You can’t beat the convenience of tomato sauce from a jar, but what about when you’re craving something a little more homemade? You don’t need to keep an Italian nonna on speed-dial, just a helpful kid and a pint of cherry tomatoes or a can of tomatoes to start.
Making tomato sauce from scratch is so easy you don’t even need a full recipe, just a basic framework. You or your kids can work with what’s already in the pantry or the refrigerator, making homemade sauce more cost-effective than buying prepared sauce and reducing food waste at the same time.
These sauce techniques are also customizable to your family’s tastes and other ingredients you may have on hand. Cut back on, or add more, garlic depending on your tolerance. Experiment with adding a few shallots instead of an onion. Stir in chopped fresh or dried herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary and parsley. If you like heat, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.
Any of these options can be tossed with your favorite cooked pasta, used as a base for easy baked pasta dishes like ravioli or tortellini, spooned over polenta or simmered with other vegetables to serve with lean protein like chicken or fish.
Making sauce with fresh tomatoes
Cherry and grape tomatoes are available year-round in supermarkets and are generally the most flavorful option for tomatoes in the middle of winter. These tiny tomatoes will be sweet and juicy any time of year, unlike larger out-of-season varieties like beefsteak, which can have a mealy texture out of season.
Use two pints cherry or grape tomatoes in the following formulas to make approximately four servings’ worth of sauce.
Cherry tomato pan sauce:
Slice the tomatoes in half and thinly slice or mince 1 or 2 garlic cloves (depending on how much you love garlic). Heat olive oil in a lidded skillet or sauté pan over medium-low heat until the oil shimmers, then stir in the tomatoes and garlic.
Cover and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have mostly softened into a stirrable sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper, along with any fresh or dried herbs.
Roasted or grilled cherry tomato sauce:
Keep the tomatoes whole for this version. Preheat a conventional oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit or preheat a gas grill to medium heat. For oven-roasting, place the tomatoes in a single layer in a baking dish. Lightly season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil, if desired.
For grilling, spread the tomatoes out in a single layer on a grill mat. But don’t use a grill pan, because you don’t want the tomato juices to fall through the grates as the tomatoes burst.
Roast for about 20 to 25 minutes, or grill for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are starting to burst and the skins are starting to char. Carefully pour the tomatoes into a pan or bowl and season to taste.
No-cook tomato sauce:
When it’s the height of tomato season in late summer and cherry tomatoes are popping on the vine faster than you can eat them, why bother lighting up a stove burner?
Roughly chop the tomatoes and any fresh herbs on hand, such as basil or parsley, and mince 1 large garlic clove. Add all the ingredients to a large bowl, sprinkle generously with kosher salt, and stir in a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Let the mixture sit for 2 or 3 hours at room temperature to allow the salt to soften the tomatoes and meld the flavors.
Making sauce with canned tomatoes
While you might think that canned tomatoes are less preferable than fresh to professional cooks, that’s not the case. Canned tomatoes are a workhorse pantry staple that come in handy for so many recipes. They have a reliable flavor and texture that guarantees a successful sauce any time of year.
In the following formulas, use one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes if you prefer a smooth sauce or 28-ounce can stewed tomatoes if you prefer a chunkier sauce to make approximately four servings’ worth.
Rich butter tomato sauce:
This is an adaptation of the recipe made famous by Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, which uses a few pantry ingredients to make pasta sauce magic.
Melt 5 tablespoons unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, over medium heat. Peel 1 small to medium white, yellow or sweet onion and slice in half lengthwise, then add to the butter.
Stir in one 28-ounce can crushed or stewed tomatoes. Cover and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and the sauce has thickened. Add salt (and pepper, though the original recipe doesn’t call for it) to taste. Discard the onion or leave it in the sauce if you prefer a stronger flavor.
Garlic and olive oil tomato sauce:
This olive oil-based sauce is ideal for vegans or those who just want to take a more Mediterranean approach to making a quick sauce with canned tomatoes.
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Add a generous glug of olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, and heat over medium-low heat. Add 1 finely chopped small white, yellow or sweet onion, 2 minced garlic cloves and a pinch of kosher salt. Cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very soft but not browned.
Stir in one 28-ounce can crushed or stewed tomatoes. If you have extra vegetables you’d like to use up, like zucchini or carrots, finely chop or shred them and add to the sauce too. Cover and bring the sauce to a simmer.
Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened. Add more salt to taste and chopped fresh herbs if you have them.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.