marinara sauce from scratchThe best, most-flavorful marinara sauce is always a homemade marinara sauce. It’s so simple yet the flavors are so rich and complex. The best part? It only takes a few minutes to make from start to finish, so there really isn’t a reason to not make your own marinara sauce at home.

Best Tomatoes for Marinara Sauce

Types of Tomatoes

Walk into the grocery store and you’re likely to find a dozen different varieties of tomatoes. While you can use almost any variety of tomato to make marinara from scratch, paste tomatoes (also known as plum tomatoes) are the best. Their meaty texture, only few seeds, and low water content makes them perfect for sauces and pastes. The most common varieties of plum tomato include:

  • Roma: the most widely available tomatoes for tomato sauce are Roma. While Roma tomatoes have a great texture – dense and meaty with very low water content – their flavor is typically rather bland and not very sweet.
  • San Marzano: the most popular tomato for sauce making – even among picky chefs – is San Marzano. To be an authentic San Marzano, the tomato has to be grown in San Marzano, the Campania region of southern Italy. These tomatoes are similar in appearance to Roma tomatoes, but thinner and more pointed. They are highly prized for their sweet, intense tomato-y flavor, low acidity, and dense pulp (the walls of the tomatoes are much thicker and contain fewer seeds than Roma). 
  • Amish Paste: these heirloom acorn-shaped, deep-red tomatoes from Wisconsin are know for their juicy, thick texture and succulent taste. They are similar to Roma tomatoes, but sweeter and brighter in flavor.
  • Big Mama: these hybrid tomatoes resemble Roma tomatoes in form, but are comparable to beefsteak tomatoes in size. Their flavor is rather mild, but the are incredibly meaty and have very few seeds.
  • Romeco Paste: an heirloom species from Italy that grows and ripens earlier than other varieties. Romaco paste tomatoes have a pear shape with a small point and a bright red color. They are popular for their vivid flavor, thick meaty walls, and juicy centers. 
  • Viva Italia: a hybrid tomato similar to the Roma tomato in size and shape, but with a much fresher zesty flavor and a meatier texture.
  • Opalka: unlike most of the other leading sauce tomatoes, Opalka is a tomato originating from Poland. Opalka tomatoes have an elongated pepper-like shape and a deep red color. They are … and very meaty with thin skin.

paste tomatoes varieties

Fresh vs Canned

When it comes to making marinara sauce from scratch, canned tomatoes are almost always better than fresh 

According to several renowned chefs (1), canned tomatoes are simply more superior for tomato sauces, unless you’re making marinara sauce from locally grown tomatoes in summer. Canned tomatoes are preserved at the height of tomato season, so they offer a consistently beautiful deep tomato flavor and a very ripe, red color. When it comes to taste, the gap between locally grown tomatoes in the summer and long-distance tomatoes the rest of the year is enormous.

Can you make marinara from fresh whole tomatoes? Of course! However, if you’re using tomatoes from a supermarket outside of August and its surrounding weeks, you’re risking the success of the sauce on flavor. There is also a little bit more work involved in using fresh tomatoes. You’ll need to blanch, peel, seed, and dice the tomatoes first and they will take longer to break down. 

Whole vs Diced vs Crushed

So, canned tomatoes are the way to go. But which version is the best? 

I prefer whole peeled tomatoes packed in juices for both a hearty marinara as well as a smooth sauce. Whole tomatoes are the least processed and therefore the most versatile out of the three.

Diced tomatoes are the least ideal. You might expect them to break down much faster than whole tomatoes, but they’re actually packaged with lots of calcium chloride to keep their shape. In his book The Food Lab, chef J. Kenji López-Alt warns against using diced tomatoes for sauces and advises to “always use whole canned!”. If you do find canned diced or chopped tomatoes that don’t list calcium chloride as an ingredient, however, you can use them without worrying that they’ll retain their cube-like shape no matter how long they’re simmered.

Crushed tomatoes aren’t great, but are fine for smooth sauces. The problem with crushed tomatoes is that there are no controls on the labeling of crushed tomatoes. So, you never know if you you’re buying a chunky mash or a nearly smooth purée. Because of this, it’s better to simply crush your own whole tomatoes.

