tomato sauce with onion and butter + tomato sauce techniques

tomato sauce with butter and onion

I think that many things have been said about this tomato sauce that it feels almost redundant to jump in at this point. Enough praises have been sung*.

But as I was thinking about this sauce and why it’s so great, and why it’s just so great to make your own tomato sauce for dinner rather than reach for a jar of it, it got me thinking about the technique of making a proper tomato sauce. The tomato sauce is a simple, humble thing, and yet it too has a few rules that need to be followed in order to wind up with a sauce that will take your breath away each and every time. The most important one is to cook your tomato sauce uncovered.

Marcella Hazan, whose tomato sauce with onion and butter surely gets its start in the “Recipe Hall of Fame”**, wastes no time and gets right to the point: “Pasta sauces may cook slowly or rapidly, they make take 4 minutes or 4 hours, but the always cook by evaporation, which concentrates and clearly defines their flavor. Never cook a sauce in a covered pan, or it will emerge with a bland, steamed, weakly formulated taste.” Short. Sweet. To the point. Message received.

Second, if using canned tomatoes, use quality ones – otherwise your sauce borders on being either overly acidic or (for a sauce) overly sweet. I prefer to use Muir Glen whole tomatoes – I find that their salt-to-sugar-to-acid balance suits my palate the best.

tomato sauce with butter and onion

The third, and final rule is more of a personal observation and less of a rule. Since the evaporation of moisture and the concentration of flavor is what you’re after, a wider (rather than a narrower) pot is the way to go. I’ve had a lot of success using a large skillet to cook down my sauce to a consistency that I like. For larger batches, I go with a wide stockpot, but for smaller ones, a large skillet works better. Besides, it’s the perfect way to finish off drained pasta (which I undercook by about 1 minute). Just throw the cooked pasta into the skillet with the sauce, toss to bind the sauce to the pasta, add a few spoonfuls of the reserved pasta water (reserved right before draining the pasta) if the pasta-sauce combo seems a bit dry, and divide among the bowls. Someone once told me that what should be left in your bowl after you finished your pasta is just enough sauce to wipe with a piece of bread. Any more and either you’ve added too much sauce, or the sauce is too liquid.

Since this particular sauce takes a little under an hour to make, I’m going to suggest that you make a triple batch of it, and freeze whatever you don’t eat that evening. Keep in mind, that a larger mass of tomatoes and butter, requires a longer time to cook the sauce. I’d say that you should set aside anywhere between 1 1/2 and 2 hours to make your large batch of the sauce. When you’re faced with a busy week, all you need to do is warm up the sauce, toss it with pasta, dinner is ready. And while the pasta water boils and the sauce is simmering, you can throw together a simple salad.

You might balk at the sheer amount of butter this sauce uses, but this is a tomato sauce with some heft. This is meant to be a meal, and the highlight of it too, and if you really think about it, you wind up eating only about one tablespoon of butter with each bowl of pasta, which isn’t quite so bad. Instead of a light, summery sauce, you get something with some body to it. And after making this sauce for over five years, it still blows my mind that so few ingredients render something so complex and satisfying in the end.

In the post where I walked you through on how to prepare fresh tomatoes for sauce, I processed 6 pounds of tomatoes. According to the proportions below, that gives me 3 batches, roughly. It’s a good feeling knowing that if craziness unfolds, and cooking dinner is out of the question, I can, at the very least, warm up some tomato sauce and boil some water for the pasta. Surely, if I’m sipping a glass of wine in the process to aid me in my dinner impossible mission, such things are possible?

**Shouldn’t there be a “Recipe Hall of Fame”?

* As I said before, enough praises have been sung to this sauce: here, here, here, here, here, and here. And I’m certain that I’m missing lots of folks who’ve all extolled virtues of this humble-sounding yet utterly luxurious sauce.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking

Everything I could have possibly written for a headnote, has already been written above. The only two thing, and I mention one of them below, is this: do not, whatever you do (unless you are my friend Jane) throw away the onion after it is cooked. It is by far one of the most delicious things to eat, a great accompaniment to your pasta, or a decadent topping over generously buttered bread.

