Marinara Sauce (a basic recipe + tips for variations)

For every type of marinara sauce stocked on stores’ shelves, there are dozens – probably even hundreds – of recipes available on the Internet. With so many variations to choose from, the best way to decide your favorite is to simply make your own. With a few guidelines under your belt, you can easily play around with flavor additions to achieve your perfect red sauce.


1. Start with good canned tomatoes!

  • I love fire-roasted tomatoes, and vacillate back and forth between crushed and diced.
  • I prefer a smooth sauce, so I always puree mine with an immersion blender at the end, rendering the decision between crushed and diced insignificant.
  • My standard ratio of tomato products is the following: 28 oz canned crushed or diced tomatoes to 8 oz canned tomato sauce to 1 Tbsp tomato paste.
  • If you’re curious about specific brands, I like Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Tomatoes.

2. Build layers of flavor – even before adding spices.

  • I know that some people have an aversion to onions and/or garlic, so feel free to omit them. If – like me – you love ’em, then saute onions and garlic in some olive oil as the base of your sauce. Caramelized onions are another option.
  • Sometimes I add red wine to the sauce, sometimes I don’t. It usually depends on whether or not we have an open bottle in the kitchen. I like Pinot Noir, but Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz all work fine.
  • Some people like sweeter sauces, so you can add honey or granulated sugar to taste. Chopped carrots added in with the onions and garlic is a natural way to sweeten your sauce. I don’t include these ingredients, as the tomatoes provide enough sweetness for my taste.
  • Adding ground meat (chicken, pork, beef, sausage) to the onions and garlic is another way to add depth of flavor to your sauce. I tend to use less meat than most recipes call for, preferring to use it as a flavor element rather than main ingredient when I make meat sauce.
  • A vegetarian option for “beefing” up your marinara sauce is sliced mushrooms. I am NOT a mushroom fan, so you won’t find them in my sauce, but feel free to saute some into the onions and garlic if you’d like.
  • Yet another tasty add-in is sundried tomatoes. If you’re using oil-packed tomatoes, give them a good draining before adding to the cooked onions and garlic; sundried tomatoes not packed in oil will plump up during the cooking process as they absorb the moisture from the sauce.

3. Spices & seasonings.

  • If you decide to use no-salt-added canned tomato products, you will obviously want to season your sauce to taste with Kosher salt.
  • Freshly cracked black pepper always makes its way into my sauce.
  • Other favorite spices include dried oregano, basil, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, onion powder, bay leaves, and dried parsley.
  • For a spicier marinara sauce, add in more red pepper flakes to taste.

4. Finishing touches.

  • Once the sauce is done cooking, you can add additional flavor by way of chopped fresh basil and/or parsley.
  • Another nice finishing touch is grated parmesan stirred into the fully cooked sauce.
  • For a creamy sauce, add in 1/4 cup half-and-half or milk to the cooked sauce.
  • You can also stir in 1/4 cup prepared pesto into your cooked marinara sauce.

Now that you’re armed with a bunch of tips for putting your own spin on marinara sauce, take a look at my basic recipe and let your taste buds guide you :).

Basic Marinara Sauce

Printer-Friendly Recipe


  • olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow or white onion, diced
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup red wine (optional)
  • 1 28 oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes plus their juices
  • 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 rounded Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes


  1. Heat about 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in the onions and saute until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add in the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
  2. Add in the rest of the ingredients, and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat.
  3. Reduce heat to low and simmer sauce for about 1 hour.
  4. Sample the sauce throughout the simmering time and adjust seasonings to taste.
  5. Leave sauce chunky, or blend until smooth using an immersion blender (or regular blender).

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