Tips for Making Homemade Marinara Sauce

Ingredients

Homemade marinara sauce requires only a handful of pantry staples:

  • Whole tomatoes (canned): canned whole San Marzano tomatoes are the best. 
  • Onion: yellow onions are the gold standard. They’re severe when raw but mellow when sautéed, and they don’t dissolve even after long cooking. White onions are fine but are best cooked quickly or served raw. Red onions are sharper and spicier than yellow or white onions and best reserved for pickling or grilling.
  • Garlic: whether it’s minced garlic sautéed in olive oil or whole garlic cloves simmered in the sauce, garlic adds an intriguing flavor to any sauce. 
  • Olive oil: extra virgin olive oil is best. You don’t need a lot (although some would argue that you do) to create a rich, flavor-packed sauce. 
  • Basil: it wouldn’t be a marinara sauce without basil. You can use fresh or dried. If using fresh, you can either simmer a few sprigs of fresh basil in the marinara (and then discard the sprigs before serving) or finely chop the basil and leave it in the sauce.
  • Oregano: another common herb in marinara is oregano. Just like basil, you can use fresh or dried.
  • Black pepper: while black pepper isn’t normally associated with Italian cooking, it makes an excellent addition to a tomato-based pasta sauce. The light heat and complex flavor profile of piney, citrusy notes deepen the flavor of the sauce. Use it sparingly though as too much of it can make a marinara sauce bitter. 
  • Salt: the rule of thumb is to always under-salt your marinara sauce because depending on what you mix the marinara sauce with, you may end up with a too salty dish. However, I do like to add a little bit of salt to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. 
  • Maple syrup (optional): if you find the taste of your marinara sauce not well-rounded, add a little bit of sweetener to give it that subtle finish. 

marinara sauce ingredients

How to Make Marinara Sauce

The great thing about this homemade marinara sauce is that it’s fast and easy. Here’s how you make it:

  1. Sauté the onion and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the aromatics and sauté until translucent, 3-5 minutes.
  2. Sauté the rest of the ingredients. Add the tomatoes with juices, basil, oregano, and salt, and stir to combine. Using a potato masher, gently break up the tomatoes as the sauce continues to heat. 
  3. Simmer. Continue cooking the sauce until it reaches a simmer.  Then reduce the heat to low, cover, and continue to simmer for ~ 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Purée (optional). The marinara can be left chunky. If you prefer a smooth marinara sauce, purée it with an immersion blender until it reaches your desired consistency. I like hearty marinara, so I don’t purée it.

homemade marinara sauce

How to Serve Marinara Sauce

Marinara sauce is a foundation of so many classic comfort foods:

  • Pasta: spaghetti and meatballs in homemade marinara is a classic, but there are so many other types of pasta you could use marinara for. In my cookbook with dinner recipes, I use this sauce for lasagna roll ups as well as creamy marinara fusilli. 
  • Pizza: even though there is a difference between marinara sauce and pizza sauce (marinara sauce is typically slightly lighter), you can use marinara for your favorite pizza. 
  • Dipping sauce: this recipe is a great dipping sauce for anything from breadsticks to zucchini fries.

How to Store & Reheat Marinara Sauce

  • Refrigerating: allow the marinara sauce to cool completely. Then transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
  • Freezing: allow the marinara sauce to cool completely. Then transfer to an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months.
  • Reheating: transfer frozen marinara sauce into the refrigerator 24 hours before reheating to thaw slightly. Reheat in a saucepan on the stovetop over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until hot. Add ¼ cup/60 ml water at a time if too thick.

If you try this recipe, please, leave a comment and rate the recipe below. It always means a lot when you do.

marinara sauce from scratch

Marinara Sauce

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 (1/2-cup) servings
The best, most-flavorful marinara sauce is always a homemade marinara sauce. It's so simple yet the flavors are so rich and complex. The best part? It only takes a few minutes to make from start to finish, so there really isn't a reason to not make your own marinara sauce at home.

Ingredients
 

  • 1 Tbsp. (15 ml) olive oil
  • 1 (1) yellow onion, , chopped
  • 3 cloves (3) garlic, , minced
  • 1 (28-oz) can (1 (794-g) can) whole San Marzano tomatoes , *
  • 1 tsp. (2.1 g) dried basil
  • 1 tsp. (1 g) dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. (1 g) black pepper, , cracked
  • sea salt, , to taste

Instructions
 

  • Sauté the onion and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the aromatics and sauté until translucent, 3-5 minutes.
  • Sauté the rest of the ingredients. Add the tomatoes with juices, basil, oregano, and salt, and stir to combine. Using a potato masher, gently break up the tomatoes as the sauce continues to heat. 
  • Simmer. Continue cooking the sauce until it reaches a simmer.  Then reduce the heat to low, cover, and continue to simmer for ~ 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Purée (optional). The marinara can be left chunky. If you prefer a smooth marinara sauce, purée it with an immersion blender until it reaches your desired consistency. I like hearty marinara, so I don't purée it.
  • Store. Leftover marinara sauce keeps well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, For longer term storage, freeze in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Notes

*While San Marzano tomatoes are best, you can use any other paste tomatoes.
**Nutrition information is approximate and may contain errors. Please, feel free to make your own calculations.
**Nutrition information is calculated without optional ingredients.

Nutrition

Serving: 1of 4, Calories: 55kcal, Carbohydrates: 4g, Protein: 1g, Fat: 4g, Fiber: 2g, Sugar: 1g