Tomato sauces captured by Donna Turner Ruhlman

A basic tomato sauce is easy and delicious on its own and an elegant cooking tool as well. Braise beef, pork or lamb in it, add it to ground meat for a pasta sauce, poach eggs in it. It’s delicious plain. I returned from New York on Friday and saw a 24-ounce jar of a “celebrity chef” sauce on the counter. Donna said, “It’s really good.”  Then added, “But it cost nine dollars.” Make your own—50% more sauce, 50% of the cost, 100% more pleasure.

The above photo shows the difference between a tomato sauce cooked raw, top, and a tomato sauce made by sauteing the tomatoes before pureeing and cooking them.  Both work fine. The fresh sauce tastes fresh and raw, the sauce made with cooked tomatoes has more depth and complexity. If you have the time, saute halved tomatoes, or better, broil them before pureeing.  When using canned tomatoes, and I use canned all winter long, there’s no need to cook them ahead of time; I often puree them right in the can with a hand blender. (For canned, I try to use Muir Glen or tomatoes from San Marzano, but if there’s a sale on more commercial brands, I buy that.)

Make a double batch on a Sunday, use half for pasta that night, use the other half to braise a pot roast or lamb shanks on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Homemade Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes or 2 pounds Roma tomatoes
  • 1 Spanish onion, diced or sliced, sauteed in a little butter till softened
  • four-fingered pinch kosher salt, or more to taste

Optional:

  • 1 bunch fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon good quality dried oregano
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  1. Put the tomatoes, sauteed onion and salt in a blender and puree until the tomatoes are smooth, 30 seconds or so (you can roast or saute fresh tomatoes before hand if you wish).
  2. Pour the tomatoes into a medium sauce pan, add any optional ingredients you want to use and simmer on low for 1 hour.

Yield: 3 to 4 cups of sauce.

If you liked this post on homemade tomato sauce, check out these other posts:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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89 Wonderful responses to “Tomato Sauce”

  • Molly

    Oh wow! I am going to try this recipe with canned tomatoes this week, and then bookmark it for August and try it with the fresh Roma. Can’t wait!

  • Troy Banks

    The fish sauce is a curious addition I’ve never thought of adding.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    Troy Banks
    The fish sauce is a curious addition I’ve never thought of adding.

    My cooking has improved tremendously since I started using fish sauce in everything! Umami!!!! LOL

    • Carri

      funny fish sauce story. One of the young prep cooks was complaining about the smell of fish sauce, so the chef, a bit of joker, now sneaks a drop or two onto the guys collar every day so he walks around now wondering why all he smells is fish. everyone in on the joke but him. Kitchens are fun.

    • Ken

      I always have anchovy paste available. It has the same effect and adds depth of flavor to a wide variety of savory dishes.

  • Dan

    Oh, how I love the San Marzano. It’s something to look at the ingredients of a can of tomatoes and see “tomatoes and one basil leaf.”

  • Scordo

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for posting, I think we’ve exchanged twitter communications on basic tomato sauce. Our family’s version, based on our canned tomatoes, is similar, minus the butter: http://www.scordo.com/2009/03/how-to-make-tomatoe-sauce-meat-gravy-sanmarzano-plum-best-recipe-italian-food-recipes.html

    A few observations: I would include dry oregano and freshly ground black pepper as an essential and swap the butter as an option (using olive oil to cook the onions). Also, I know it’s easier to use a blender but a food mill will yield a better consistency in my humble opinion. I also think simmering the tomatoes with onion, olive oil, and salt, PRIOR to blending / using the food mill is important. My two, Italian, cents.

  • Susan @ SGCC

    Very interesting! I would have never thought to put fish sauce in tomato sauce. My Nonna would turn over in her grave if she knew! I sometimes do dissolve a few anchovies in my olive oil and sauteed onions, though.
    Also, I’ve never pureed the onions right in with the tomatoes. Is there a specific reason for doing this?

  • Yogi

    Michael, do you mean “I often puree them right in the can”? It says “OVEN puree” which sounds fascinating. :-)

  • Charles Shaw

    I’m with you 100% on this. I can’t remember the last time I bought spaghetti sauce. It’s just too darn easy to make your own. Fish sauce eh?! I’ll give it a spin.

    • ruhlman

      type onion doesn’t matter, i use spanish because they’re big. can use red if you wish, or yellow or sweet.

