This San Marzano tomato sauce is a family recipe using only the best quality ingredients.
Excellent tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil makes a rich and luscious sauce in just 30 minutes. This sauce is simple and basic but the flavors will blow you away!
Why you’ll love this recipe
San Marzano tomato sauce has a special place in my heart. This recipe was taught to me by my late cousin Claudio many years ago. Since then it has been a staple in my family. Whether it’s quick weeknight meals or a lazy Sunday supper, I turn to this recipe time and time again!
Unlike my dad’s authentic Bolognese sauce, this pasta sauce doesn’t have to be simmered for hours to achieve the best flavors. In fact, in 20 minutes it’s thick, tasty and an ideal pasta sauce without using any tomato paste. The reason is that I use canned San Marzano tomatoes.
San Marzano tomatoes are a premium product and you pay a little more for the quality. The tomatoes are very red and sweet with less seeds and less acidity plus the juice they are canned in is thick and luscious. When you have a recipe where the tomatoes are the star, like this San Marzano sauce, then these are the best choice.
The San Marzano tomato is a variety of plum tomatoes which grows well in warm climates. But it’s the tomatoes grown in the volcanic soils near Mount Vesuvius in Italy that can be certified in the same way as French Champagne or Parmigiano Reggiano. Obviously, unless you’re in Italy, you won’t find them fresh at your local market. But instead, look for the certified, canned tomatoes labeled “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese- Nocerino DOP”.
You’ll love the smooth, sweet flavors of this pasta sauce recipe. This San Marzano tomato sauce isn’t overwhelmed by garlic or herbs. Once you’ve made it and see how easy and tasty it is, you’ll never go back to store-bought tomato sauce!
This type of sauce is often referred to as marinara sauce. However in Italy it’s simply a tomato sauce. Italian Marinara is a tomato based sauce mixed with seafood. But a “marinara pizza” is topped with just tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and garlic. It can be confusing!
What’s so wonderful about a basic sauce like San Marzano tomato sauce is that it's excellent with pasta but it can also be used as a base for many other dishes. Or used as a dip for bread, crackers or sandwiches like mozzarella in carrozza. This recipe is so versatile and easy, make a double batch and freeze half for later!
For complete ingredient quantities and full instructions, please scroll to the printable recipe card bottom of the page.
The ingredients for this recipe will be very familiar if you have made Italian tomato sauce before. This is a recipe that relies on just a few ingredients so everything needs to be of the very best quality particularly canned San Marzano tomatoes.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Choose an oil you like the taste of because it will influence the final result. Olive oil, like all oils, has a shelf life. For extra virgin olive oil it’s usually 12-18 from bottling. Old oil can taste bitter and will spoil the recipe so use fresh oil.
- Garlic Cloves - Plump, juicy garlic is a sign that it’s fresh which is the best to use.
- Onion - You’ll just need a small onion or half a large onion. The onion is a flavoring but we want the tomatoes to shine in this sauce.
- Canned San Marzano Tomatoes - Look for the DOP designation on the can so that you know you’re getting the real deal. The label should read “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese- Nocerino DOP” or “San Marzano Tomatoes from Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP”. This indicates the exact region in Italy where they are grown. The can will also have the DOP seal certifying the designation.
- Salt - Season any food really brings out the flavors. Over salting is not good but under salting results in bland tasting food. You can start with half the quantity but then taste and adjust to bring out the sweet flavors of this San Marzano sauce.
- Basil - Fresh basil is the way to go in this recipe. Dried basil has very little taste so please don’t use it.
While I urge you to keep this homemade tomato sauce simple, there are a few variations that work well.
- A little dry white wine can be added with the tomatoes - just a ¼ cup is enough.
- Together with the tomatoes, simmer a Parmesan rind in the sauce to make a hearty tomato sauce. Remember to remove and throw away the rind before serving the sauce.
- Add or substitute other fresh herbs for the basil. Fresh oregano, parsley or thyme would be the best choice.
- A pinch of red pepper flakes or a sprinkle of cayenne pepper isn’t authentic but adds a bit of spice if that is what you enjoy.
- If you absolutely can’t find San Marzano tomatoes, Italian canned roma tomatoes can be substituted. Use a reputable brand, produced in Italy and check the ingredients are just whole peeled tomatoes and tomato juice. Some brands may also contain salt which is fine but no other additives.
Before you begin, have all ingredients at hand and ready. Prepare the garlic by placing the cloves on a board and with the flat side of a knife press the cloves to slightly crush them. You’ll be able to remove the skins but the clove will still be intact but cracked.
