Aunt Jane’s Killer Marinara Italian Pasta Sauce

This entry is part 7 of 55 in the series Vegetarian

Today’s story is “How I Learned to Make Spaghetti Sauce … oops, make that Pasta sauce! When you join an Italian family one of the first things you learn is that there many types of pasta, what they are each called, and that you never refer to pasta as “spaghetti” unless it really is spaghetti! And, God forbid, you think a jar of sauce is something you can serve! When an Italian-American refers to pasta sauce, it will invariably be Marinara, a vegetarian sauce made with just tomatoes, garlic (or onions), olive oil, and maybe basil. The rest of America typically pops open a jar or makes a meat-sauce. You know the one, with tomato sauce, hamburger, onions, and a ton of garlic. When Marinara is so quick and easy to make and tastes monumentally better than store-bought sauce, I don’t know why anyone would ever buy another jar.

There is also a difference in how the pasta is presented. Italians very lightly dress the pasta with a sauce, toss it together, and serve with grated Parmesan cheese. My mother cooked the spaghetti (the only form of pasta we knew existed except for macaroni!), put it on a plate and poured a large ladleful of sauce over the top. I never knew it was supposed to be coated until I married James.

My father-in-law makes his sauce with a lot of olive oil, a few cloves of smashed garlic, and tomatoes. I like to use less oil, add onions along with the garlic, and I like the flavor of oregano and basil. Sometimes I’ll add a chopped bell pepper if I have one in the refrigerator. Once the sauce is made, it is endlessly flexible. You can lightly sauté some vegetables like zucchini or yellow squash and toss them in the sauce. You can bake meatballs and serve with pasta and sauce. Use this sauce with Chicken or Eggplant Parmesan or lasagna. It works on pizza, bruschetta, and can be made into a tomato soup. Add a little to chicken stock and create the base for either a Minestrone or Tortilla soup. I typically make a huge batch at a time, ladle into sealable plastic bags, lay flat on a baking sheet, and freeze. When hard, remove the baking sheet and stack the bags in the freezer. It is so easy to pull a bag out to make a fresh pasta dinner. If my husband has had a stressful day, nothing soothes his soul like a big plate of pasta! It is most definitely his comfort food.

Aunt Jane’s Killer Marinara Sauce
Yields 10
When I married my Italian husband, I had to learn to make a marinara sauce. I stood next to my father-in-law at the stove and watched him make the family favorite. I took that information, put my spin on it and created my own version. Adjust it to your own personal taste and discover a new family tradition.
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  1. 2 to 4 tbsp olive oil
  2. 1 medium onion, diced
  3. 1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved lengthwise (remove the bitter center)
  4. 2 tsp dried basil
  5. 2 tsp dried oregano
  6. 2 large cans (28 oz each) crushed tomatoes (I like Muir Glen or Pomi)
  7. 1 large can (28 oz) diced tomatoes with the juices
  8. 1-1/2 cups red wine – if you prefer not to use wine, add water instead
  9. 1 tsp each salt and freshly ground black pepper
  10. 1 tsp sugar
  11. About 10 to 12 fresh basil leaves, optional
  12. Grated Parmesan cheese
  1. In a large Dutch oven or deep heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. When oil is shimmering carefully add onions. Stir to coat evenly with oil. Cook, stirring occasionally until onion is softened and translucent, but not browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic, dried basil, and oregano. When you can smell the garlic, but before it browns, add tomatoes and wine. Add salt, pepper and sugar; stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low or low and let sauce simmer slowly for at least 30 minutes and up to 1-1/2 hours. Add water if sauce becomes too thick. Remove the garlic pieces if desired. If you like a chunky sauce, serve as is, or purée for a smoother consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  2. Near the end of cooking, stack basil leaves and slice horizontally into very thin strips. Stir half into the sauce and use rest for garnish.
  3. Put pasta into well-salted boiling water. Drain when just slightly underdone. Remember, there is carry-over cooking and adding hot sauce to the pasta will continue to cook it. Toss pasta with a little sauce, put in a warmed serving bowl and sprinkle with some Parmesan cheese and remaining basil.
  1. Yield: about 8 to 10 servings
The Heritage Cook ®
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  1. Silvana says

    Is there any benefit to cooking a marinara sauce all day long? And, would you do this with this recipe? Thank you.

    • says

      Marinara does not really benefit from long cooking. It doesn’t hurt it, but marinara is usually considered more of a “fresh” sauce. Meat sauce, “ragu” is the sauce that is best when cooked low and slow for many hours.

  2. says

    I just love your lighter adaptation of your family’s marinara sauce and might just have to adapt it one more time using fresh tomatoes. I’ve got a ton of the latter in the garden and need to cook up a big batch of them right this minute. Many thanks for sharing your wonderful recipe!

    • says

      Hi Barbara,

      Welcome! I encourage you to use fresh tomatoes when you have them. They are amazing in this recipe! I would recommend running them through a food mill to remove the seeds, or seed them before chopping. You’ll have to tell us how it turns out!

  3. Bambi says

    I’m going to make this sauce then use it to coat the veggies my husband will grill tonight!


  4. says

    The sauce’s really amazing, it sounds really yummy. I can’t wait to try it on my spaghetti.