  • Marc

    Michael, I Know your over overwhelmed with posts but PLEASE, respond to the last couple posts under the Canadian Bacon header!
    Thank you!

  • Caroline

    I just bought my first home, and this is the first thing I want to make in my new kitchen. Coming from an Italian family, nothing says “home” more like the scent of gently simmering tomatoes. And lucky me, I still have a bag of frozen choped tomatoes from my parents’ summer vegetable garden.

  • Victoria

    Michael, after reading a post from Cream Puffs in Venice on “doing the tomatoes,” I started making enough plain tomato sauce when glorious tomatoes are in season to last me till the next season. I grow some of my own, but for the last two years I have also gone to Moses Farm (yes, Grandma Moses) in Eagle Bridge, New York, to pick four bushels of beautiful, sun-ripened tomatoes. I wash the tomatoes, cut them up, put them in a 12-quart pot with some olive oil and Maldon Salt, and cook until I feel they are done. I have an Italian tomato press that I got a long time ago from Williams-Sonoma. It’s easier to use for tomatoes than a food mill because the sauce comes out one side, and the skin and seeds come out the other, so you don’t have to clean it until you’re done with the whole pot. I put the cooked tomatoes through the press and cool them on the counter using shallow bowls to hasten the cooling process. I freeze them in one-cup increments in pint Ziplock bags; that way they stack flat in the freezer. They are so delicious and wonderful to have on hand, especially on a gloomy winter day, which we have had our share of this year.

  • Ethan

    you can never go wrong with homemade!
    Great capture of the steam rising from the pot:)

  • Marc

    Agreed. But we are still talking about a significant change in procedure. Which is fine. I understand. But I would like some science, “so to speak” to qualify this change

  • Mantonat

    One of my favorite ways of making sauce is to halve the tomatoes, arrange them flat in a pyrex pan, add some salt, olive oil, and a few cloves of garlic, then roast them in the oven for an hour or so – until the juices are caramelizing a little. After that I just hit them with a stick blender and a little more salt if needed. It’s so good, I usually just eat it with a soft loaf of Italian bread. Works pretty well with whole canned tomatos too. I don’t bother peeling or straining if I am using fresh tomatos.

  • Jason Sandeman

    I love using the last of my marzano tomatoes for the sauce. My marinate has only 5 ingredients: garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, white wine, and time. That’s alll you really need.

  • AntoniaJames

    Have you ever tried waiting to put the oregano in until the last fifteen minutes of cooking, and if so, does it make any difference one way or the other? In his classic “The New York Times Cookbook” (1961 ed.), Craig Claiborne recommends that you wait until the end of the simmer to add the herbs. (I always add a bay leaf at the outset, but believe that bay is different, by its nature.) If you haven’t compared the results using his method, I’ll do a side-by-side test, and will let you know. Many thanks. ;o)

    • ruhlman

      general rule is to add “hard” herbs, herbs with tough stems, early and soft herbs at the last minutes.

  • Cecelia Heer

    Hi Michael:
    At first I was taken aback to read nam pla (fish sauce) as an ingredient, but then realized it could potentially take the place of anchovies, which I typically use in my marinaria sauce. (I am making today for lobster fra diavolo). Interesting. And I thought shredded carrots were unique (ala Mario Batali) in a sauce. I’ll give it a try.

  • jspecht

    Hi Michael, Would never think of fish sauce, but, just bought some. Will try it. I like a slightly sweet sauce, so I caramelize my onions in a tiny bit of brown sugar. Also, I always use Muir Glen organic tomatoes, the fire roasted are fabulous. They are worth the extra money and occasionally go on sale. They are also fabulous in home-made soups.

  • Mike

    When broiling or sauteing the tomatoes, do you do it with the skin already removed?

  • Rhonda

    Ruhlman;

    As you know, the addition of fish sauce to this recipe is controversial.

    What region is this from?

    What was the tomato sauce (with fish sauce) intended for?

    Pasta or other fish dishes, I understand. With beef, as in a braise, does it work?

    I love the breaking of rules as you know. You CAN have cheese with a fish sauced pasta in Italy and live to tell about it.

    Please don’t lead people along to give them hope that they can go to Safeway in mid America in March, buy “fresh genetically engineered tomatoes” and make a decent sauce. Can’t be done. The tomatoes are out of season and shite. Buy canned tomatoes. …San Marzano.