The canned tomatoes should be pureed using a stick blender or a small food processor. You can also pass the tomatoes through a sieve. If you prefer, crush the tomatoes with your hands, chop them or just crush with the back of the spoon as they cook for a coarse sauce. Always use whole tomatoes for this sauce - the quality is much better than canned crushed tomatoes.
The technique for making this San Marzano tomato sauce may not be one you’ve used before. Initially the garlic gives up all its flavors to the oil. Once the garlic has done its job, it’s discarded. Yes, that’s right. This sauce is delicately flavored with garlic but doesn’t actually contain garlic.
- Firstly, chop the onion very finely. This must be done properly because large pieces of onion in the smooth sauce really aren't good. Alternatively mince the onion.
- In a cold skillet, add the extra virgin olive oil and the garlic which has been previously cracked as mentioned above. Place the skillet over medium heat, allowing the garlic to simmer and become pale gold then remove the garlic and discard. Never let the garlic become dark or burnt. If this happens, it’s best to start again.
- Add the very finely chopped onion and cook over medium heat for 5-8 minutes stirring regularly. The onion will soften but shouldn’t color beyond golden. Monitor cooking the onion closely and adjust the temperature accordingly.
- Add the pureed tomatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer gently uncovered for 20 minutes until slightly thickened. In the last 5 minutes stir in chopped basil.
Tips for Success and FAQ’s
The best thing you can do is use canned San Marzano tomatoes. It really does make a difference. San Marzano tomatoes are sweeter with a better tomato taste. Plus whole, peeled tomatoes are superior in quality.
Be sure to chop the onion very finely or if your knife skills aren’t the best, mince the onion. Remember to follow the recipe and only use half an onion or a small onion.
For a mild garlic flavor, cook the garlic cloves in the oil until just golden then remove and discard the cloves. This flavors the oil without an intense garlic hit. This is the key to San Marzano tomato sauce because it allows the beautiful, intense tomato flavor to shine through!
Please season the sauce well. Tasting is the only way to know if you have enough salt. You may think you can add it at the table but the salt always taste "raw" when you do that - it really needs to be cooked into the sauce.
Finally, you don’t need to simmer this sauce for hours. The brightness and fresh tomato sauce flavor of this recipe is what makes it the best!
Using canned San Marzano tomatoes ensures the sauce isn’t bitter. Also never burn the garlic or onion. This will make the sauce bitter. If this happens, discard and start again. That is better than making the whole recipe only to find the sauce is bitter. There is no need to add sugar to this sauce if made correctly.
What’s the difference between San Marzano and Roma tomatoes?
thinner and more pointy than the Roma tomato. It has fewer seeds making it sweeter. Plus the “walls” of the San Marzano tomato are thicker which means a less watery tomato sauce.
Not necessarily but if you prefer a spicy sauce you can definitely add a little red pepper flakes.
This is simple. The answer is quality ingredients. If you want your tomato sauce to taste great, then you must use great tasting ingredients. If the ingredients don’t taste delicious on their own, then they certainly won’t taste great when cooked
Yes! Cool the sauce then pour into an airtight container, label and freeze for up to 3 months.
The most natural way to serve San Marzano tomato sauce is with pasta. This sauce is particularly good with homemade pasta like cavatelli, tonnarelli and garganelli. All you need is a good showering of parmesan cheese to make the ultimate meal!
Why not top these Italian chicken cutlets with a spoonful of sauce and mozzarella cheese for a tasty and quick chicken parmigiana? Or it becomes a fabulous focaccia topping when combined with cheese and basil.
These are just a few suggestions for how to use San Marzano tomato sauce. I'm sure you'll think of heaps more!
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Made this recipe?
Let me know if you liked it by leaving a ★★★★★ star rating and a review below. Please share a photo of your creation by tagging me on Instagram @marcellina.in.cucina!
San Marzano Tomato Sauce Recipe
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 small onion or ½ large onion
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 28 oz (800 grams) canned San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon salt more or less according to taste
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup fresh basil chopped
- Place garlic cloves on a board and with the flat side of a knife press the cloves to slightly crush them. Remove the skins. Set aside.
- Chop the onion very finely or alternatively mince the onion. Set aside.
- In a cold skillet, add extra virgin olive oil and cracked, peeled garlic.
- Place the skillet over medium heat, allowing the garlic to simmer and become pale gold stirring regularly. Don’t let the garlic burn! Remove the garlic and discard.
- Add the very finely chopped or minced onion to the garlic flavored oil and cook over medium heat for 5-8 minutes, stirring regularly. Allow the onion to soften but not color beyond golden. Check the cooking of the onion closely and adjust the temperature if you need to.
- Add the pureed tomatoes, a sprinkle of salt and black pepper. At this stage don't add any water - you can always add some later if needed.