The other is that if you work with the tomatoes you, yourself, have prepared for a tomato sauce, your results are going to be that much more delicious. No canned tomato will ever rival a fresh tomato just fixed for a sauce.

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, prepared as described here or 1 (28-ounce; 800 grams) can quality whole tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen), torn with your hands into small pieces with the tomato liquid
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
Salt, to taste
1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta (I prefer buccatini here)
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat separates from the tomatoes and floats free. From time to time, stir with a wooden spoon, mashing any large pieces of tomato in the pan. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Hazan instructs you to discard the onion before eating, but I like to fish it out and serve it at our dinner on the side. Andrew and I fight for it: the onion mellows out, worn down by the acid in the tomato and the fat of the butter, and turns into something decadent and luxurious. Who knew a humble onion could have such beginnings?


  • phi

    I love butter. Also, I find that when using fresh tomatoes, the sauces always turn out slightly different each time, which is kind of exciting in itself.

  • Radish

    Jack – no garlic on this one. Trust me.

    phi – that’s actually a good point because there’s different amount of moisture to flesh in the tomatoes, also if it’s a humid day, it’ll take longer to cook down.

  • Harriet

    You have no idea the envy I feel at being able to firmly state that no canned tomato will ever rival a fresh tomato… Even in mid summer here (New Zealand) the range of tomatoes available and the juicey-sweet factor is appalling! Having read northern hemisphere blogs for all of our long, wet winter and read tomato recipe after fresh juicy tomato recipe, I’d like to say our tomato season, red and ripe and full of flavour, was just round the corner but I have my doubts. Canned tomatoes it is… I hope I can do this recipe justice – looks fantastic!

  • Margaret@KitchenFrau

    Hmmm. This sounds so intriguing because it is so simple. I have an abundance of fresh ripening tomatoes just picked before the frost here in northern Canada, and am definitely going to try it!

  • Jessica

    I made this for the first time last week with fresh tomatoes and it was so acidic! I don’t think our crop of tomatoes was very good this year, but I’d love to try it again. I made the mistake of throwing away the onion too, and I will never do that again!

  • Radish

    Jessica – sorry to hear it was so acidic – strange. Never happened to me so I am thinking perhaps it is the crop. I’ve been hearing from a few folks that they are not having much luck growing their own tomatoes and to be honest I wasn’t blown away by a single tomato I ate this summer, not even the most exquisite heirloom. I wonder what might have happened.

  • Gayle

    I’m always looking for a good tomato sauce and Marcella Hazan can’t be beat. Thanks for sharing the recipe and the additional tips. I do usually depend on canned tomatoes, especially as the weather gets cold. And, I agree with making tomato sauce in a wide pot, the exact opposite of what my mother used to do. Gorgeous, pictures – they show off the beauty of this simple dish (and by simple, I mean gloriously simple!).
    – Gayle

  • Ali

    I made this last night and LOVED it. We used Muir Glen canned tomatoes, and it was great. We used two and a half cans (the other half was used for pizza last weekend), and it was enough for dinner, lunch and one more small serving for the freezer for our family of three. But I think I might like a higher sauce to pasta ratio than the Italians would sanction.

  • Cindy

    Maybe it’s better with canned tomatoes, but I just made it with the last of my beefsteak harvest and didn’t find it tasted any different than the sauce I usually make with olive oil and garlic. I didn’t find the onion added anything.

    Did buy bucattini, so tomorrow I’ll reheat the sauce and add some crushed red pepper flakes.

  • olga

    Cindy – strange that you didn’t taste the difference; to us the butter sauce tastes so much richer and the onion is just a milder, sweeter note, not as powerful as the garlic. I don’t know how you put up your beefsteaks. The tomatoes that are typically used for canning are plum or San Marzano as beefsteaks are much too fleshy, most of the time, for canning. Also how much salt, etc you use, vs how much canned tomatoes use, can vary. In any case, sorry it failed to impress.

  • Cindy

    I used fresh tomatoes, not canned. I’m thinking that might be the difference. Will give it another try in the winter months when all I have access to are canned.

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