    Also, I am worried that people will run to Safeway after reading this and buy bottled fish sauce intended for Asian dishes. I don’t think this will yield the result they were looking for. Are you talking about slowly melting anchovies in olive oil as a base?

    • Erika

      Can’t speak for whether it’s the result Michael was looking for, but I just added fish sauce (yes, the kind for Vietnamese food) to a tomato-based beef stew that was way too sour-tomato flavored. Worked like a charm! Can’t taste fish per se, but brought all of the beefy wonderfulness to the foreground. Yay, umami!

  • Peter

    Kick it up a notch by making a mire poix, deglazing with red wine, adding chicken or veal stock, reducing and only then adding the tomatoes.

  • Elisa

    Growing up in a Sicilian household, I had never purchased jarred commercial tomato sauce until I moved out on my own and was looking for a shortcut. Bad choice! I much prefer my own sauce, and I even have specific brands of canned tomatoes that just “taste right” to me. My family recipe does not actually use onions. We saute two cloves of garlic, crushed, in olive oil, then add the tomatoes. Salt, pepper, and a bit of sugar to taste, although I don’t add any sugar if I am using San Marzano tomatoes. I add copious amounts of basil and no oregano, although my grandmother’s recipe calls for both herbs. We do not use fish sauce or anchovies, but I admit that sounds intriguing.

  • Bill J

    What’s with the Roma tomatoes? My experience is that they are generally tough, less desireable when tomatoes are in season and inferior to a good canned product (Muir Glen) in the off season. I think that their only attribute is that the ones in the bottom of the container trucks are still saleable.

  • Ellendra

    During the summer when it’s just me, I sometimes make a cheater-sauce, just toss 8-10 cherry tomatoes in the skillet as I’m frying up a hamburger patty. By the time the meat is done they should be ready, just smoosh them with a fork, add a sprinkling of salt, and use that in place of ketchup for your burger.

  • Carolyn Z

    Here I am off topic once again. I did a little research for popular bread through pastries cookbooks. May I recommend “Flour” and also “Baking.” These are from 2010.

    Does Bouchon have quick breads/muffins as well? Then perhaps the Tartine cookbook from 2007. Some books with which to start.

    Hope this helps.
    Carolyn Z

    • ruhlman

      thanks, and yes the new baking book will have muffins as well as macarons and laminated doughs.

  • Kimber

    Authentic sauce has to include GARLIC- sauted with the onions, and all the rest, stirred and simmered with love is the best…..

  • Paul

    Didn’t have time to read the comments so sorry if this is a repeat.

    Always try to seed tomatoes, especially canned, before puree’ing them. Seeds are what makes sauce bitter, especially when the seeds are broken up.

  • rockandroller

    Can you or any of the other posters elaborate on why you like the San Marzanos more than any other type of canned? I’ve suggested the switch to a couple of people and they all report back they can’t tell any difference other than the high prices.

    I’ve almost given up making my own sauce anymore because of the BPA in cans. I just can’t get past it. Is this an issue for anyone else? I tried making sauce with those ones that come in a waxed cardboard box but they were HORRIBLE. I suppose the commercial jarred sauce is made from canned tomatoes so I’m not saying myself any exposure? Anyone care to comment on that either?

    • Mantonat

      For someone who chose the screen name rockandroller, you sure don’t have a very rock and roll attitude. Live fast, die young! Eat canned tomatoes!

      • rockandroller

        I love rock music, I don’t love cancer or artificially inflated hormone levels. Not sure what one has to do with the other.

        • Mantonat

          True. I suppose as a rockandroller, you are far more likely to die from a heroin overdose before you can consume enough canned tomatoes to affect your health.

      • aaron

        to which i would add- jeez, use the jarred tomato sauce- what time are you people getting home from work with all your growing your tomatoes then roasting the tomatoes… hilariously the above post is to your other posts what your posts are to normal peoples’ lives.

        • Mantonat

          I get home from work at about 5:30 every day. I can prep tomatoes and throw them in the oven in less than ten minutes. It takes about an hour to roast the tomatoes the way I like them, so I take the dogs for a walk while they roast. When I get back, it’s just a few more minutes to hit them with the stick blender and start eating. The only problem is that I usually burn the roof of my mouth because the tomatoes smell too good to wait. Maybe I should squeeze in some worrying or being afraid of shit while the tomatoes cool.
          When people say they don’t have time to cook because of all the other stuff in their lives, I respond by saying I don’t have time for all the other stuff because I have to cook. The two most elemental things in life are finding enough food to eat and then eating it.

