil leaves and stir them in to add a slight aniseed note.
Spice it up - This sauce is super flexible and can be the base for 100's of recipes. If you intend to use this sauce for purposes of a spicy nature, add a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes at the same time you add the tomatoes or for the spice aficionado, Cayenne Pepper will put a pep in your step and a zing in your swing but be careful, I have ruined many a dish when being too liberal with the CP.
Add a Smokey note - If you're fancying more of a Hungarian Goulash or Texas BBQ kinda vibe, a nice teaspoon full of Smoked Paprika will do it, and for even more, if you can get it where you are, a drop or two of liquid smoke
Bacon - I loves me some bacon! And this dish loves a little bit of bacon grease in substitute for a little (Not all) of the olive oil. Check out my other recipes for my absolute favourite pasta sauce, the very aptly titled My Favorite Smoky Bacon Pasta Sauce (Call a spade a spade people)
Thickening - The secret to most pasta sauce consistencies is understanding that canned tomatoes when heated vigorously will naturally thicken as the water boils off. You don't need to add anything other than patience and there is no joy in eating watery pasta because you couldn't wait 5 more minutes. Shame on you! The laws of physics means it will always thicken it just needs a little time. However, be careful not to let it go too long as a super thick tomato sauce will have you reaching for the Antacid quicker than you can say "Ooof, my heartburn is playing up". If you do let it go too far, taste to make sure you don't detect an acrid burnt taste (in which case, proceed to the bin, do not pass go and do not collect 200 pounds.), if it's good, add a splash of water to loosen it up and adjust your seasonings again.
Top Uses For This Recipe
Spaghetti & Meatballs
Lasagne meat sauce
Smoky Bacon Pasta Sauce
Eggplant Parmigiana Towers
Either way, I'm pretty sure you already have a go-to pasta sauce as every avid home cook has one, my advice though is; go back to the original once in a while, it might remind you why the originals are often still the best.
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