- Reduce to low heat and simmer gently uncovered for 20 minutes until slightly thickened. In the last 5 minutes stir in chopped basil. Taste for salt and adjust as desired.
- Delicious stirred through al dente pasta and topped with parmesan cheese!
- Use canned San Marzano tomatoes.
- Chop the onion very finely or mince it.
- Flavor the oil with garlic by cooking the garlic cloves in the oil until just golden then remove and discard the cloves.
- Season well and taste to check.
- Don’t simmer for too long. Keep the sauce bright and fresh.
Nutritional Information Per Serving
Nutritional information is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. For accurate results, it is recommended that the nutritional information be calculated based on the ingredients and brands you use.
I have been making my mother-in-law's sauce for years, and everyone enjoys it. But I've never used San Marzano tomatoes, although I've heard how amazing they are so many times. I always thought "Do tomatoes that cost this much really make a difference?" Well, they did! This simple sauce was light, fresh, and delicious. The fresh basil was the crowning touch. My daughters preferred it as well. My late husband probably would turn over in his grave and wouldn't love it...but it's not Mama's cooking! I served it over cavatelli with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Now I'm inspired to make my own pasta to go with it. The only problem is I wish I had made more....and as it was, I doubled the recipe. This is
my new go-to!
Sue, it's fantastic to hear that you and your daughters enjoyed this version of sauce. As you probably read, this is my late cousin Claudio's sauce and we loved it when he made it for us many years ago and love it to this day. Yes, absolutely make your own pasta - you'll love that too!
I really like your recipe but have not yet used it. Reason? We decided to grow our own Marzano tomatoes this year (which is a whole lot different than growing USA version tomatoes). We got a bumper crop on all three of our plants! So my question is, do you have a recipe made from fresh Marzanos?
We learned a lot about growing these special plants, after a slow start in our shorter-than-normal spring/summer/fall. The Marzanos require a different level of fertilizer/pH levels than most domestic tomatoes, and they like a lot of calcium. Once we crushed egg shells and adjusted our nutrient levels, the plants took off like a covey of quail, and now we are looking for a way to cook and preserve our crop for a winter of great Italian sauce.
Hope to hear from you soon...the Marzanos are picked and need to be used.
Best regards and thanks for the great recipe,
ThinkFresh in Central Oregon
Ron, that is so interesting to know about the difference in growing San Marzano tomatoes! We will definitely use your tips when growing them next year which we plan to do. We haven't grown San Marzano tomatoes in our garden as yet. However I do make this sauce with my fresh Roma tomatoes. Sometimes, I'm lazy and just add them chopped (without peeling) into olive oil and garlic or as in this recipe olive oil and softened onion. Other times I will go to the trouble of peeling before using. Just simmer until the sauce has reduced a little and the tomatoes have softened.
Also, if the garden has produced well (as in your case!), I make tomato puree by simmering chopped tomatoes until they have broken down and softened. If a lot of water rises to the top, I'll pour or scoop that off. Then pass the tomatoes through a food mill/mouli to separate the skin and seeds. It can be canned or frozen at this stage though often I return it to the pan to reduce further over the heat. I like to salt it before canning or freezing but that's up to you. Also a fresh basil leaf is good added to each bottle.
This is the sauce that I made from very young with my parents. We preserved all the tomato puree we needed for the year. It was always sweet and tasty. I'm sure yours will be too! Don't hestiate to contact me if you need any other information. Take care, Marcellina
The sauce was simple to prepare but I wished I hadn’t added the full tsp of salt. I had to add brown sugar to make it edible. I’ll do it right next time. Thanks for the recipe.
You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it! I've noted on the recipe to add salt according your taste. Thanks!
This is such a simple, yet tasty, tomato sauce. And San Marzano tomatoes are my favorite so this was perfect- highly recommend this sauce!
Oh this sauce was so good, just like my nonnas. Brings back so many memories. Great recipe.
easy tomato sauce base for any recipe. thanks for this homemade goodness
I love a good tomato/pasta sauce that is easy to cook! This is so good with just an addition of chili flakes if I want it spicy.
Thank you for sharing your family recipe! It's so delish
Marcellina, thanks so much for the heads up about San Marzano tomatoes, I've been wanting a good recipe for a Marinara sauce. Family recipes are the best. Take care, Pauline
Pauline, so true, family recipes are wonderful! All the best xx
Mary Frances Rowley
Best ever. Simple, elegant.
E Nick Lepore
Yes this is a Marinara sauce, but the true Italian sauce from southern Italy is with Neck bones, meatballs, peperoni pieces, braciolo, ect.
Yes, E Nick Lepore, I know that sauce but this is a purely a tomato sauce - a recipe from my dear cousin from Northern Italy though it is made in the south as well. The meat sauce is very nice though xx