    • ruhlman

      I agree! Stop worrying! Worry about your kid and BPAs, not yourself. San Marzano are the traditional choice. Any good quality tomato will do.

    • Rhonda

      The San Marzano tomatoes are region specific in Italy. It is the magic of the sun, soil (volcanic) and light that make them fleshier and with fewer seeds than the rest. They are also sweeter.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    rockandroller
    Can you or any of the other posters elaborate on why you like the San Marzanos more than any other type of canned?

    San Marzanos are highly over rated, IMHO.
    Any well flavored tomato will do.
    I use a blend of home grown tomatoes with Opalka being the foundation.

    Marcella Hazan’s Simple Tomato Sauce recipe from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” is essentially the same, but with more butter..LOL….tomatoes, butter, onion, salt…I’ve used her recipe for years.

    http://www.cookingsf.com/cookingsf/2010/03/marcella-hazan-simple-tomato-sauce.html

    • Rhonda

      Opalkas rock. However, they don’t can them and sell them conveniently (if anywhere).

      You should can and sell.

  • Dan at FoodieLawyer

    We haven’t purchased tomato sauce in ten years, and our recipe is fairly similar. Sauté onion in a good bit of olive oil until translucent, add a few cloves of chopped garlic and cook for a few minutes, and then add crushed canned tomatoes and cook for an hour or two, with two bay leaves. Instead of a regular blender we use an immersion blender – the “motor boat” – to blend the sauce (after removing the bay leaves). Lots of salt, and then a few splashes of red wine vinegar to brighten up the sauce.

    I’m going to try the fish sauce, as we’re big fans of it but have never tried it in tomato sauce. Thanks for yet another excellent post!

  • Cecelia Heer

    Interesting to read all the comments. As we all know, the food industry is 85% opinion, particularly in the restaurants. I would say this statistic is applicable to cooking, as well. Again, as far as the “fish sauce” comments go, many of which were quite interesting to read, anchovies were being used in marinara sauce for many decades.

  • Victoria Allman

    This recipe makes a beautiful addition to chicken cacciatore. Smooth and tasty.
    Thanks for posting! I’m adding it to my list of favorites.
    victoria allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey With Her Captain

  • Jerzee Tomato

    Fresh basil for me is absolutely necessary. Muir Glen never tastes good to me its watery and tin like in flavor. I also do not see garlic in the recipe. I use good tomato paste as the tangy note and deglaze the onions and tomato paste with a nice full bodied wine. Using fresh tomatoes is a significant difference. I am not so sure about fish sauce like Susan I just think its outside my comfort zone with my preparation which is generations old. Call me a knot head but I don’t screw with what is not broken.

  • Gita

    Is there any other replacement to fish sauce?? I m not gng to get this one in India…lovely recipe though!! :)

  • aaron

    This is beyond ridiculous. I don’t know what time you people get home at the end of the day or if you’re all stay at home bloggers/”cooks” but there’s a place for great jarred sauces and they aren’t all anathema. Of course, this will be erased as it was before because posts antithetical to the ruhlman “grow your own lettuce! cure your own bacon!” food-nazi stance cannot be tolerated.

    • ruhlman

      aaron, settle down. first and foremost, I never delete posts unless they’re inappropriate. Differing views are desired! Second, I’m not saying you should never use bottled sauce, only that making your own is easy and costs a quarter of what you buy premade. I’ve bought bottled sauce when I knew I needed it and wouldn’t have time to make it.

    • Meaghan

      The recipe seems pretty simple to me, you could always do it on the weekend too. Why read a blog about cooking if you don’t think you have the time to cook?

    • mark

      Maybe while youre scouring the internet for places to spread your vitriol you could have a can of san marzanos reducing on the stovetop. Two birds with one stone type of thing.

    • Rachel

      I’m a pediatrics resident; I only work 80 hours a week. I make my own sauce and everything else from scratch. I plan ahead, make a whole bunch and freeze it. I also choose to spend more time in the kitchen. Hopefully I’ll be able to maintain these from scratch standards with my own kids. Hopefully.

