Growing up, my Italian Grandma joked that her veins actually pumped marinara sauce. This is a testament to how common and revered marinara sauce is in Italian-American families. Through the years, marinara has become more than just an Italian thing, and is a regular part of meals for families of all sorts of ethnicities. It’s part of our heritage, daily meals, and our very lives.
If you’ve tasted a good marinara, you know how spectacular it can be: naturally slightly sweet from the tomatoes, yet seasoned to savory perfection with garlic and herbs. It has the power to make pasta, pizza, and meat taste amazing.
Unfortunately, marinara often misses the mark, and tastes watery, flavorless, or just generally unremarkable. There are some common errors which are usually to blame; fortunately, as you’ll learn below, marinara mistakes are often extremely easy to remedy.
What is marinara? Sometimes referred to simply as “red sauce”, marinara is a tomato-based sauce which often contains garlic, onions, and herbs and seasoning. In the United States, it’s commonly served in Italian-American cuisine, where it is used as a pasta sauce, a pizza topping, and as a sauce for classic dishes such as eggplant or chicken parmesan.
But in actuality, marinara has roots that go way deeper than “red sauce” Italian joints in the United States.
The sauce is largely thought to have originated in Naples in the 1600s, not long after tomatoes were introduced to Italy by the Spanish. But the exact origins of the sauce itself are hazy. Some say that ship cooks created the sauce to serve on voyages, because the acidic tomatoes made it a dish that was resistant to spoiling.
Others say it was the landlubbers who came up with the sauce, serving it to the sailors after they came home from those long voyages.
Either way, the sauce became a common part of Italian cuisine, eventually migrating to the New World, where it evolved into a vital part of Italian-American cuisine. Today, it’s one of the most recognizable Italian-American sauces, and is served on pasta, with meatballs, atop chicken and eggplant parmesan, and used as pizza sauce.
This is a bit of a departure from its Italian heritage: in Italy, marinara is typically only mentioned as a style of cooking a dish: for instance, spaghetti alla marinara (roughly, “mariner-style pasta”). In Italy, marinara sauce is not a catch-all term for tomato sauce, as it is in the States.
Six Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Marinara Sauce. Usually, if marinara goes wrong, it’s due to making one of these common mistakes. Here, we’ll discuss these common errors, and how to fix them.
- You insist on only using fresh tomatoes. Fresh is best, right? Hate to break it to you, but not necessarily when it comes to imparting rich flavor on your marinara sauce.
Many esteemed foodies, including restaurant chefs and even Bon Appetit food editors, prefer using the best quality canned tomatoes for marinara sauce. Why?
For one, fresh tomatoes tend to taste best when served raw and fresh: think fresh Caprese salad. When out of season, tomatoes can be mealy and flavorless.
Using the best quality canned tomatoes you can, processed as minimally as possible (for example, whole tomatoes with no flavoring), will help you make a consistently delicious sauce. Once drained, the canned tomatoes won’t have the same amount of excess liquid of fresh tomatoes, which will yield a more concentrated flavor. Plus, the results will be consistent year round.
- You add too many extra ingredients. Capers! Mushrooms! Roasted Red peppers! Celery! Carrots! It can be tempting to jazz up your marinara with added ingredients. However, many added ingredients can impart an assertive color, flavor, or smell to your marinara, so it is a departure from the classic, and not always in a good way.
The fact is, marinara is a classic because of the simplicity of its flavors. This simplicity is also part of what makes marinara a crowd-pleaser. Don’t turn off the people you’re serving it to by making it too complicated.
- You try to make it right before dinner. Marinara is not a dish to be rushed. Slow cooking will help bring out the rich flavor of the tomatoes, and help it reduce to an assertive, rich flavor. If you try to make marinara in 30 minutes or less, you’ll end up with a bland, watery marinara.
Take the time to make your marinara taste great by cooking it slowly. If you have a slow cooker, it can “be the Italian grandmother” so you don’t have to slave over the stove.
- You pulverize it in the food processor. Marinara needs to be smoothly pureed after you cook it, right? Well, not if you like a little texture.
Choose your adventure: the texture of your marinara is up to you. You can pulse, not puree, the mixture in a food processor as little or as much as you want. Pulsing will help you monitor the progress as you go, and stop when the sauce has the texture you desire. Leaving in a few chunks for texture can make it a more interesting eating experience (not to mention, the texture will be more dynamic if you are taking pictures for instagram). If you prefer a smooth marinara, go ahead, but it is not a vital part of the process.
- You wait til the end of the cooking process to add dried herbs, salt, and pepper. Since the best marinara is slow cooked over medium heat, adding spices and flavorings early will ensure that they have plenty of time to infuse the sauce with flavor without becoming bitter. Of course you can add more spice as you cook and taste, but set yourself with a flavorful foundation by seasoning early on in the process.
Note: This tip is for dried spices and herbs only. Fresh herbs such as basil should be added in toward the end of the cooking process.
- You throw away all of the pasta water. Don’t just pulse your marinara to your desired consistency then spoon it over a bowl of pasta. For the best eating experience, reserve a little bit of the water that you cooked your pasta in (I use about ¼ cup), and add it to your marinara sauce. Not only will it help thicken the sauce, but the starch will help it stick to pasta.
Use this method for perfectly saucing your pasta: mix the pasta water-thickened sauce with the pasta when the noodles are just cooked to the al dente point, directly after you finish cooking. The mixture will combine beautifully, with a little sauce touching every noodle, for a truly memorable eating experience.
With the proper technique down, you’ll be a marinara master in no time. By following these simple tips for marinara success, many Italian feasts are bound to be part of your future cooking!
What is your favorite dish featuring marinara?