The only guide you need for complex pasta sauce

March 27, 2022

One of the most useful skills I’ve added as an adult is the ability to make a complex pasta sauce from scratch. This particular recipe is especially useful because it is multiple sauces in one — you can stop at different points and have sauces for different uses. Moreover, depending on what the sauce is going with, you can make a few key additions here and there.

I've tried making Marcella Hazan's ultra-simple marinara sauce, and it's fine. It only kind of worked for me, because I don't understand why anyone would try to impart onion flavor into your sauce without actually including onions to eat. It's not hard to do better.

The base ingredients in all variations are: Olive oil, white or yellow onion (I prefer half a large yellow onion), a bunch of garlic, and a tin of anchovies packed in olive oil.

Start heating a large pan over medium-high heat while you roughly chop the onion. There’s no need to be precise. In fact, if you dice it too small, the onion will cook too quickly and you also won’t get the right kind of mouthfeel you want from larger chunks. Pour a few glugs of olive oil in the pan and when it shimmers toss in the onion. Make sure the onion is well coated with oil and keep an eye on it as you roughly chop the garlic.

There’s a long history of people writing and arguing about how long it takes to properly cook onions, and for me it always takes different lengths of times, depending on my pan and which stovetop I’m using. This is a matter of taste, but I always try to get them merely softened a bit before I add the garlic, and then by the time the garlic is starting to brown, the onions are probably getting there, too.

That’s the point when I add the anchovies, which will add saltiness and a huge dose of umami. Use whatever implement you’re using to stir the onions and garlic to lightly mash the anchovies and make sure they’re fully in the oil. You want the fishies to basically melt into the oil and onion and garlic to make a paste-like concoction. If you’ve done it right, you’ll have a sauce that’s delicious in its own right. I’ve tossed pasta in that base, alone, added some steamed peas and parmesan, and there’s a great meal. So maybe that’s where you want to stop.

BUT. As great as that sauce is, we can do better. One variation is to, at this point, add diced jalapeño (unseeded is best for most people; seeded is best for the adventurous) and cook that down into the mixture for some real kick. You definitely need a starch if you’re going to stop here, whether that’s pasta, rice, or even just bread. Maybe you add cannellini beans in addition to your starch. I’m not you! You need to decide these things!

Whether you add jalapeño or a generous squirt of sriracha or no extra kick at all to your salty base, you have a couple options here. Sometimes, I want my sauce to be layered with ground meat, in which case I add my beef or turkey or whatever at this stage, when I can mix it up with my base and get it all soaked in. And if you do that, great! Brown the meat, and then proceed straight to the next step.

Or skip the meat and go straight to the next step, which is adding the contents of a 28-ounce can of peeled tomatoes. I’ve tried using tomatoes off the vine, and while maybe you might taste a difference, I’ve always been very happy using canned tomatoes, in large part because the tomato-y liquid in the can helps the sauce. I have no brand recommendations, though for what it’s worth The Wirecutter did some taste tests. Usually, I just go to our local discount market (Grocery Outlet!) and see what they have. The past few times I’ve made this sauce, I’ve used canned fire-roasted tomatoes, which has been lovely.

Oh yeah, the recipe. So, you add the canned peeled tomatoes and crush them with your stirring implement so that their innards gush out and the pulpy goodness spreads throughout your pan. Stir it all up, especially if you’ve got meat in there. I also usually add a small can of tomato paste at this point to further thicken things up, but I get it if you don’t want to add it because usually it’s pretty sweet, and ultimately it’s not strictly necessary because we’re going to simmer this baby for a good long while. Other options at this point are a big hunk of butter, which adds a mellowing richness to the sauce, or — my favorite — a few glugs of red wine, which usually plays well with the tomatoes. So yeah, add all that stuff, heat until it’s bubbling in the pan, then turn the heat to low for a long simmer. Maybe 20 minutes? You want the sauce to be pretty thick and robust when you’re done simmering.

Over that 20 minutes, cook your pasta. If you’re using just the base as your sauce, adjust accordingly, because the base need not simmer. One of the beauties of this sauce is just about any shape will do. But I like bucatini for a base-only preparation. If you’re going with the full-fledged tomato sauce version, rigatoni is a classic, but, really, most non-elbow macaroni shapes work because it’ll be both thick enough to catch hold in chunks and thin enough to coat the pasta.

Say I’m cooking spaghetti (my family’s preference). If the box says to cook for 10 minutes, I cook for eight minutes, because after I drain the pasta in my colander, I’m immediately transferring the noodles to my simmering pan to toss the pasta and finish their cooking in the sauce. Serve immediately.

There are a lot of fancy things you can do to gussy this up. Pan sear chicken chunks separately and add them at the end. Add capers. Kalamata olives! Spinach! It will all taste good so long as you get that base right.

And once you’re comfortable with that, make some even bolder choices. Perhaps leave out the anchovies, substitute some squeezes of lemon, and add premium jarred tuna at the end. Perhaps at the simmer stage, add a few scoops of artichoke jalapeño dip to give turn it into a creamier, almost vodka saucy, mix.

But it all starts with the onions, garlic, and anchovies. Get that right, and you’re golden.

(Photo by the author. That's right: Sometimes, I take pictures while cooking, because I need other people to understand how great it feels to make something delicious, myself. This is a version using the fire-roasted canned tomatoes.)