    • Tim F

      I work full time with a long commute, run my own business in the evenings, have a 6 month old baby, and I still find time to cook for my family, cure my own bacon, make wine, and yes make my own tomato sauce (with home grown tomatoes).
      It’s all about priorities :)

  • Angela Alaimo

    Why not make a big pot of sauce on the weekend or whenever you have the time? Store in refrigerator to use sooner or in the freezer for later.

    PS: I put the tomatoes thru a food mill before cooking and will avoid arguing over recipes. :-)

  • Cecelia Heer

    Nothing is better than home made sauces, stocks or broths. And, Michael is right. I did a cost-analysis on the price of store versus home made products. Literally right down to the measurement of a dash of salt or pepper, which is included. Nothing is better than fully controlling the ingredients. The final result is well worth it.

  • Vic

    Costco has San Marzanos in a 104oz(I think) can for about $3.35. I make a lot of sauce and freeze most of it. It’s easy, delicious AND cheap!

  • Johnny Toronto

    We grow all manner of Heirloom tomatoes and make gallons of the stuff. My favourite sauce for a shellfish based pasta, however, uses a yellow fruit, usually Lemon Boy. Way sweeter and less acidic, it lets the subtle flavours of the shellfish shine. If making a rustic pasta, say with a Wild Boar or Donkey sausage, I cut red heirlooms in quarters and slow smoke them over oak chips on my Green Egg before saucing them.

  • Beth

    I froze about 20 quarts of homemade tomato sauce (some with 3 peppers, some with basil & vodka, some with oregano) last summer. All were made in our slow cooker over various weekends with the haul from the farmers’ market, then pureed with the hand blender. It takes a commitment to get to the market, get home & get it in the cooker, but from there it mostly takes care of itself.

  • Cecelia Heer

    As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I am really enjoying reading the comments. Again, 85% opinon. One “cannot” make a person “like” a particular food (or wine, etc.).

  • Holly

    It’s the last gasp of summer down here in the southern hemisphere, and driving home from a few days away at the beach on the weekend my husband and I spotted a roadside stall of the loveliest, fattest, reddest tomatoes ever…I took home a big bag, quartered and roasted them and made a triple batch of this recipe, and it’s the best my house has smelled since a batch of overnight veal stock. We had some of the results tonight with pasta and it was amazing! Thanks for this recipe!

  • Nanci Courtney

    I suggest for people who claim to have to time – get rid of or at least turn off your TV. You will be shocked by how much time suddenly emerges…

  • Nanci Courtney

    Of course, the comment should read ‘NO time’ not ‘to time’ – duh!

  • Grant Colvin

    Fish sauce, eh? I’m wondering–how does SE Asian fish sauce compare in taste to colatura di alici (Italian anchovy sauce), which I’ve never been able to get my hands on? Anyone out there know? Also, I’ve found that tomato dishes often benefit from a judicious splash of Maggi (I know–I know–heresy).

  • Josh Baugher

    Thanks for sharing this. I was skeptical but it totally works. It feels/tastes very unctuous and hardy. Perfect for something like eggplants. And made for <$5.

  • Angela Taormina

    I grew up with my mom using a food mill and whole canned tomatoes. New methods have come over the years – blenders, food processors, stick blenders – and when all is said and done I’ve gone back to the food mill. I really like getting all the seeds OUT of the mix. It looks and tastes the best to me. Your thoughts on food mills?

  • madonnadelpiatto

    I am Italian. I have two food mills, I also have all sort of electric equipment, but I find that blending tomato peel gives a different taste and a watery structure to the sauce. If you don’t mind, it’s OK, but I love my food mills.

    Most professional cooks add some sort of flavor enhancer to their food. Italians would not typically add nam pla, but professionals would add stock cubes or powder. Home cooks would not.
    If you have really tasty sun ripened tomatoes you don’t need a flavor enhancer. If you serve the sauce with Parmesan you also don’t need it because aged cheese provides umami just like the fish.

    In Italy we don’t use oregano in a basic tomato sauce. We use a sprinkle of either fresh chopped parsley or basil (in season) just before serving. There is no oregano in a meat ragu either.

    I have enjoyed the interesting comments, thanks!

  • madeleine peck

    I’ve been immersed in a winter-long project that has taken me away from the kitchen…and now that I have the time again to devote to cooking several times a week, I have been finding myself strangely uninspired….that is until today, I thought I’d drop in over here–mostly because I too hail from Cleveland–but I started perusing your recipes, and find myself re-energized.

    Thank you.

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