There’s nothing quite like the aroma of an Italian meal simmering on the stove. From seductive film icon Sophia Loren, who has said “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti,” to vineyard-dotted Tuscan hillsides, the Italians have always made cooking and dining a passionate endeavor. If food is the language of love, then a ruby red marinara sauce is the whispered proposal you’ve been waiting for. Oh, that delectable combination of tomatoes, garlic, and basil! 

When you’re craving a taste of the Old Country, you don’t have to wait for a table in a four-star restaurant to experience a flavor so genuine you’ll think you’re sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in Florence. With a handful of basic fresh ingredients and a few easy steps, you’ll be on your way to food bliss.

Plus, learning how to make sauce will earn you some bragging rights at your next dinner party. Sauce defines the meal, after all, according to singer-songwriter and chef Kelis, who studied as a saucier at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.

“Sauce is like the accessory to the little black dress,” Kelis tells us in her new Skillshare Original. “It’s the shoes, the bag, the earrings, and the lipstick.” 

Make Sauce with Kelis

The Creative Kitchen: Simple Sauces to Elevate Every Meal.

Pasta Sauce Ingredients

Before we cover how to make sauce, let’s start with what you’ll need. A few basic fresh ingredients elevate a simple homemade pasta sauce to perfection: tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil.

Tomatoes

Fresh—or high-quality canned—tomatoes are a must.
Fresh—or high-quality canned—tomatoes are a must.

Fresh tomatoes are the best choice over canned—but only when they are in season, according to Chef Nicoletta Grippo. Thankfully, there are some very good canned tomatoes out there for those many months out of the year when fresh tomatoes are not at their peak in the farmer’s market.

In her Skillshare Original class, Italian Classics Made Easy: Perfect Pasta al Pomodoro, Chef Grippo strongly advises bypassing the diced or chopped varieties for the can of whole tomatoes instead. “The quality is far greater whenever they are left whole.” During preparation, you’ll use a chef’s best tool in the kitchen—clean hands—to squish the tomatoes yourself. That way some of the integrity of the tomato is left intact. You’re free to make the tomato base as chunky as you like.

Garlic

Fresh, whole garlic is far superior to jarred. 
Fresh, whole garlic is far superior to jarred. 

Chef Grippo also suggests skipping the jars of pre-chopped garlic for your pasta sauce. Garlic begins to lose its flavor once it’s cut up and left on the shelf. Opt instead for a fresh, tight head of garlic cloves from the produce department. As a bonus, a head of garlic costs less than the jarred variety anyway, so stick with the fresh and do the prep work yourself.

Basil

F resh basil is best, but sub dried if it’s not in season.
Fresh basil is best, but sub dried if it’s not in season.

Sweet basil beautifully complements almost any dish made with tomatoes. The bright green herb is a member of the mint family, but its fresh aroma is closer to licorice, making it equally delicious in sweet and savory dishes.

This marinara recipe uses fresh basil leaves, but its dried version is also widely used in cooking. The two are interchangeable, but the measurements will differ. If you don’t have fresh basil, spice maker McCormick Kitchens suggests substituting one teaspoon of dried basil for every tablespoon of chopped fresh leaves called for in the recipe.

Olive Oil

Choose the very best olive oil you can.
Choose the very best olive oil you can.

EVOO, as it’s been nicknamed, has a velvety floral quality, and its richness simultaneously stands up to and enhances any recipe’s accompanying ingredients. While most of us connect olive oil to the verdant regions of Italy, other Mediterranean countries and even sunny California harvest some very good varieties of olive oil. No matter what region you choose, opt for the very best olive oil you can afford. 

But while it’s the fat to reach for when starting your marinara sauce, don’t waste any of that liquid gold in your pasta water, as some people do hoping to prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. Chef Grippo assures us that is a myth. “You want the sauce to adhere to the outside of every piece of pasta,” she explains. “If you add oil to the water you create a slick surface and the sauce will not stick to the pasta.”

Directions

The next time you’re craving Italian, prepare this easy marinara sauce. In less than an hour, you’ll be transported to an outdoor cafe in Italy where the scent is intoxicating and the calories never count.

Step 1: Heat the Oil

Olive oil, heated through, is the base of your sauce.
Olive oil, heated through, is the base of your sauce.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and add a generous stream of extra virgin olive oil. Swirl the pan and allow the oil to completely heat through.

Step 2: Sauté the Garlic

Saute garlic until fragrant—but not longer!
Saute garlic until fragrant—but not longer!

Slice the garlic cloves very thin and add them to the pan. Watch them closely, as garlic can burn quickly and ruin your homemade pasta sauce in the blink of an eye. Don’t allow the garlic to brown; you’re just waiting for it to become fragrant.

Step 3: Add Tomatoes

Add your tomatoes—chunky, chopped, or hand-crushed.
Add your tomatoes—chunky, chopped, or hand-crushed.

Next, lower the heat slightly and carefully add the tomatoes to the pan, and swirl it a bit so the garlic, oil, and tomatoes can get acquainted. If you’d like a spicy kick, add a sprinkle of dried red pepper flakes when you add the tomatoes.

Step 4: Add Basil

Finish with as much basil as you’d like!
Finish with as much basil as you’d like!

After the tomatoes have simmered for about 20 minutes, add some torn pieces of fresh basil leaves to bump up the authentic Italian flavor, and simmer for another minute or two.

Add another sprinkle of basil on top before serving with your favorite pasta, and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Recipe: Simple Fool-Proof Pasta Sauce

Yield: 3 to 4 cups

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Total Time: 30 to 40 minutes

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 small shallot, peeled and diced (optional)
  • 24 ounces of canned good quality whole tomatoes (such as San Marzano)
    • (use 1.5 to 2 lbs fresh ripe tomatoes when in season)
  • 8 fresh basil leaves, torn or chiffonade
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Drop in diced shallot, if using, and cook for about two minutes to soften. Add in the sliced garlic and cook for another minute, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Carefully add in the tomatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes or so. Add in the fresh basil to season the simmering sauce before serving. (If you’re including the crushed red pepper flakes, add them in with the tomatoes.)

Ladle over your favorite cooked pasta and garnish with additional torn basil leaves.

Cook the Italian Way!

Italian Classics Made Easy: Perfect Pasta al Pomodoro.