I’m continuing to work through my list of “basics” recipes, and today I’m sharing one of my favorites: tomato sauce with butter and onion. The first time I tasted tomato sauce with butter in it was in Rome at my great-aunt Franca’s house. She had made her sugo semplice (“simple sauce”)–a soffritto of finely chopped carrot, celery, and onion sautéed in hot olive oil, and a bottle of passata (strained tomato sauce) poured over the lightly caramelized vegetables and left on the stove to simmer for a little less than an hour until the sauce was slightly reduced and flavorful. Once the sauce was ready to toss with pasta, I watched my zia unwrap the foil from a brick of lightly salted butter, cut off a knob, and plop it into the sauce. A few stirs melted the butter and turned the sauce a paler shade of red. Its rich flavor and creamy texture was a revelation and I brought this trick back home with me where I use it occasionally to finish my tomato sauce.
Not too long after I started blogging, as I was reading as many blogs as I could fit into a day, I came across Marcella Hazan’s recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onion. It was a new recipe to me, but the Internet had already been going wild for it. I quickly added Marcella’s iconic cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking to my bookshelf and the sauce was one of the first recipes I tried from the book. I was no longer a stranger to the concept of adding butter to tomato sauce, but I wondered about a tomato sauce without a soffritto or olive oil. Nevertheless, I made it and finally understood why everyone is enamored with this sauce.
I’m always delighted when I make tomato sauce with butter and onion. It never ceases to amaze me how three ingredients (four if you count the salt) can come together to produce a silky, almost creamy sauce with a round, mellow flavor. Marcella’s instructions are to put all the ingredients into the pot at the same time, turn on the heat, and let it cook, but I take an extra step that I believe is worth doing: after melting the butter completely, I let the two onion halves lightly sauté in the butter to take on just the slightest golden color. As this happens, the butter starts to brown, but I don’t let it go too far–just a few golden specks is sufficient after which the tomatoes are poured in and everything is given a thorough stir. I let the sauce perk and gurgle on the stovetop on low-ish heat for close to an hour, stirring often. What happens during this cooking hour is described by many as “magical”. The butter gives the sauce rich flavor and tempers the tomatoes’ acidity. The onion essentially stews in the sauce, releasing its juices as it collapses and cooks down, imparting its savory flavor. Once the sauce is finished cooking, the onion halves are plucked out and what’s left is a tomato sauce that will firmly reside at the top of your cooking repertoire.
Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
I prefer to pair this sauce with short pasta shapes, but it pairs just as beautifully with long shapes. Some suggestions: penne rigate, rigatoni, fusilli, farfalle, spaghetti, and fusilli bucati (to name a few).
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
In a sauce pot, melt the butter over medium heat until it’s no longer foaming. Add in the onion halves and stir them around in the butter until they take on a light golden color and the butter starts to brown lightly. Add in the tomatoes and the salt and stir to combine. Do not be concerned if you see some of the butter separating and floating on top of the sauce–it will eventually blend into the sauce as you keep stirring. Cover the pot partially and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the sauce for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Towards the end of cooking, taste the sauce and adjust for salt as necessary.
Storage: Cool the sauce to room temperature before transferring to freezer-safe containers. Freeze for up to 3 months.