Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion

Just three ingredients for the perfect tomato sauce!

Tomato sauce should be simple, don’t you think? At its root it is merely tomatoes that have been broken down, often using heat, to produce a sauce for pasta, vegetables, or meat, or used as an ingredient such as for simmering meatballs. But the food media has managed to impress upon us, as it often does, that the best tomato sauce should require a fifteen-step, ten-ingredient, five-hour-long recipe.

I am one of the easily impressed upon, and for years have tried to create a great tomato sauce which maintained the integrity of the tomatoes, while presenting complex flavor. Something bright yet rich, substantial yet delicate. I have begun with a sofrito, whole, or diced ingredients, and tried any combination of carrots, onions, garlic, peppers, celery, thyme, basil, sage, oregano, olive oil, ad infinitum, in a vain attempt to come up with a tomato sauce that would make people swoon.

Well, I have finally found the elusive recipe for the perfect tomato sauce. It has three ingredients (four, if you add salt), there is no chopping or sauteing, and takes just 45 minutes to cook. Seriously.

The recipe is attributed to Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a book I owned, regrettably never cooked from, and as I can not find it on my shelves, has probably found its way to the library’s used book bin. I first read about this sauce in late January on Smitten Kitchen, who links to several other bloggers who have tried it over the years, from Amateur Gourmet (2005), to Rachel Eats (2010). It has appeared on the forums of Cook’s Illustrated, and on, twice. In fact, it has been reprinted so many places, I’m embarrassed it escaped my notice.

The fantastic flavor makes it seem like there must be spices or herbs among the ingredients. If you ask someone to guess what is in it, they won’t be able to. While the tomatoes hold their body, the binding is like velvet. It is rich without being overwhelming in the least. From now on, it is our house red.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions
Attributed to Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Knopf

– One 28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano if you have them)
– 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
– 1 medium-sized onion, peeled and halved
– Salt, to taste

1. Place tomatoes, butter, and onion in a saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a simmer.

2. Cook, uncovered, at a slow, steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat separate from the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon against the inside of your saucepan.

3. Discard the onion. Salt to taste. Keep warm while you prepare your pasta, and serve.

A few notes regarding the recipe:
– If that much butter alarms you, know that each tablespoon of butter is just slightly more than 100 calories. This recipe makes over 3 cups of sauce, or about 4 to 5 servings, so there’s not much to fear unless you are on a no-fat diet or going to eat this every day.
– Salt. This would make the fourth ingredient, if you use it. Unbelievably, I did not use any at all. I found no need for it. This, coming from a woman who may well beat Lot’s wife in salt content by body weight.
– Some posts mention to add Parmigiano cheese. I tried adding some after a few bites of pasta and plain sauce. I say go naked. The cheese nearly ruined it. Yes, I did just say cheese nearly ruined something.

Butter, onion, tomato. That's it.

Cooked for 45 minutes.


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2 Responses to “Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion”

  1. MM says:

    Marcella Hazan is a culinary genius and her book (Essentials…) is a masterpiece.

    I can’t wait to try this.

  2. Marco says:

    My wife decided to cook this tonight and I am very glad she did!

    I am a spoiled, picky brat when it comes to Italian food. I compare everything to how my mom and my relatives in Italy used to prepare it and am usually left missing something.

    Now this tomato sauce is something my mom would be proud of: simple, quick and delicious. The taste of the tomatoes is not tainted by a plethora of ingredients, the texture is creamy and it sticks wonderfully to spaghetti.

    Molto buono!

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