your new favorite tomato sauce

The Internet is really one big wild card when it comes to – well – just about anything.  From forwarded e-mails to YouTube videos, the rule seems to be that there’s one gem for every one or two hundred throw-aways.  And it’s really rare to come across something truly special.

This is no less true for recipes; you can find a thousand versions of lasagna (or meatloaf or chocolate chip cookies), but good luck stumbling on one that you want to make again, never mind one that you want to make again rightnow. But we keep looking, and keep trying the recipes out, waiting for the one that proves that the Internet is more than information overload, that equivalent of the video we keep watching, the e-mail we just have to send along.

Well, here it is – the Evolution of Dance or dancing hamsters of recipes.  Originating with Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cookery, this brilliantly simple tomato sauce has been passed around the Internet, blogged to death, incorporated into taste-making chefs’ own standards, and praised enthusiastically by cooks and diners the world around.  It’s my go-to sauce these days, and I have yet to serve it without the recipe being requested.

This is a sauce that defies your assumptions about making tomato sauce.  It features only three ingredients – and none of those ingredients are olive oil or garlic.  You barely need a knife, and the sauce requires less than an hour to completely come together.  Honestly, I usually give it about half an hour.  And, despite the simplicity of the ingredient list and the short stint on the stove, the result is a lush, perfectly balanced sauce that makes the tomatoes taste garden fresh, and that leaves you looking for a chunk of bread to sweep up the dregs.

A can of tomatoes, a halved onion, and a chunk of butter.  That’s it, my friends – that, a bit of salt and perhaps sugar to finish things off, and you are good to go.  It makes sense, when you think of it:  the fat and milk proteins in the butter take the edge off of the tomatoes’ acidity, and the onion imparts both a sweetness and a bite.  When the whole lot is done simmering, you can add salt and sugar as necessary to strike that balance that you prefer, and that your tomatoes demand. And that is it.  Really.

And so I become one more blogger raving about Marcella’s tomato sauce with butter and onions.  But it’s too good not to share, so enjoy, and pass it along when someone asks you for it.  Because they will.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
(from Marcella Hazan and most of the food blogosphere)

1 28-ounce can of tomatoes*
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt and sugar, to taste
Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan.  Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary and stirring occasionally (breaking up whole tomatoes, if using them) for 30 to 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomato and the onion is looking rather floppy.  Discard the onion, and break up any remaining large pieces of tomatoes.

Taste and season with salt and sugar as needed.  And, if something seems really wonky, you can always add more butter.  Julia would.  I do.

* I find that San Marzano tomatoes are sweeter and more tender than other varieties, so use them if you can.  The whole thing will still cost you less than $5 to make.  Also, I have used whole canned tomatoes and broken them up with a spoon, I’ve buzzed the final sauce with a stick blender, and I’ve used crushed tomatoes.  The flavor remains the same, and you should choose based on your desired texture.  For grown-ups, I like the chunkiness of the whole tomatoes broken up with a spoon; for kids or dipping, I like the smoother texture of crushed tomatoes or even the blended sauce.
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8 comments
  1. Blair said:

    You have no idea how timely this post was! I’m making this tonight for a tired and hungry girl!

  2. Our family ALWAYS loves when someone enjoys this sauce. Thank you

  3. Whoops, pressed return too early.
    The younger Hazans keep the onion in. It becomes sweet and wonderful. Our children argue about who gets to eat it.

    Bon Appetito.

  4. lou said:

    Making this right now. Couldn’t figure out what free-floating fat droplets would look like, but now I know! Can’t wait to try it!!

  5. meera said:

    just made this for my first time. for some reason i feel like it’s better when you make it, but i seriously doubt my culinary skills! one question – do all canned whole tomatoes come with seeds? that was the only downside to it. oh, that and i still can’t figure out what free floating fat droplets are.

    • Most canned tomatoes do have seeds in them, but I find the San Marzano brands and the Muir Glen brands to be your best options in terms of good pulp, as well as a balanced sweetness-acidity. I also tend to use crushed tomatoes, which probably minimizes the seediness. Also, I don’t always get floating fat either … if you stir a lot, and if you use anything other than whole tomatoes in puree, you probably won’t. Personally, I don’t love the idea of floating fat, but when you use whole tomatoes, it’s a good way to see when the sauce has cooked down enough.

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