Marcella Hazan, often described as the Julia Child of Italian food, has written some remarkable cookbooks. I own several and they have never steered me wrong. When I needed a lasagne recipe, not being a lasagne fan, it was to Marcella that I turned. It was a remarkable lasagne. Sadly, she passed away in 2013, crushing my dreams of taking one of her cooking classes but she left behind quite the legacy. I’ve been reading about her butter tomato sauce for years yet have never made it. Like many things that receive endless glowing reviews – Harry Potter books, Mad Men, LaLa Land, Chik-Fil-A – I tend to run the other way. If everyone is enthusiastically waxing on and on about something I become suspicious. Misguided? Probably. Cynical? Certainly. This tomato sauce was definitely one of those things. Just four ingredients? How good could it be? How many tomato sauce recipes does one really need? I was pretty sure I was fine. How wrong I was.
I’d read many, many articles and posts over the years and was recently reminded of it again when The New York Times article from 2013 popped up in my feed. Smitten Kitchen, a popular food blog, also had a post on this sauce in 2013. Saveur back in 2012, and Food52 before that in 2011. Orangette even earlier in 2007. But it was on the blog Amateur Gourmet where I first read about it in 2005. 12 years and countless articles and posts later, I finally tried it. What the hell was I waiting for?
The recipe is indeed simple – 4 ingredients. Good tomatoes, butter, an onion cut in half and a pinch of salt. Those four basic ingredients in a pot and simmered for 45 minutes. Then it’s done. Just like that. The simplicity belies the amazing flavor, trust me.
With so few ingredients, quality matters so I sprung for the fancy, San Marzano tomatoes. 3 bucks. The can with the cool label, you know the one. I had butter, onions and salt at home and I was planning on making the pasta. Could it really be this easy?
I bought whole tomatoes, as diced tomatoes are treated with calcium chloride to maintain their shape and they never really break down during cooking. I pulled down a medium saucepan and with great, almost sadistic, pleasure, crushed each tomato by hand with a big, messy squeeze. If you are harboring some anger or frustration, smash some tomatoes in your hands. It can be a sloppy endeavor (hold your hand deep into that pot or tomato debris will squirt all over you and your kitchen walls) but it is oh so satisfying.
An onion cut in half (root to stem aka pole to pole, not across the equator) is nestled in, then tablespoons of butter and a pinch of salt. That’s it. Simmer for 45 minutes and you have a silky, unbelievable rich and sumptuous sauce. Resist the urge to skimp on the butter (Dad, I’m talking to you) as it is what makes the sauce incredibly velvety. More to the point, it’s what makes this sauce, this sauce. I left mine a little chunky but a quick buzz with an immersion blend will yield a smooth sauce in no time.
So about that onion. Most recipes say to discard it after cooking but I didn’t it. How could you? I toasted some fat slices of country bread and smeared it on top. It was soft from the slow simmer with a bit of a rich, acidic flavor from the tomatoes. Made quite the nice snack, let me tell you.
I admit, I’m beyond late to the party train on this one. Chances are good you are too but that shouldn’t be any reason hold back from trying this. It’s wiggling it way into my tomato sauce repertoire for certain.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: SMASHING GOOD SUCCESS. There’s a reason folks wax on emphatically about this sauce. It is damn good and ridiculously simple. Everyone has room for a recipe like this. I cannot emphasize enough how great it feels to get in their with your hands and wreak some tomato damage. If that’s not your thing, insert a pair of kitchen scissors into the can and cut away. It will accomplish the same thing but won’t be nearly as satisfying. I’m just saying.
Eight years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)
Seven years ago: Pretzel Rolls (my most popular post ever, Behind the Scenes
Six years ago: Guinness Stout Floats
Five years ago: Liege Sugar Waffles
Four years ago: Masala Chai
Three years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Two years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
Last year: Guinness Pretzel Toffee
MARCELLA HAZAN’S BUTTER TOMATO SAUCE
Makes enough sauce for 1 pound of pasta
Many posts mention using fresh tomatoes but I haven’t tried that so won’t comment. I would think they’d need to be peeled first as the texture would mar the lovely silkiness of the sauce and that adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t ring true for me here.
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into Tablespoon sized pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
pinch of kosher salt
- Add the tomatoes and all the juices to a medium saucepan and, with your hands, crush each one. Keep your hand deep in the pot to avoid inadvertent and messy squirts. Alternatively, insert a pair of kitchen scissors into the can and cut many times to chop up the tomatoes.
- Nestle in the onion halves, butter pieces and a pinch of salt.
- Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon.
- Taste and add more salt if needed.
- Remove the onion and save for another use (like a snack.)
- If you’d like a smoother sauce, give it a buzz with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. Toss the sauce with pasta. This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.