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Marcella Hazan's Tomato Butter Sauce

I made the famous tomato butter sauce last night with some tomatoes that my wife canned last summer. I can't believe that I waited so long to try something so simple and delicious.

I just had to share.

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  1. It's a great recipe, isn't it? I decided last weekend that we needed to start "kids make dinner" night with my 11 and 7 year olds and this is what I had them make because it's just so darn easy. We ended up using both canned tomatoes and fresh tomatoes I'd blanched, peeled and frozen last fall and it was so good! I like to give it a whir at the end of cooking with my immersion blender to smooth out the texture. My 11 year old enjoyed that a lot!

      1. When I made tomato sauce for meatballs on vacation with family, they loved it. I didn't tell them how much butter was in it ;-)

        1 Reply
        1. re: monavano

          Don't tell anybody how much butter is in it. Just let them think they are eating a healthy red sauce.

        2. It is one of our favorites.

          1. Hazan recommends this with gnocchi. Has anyone tried it that way? One of these days I would like to try it with polenta. Corn and butter are such good bedfellows.

            5 Replies
            1. re: ChrisOfStumptown

              I make pretty good gnocchi. I might try this combo. If I do I will report back.

                  1. re: jpc8015

                    I don't know if I saw the appeal of the combination.

                1. re: ChrisOfStumptown

                  It's amazing.

                  I do her gnocchi recipe as well, the one that just has potatoes, flour and salt (no egg), with the sauce.

                2. I made it when my husband was out of town since he is not a big fan of butter. I had anticipated this sauce for so long but as I brought the first gorgeous forkful to my nose, it had a very familiar aroma. Couldn't place it for a moment and then it came to me, it smelled just like Chef Boyardee Ravioli in the can, something I haven't eaten in decades. Now I love pasta, eat it three times a week, but I couldn't finish that bowlful.

                  23 Replies
                  1. re: escondido123

                    My husband and I are the only ones on the planet who don't like that butter sauce, or so I thought. There Are others out there, I know. It has no character. No complex flavors. Even a very basic marinara sauce has a distinct taste that transforms cooked pasta. We made the sauce during a recent Hazan COTM to see what all the accolades were about. Now we know. But, everyone has their favorites which I respect.

                    1. re: Gio

                      I made this, too, a long time ago. Not a repeat since. Meh.

                      1. re: linguafood

                        Same here...tried it once, never again. "Meh" is the perfect description.

                        1. re: Springhaze2

                          I concur on the "meh" reaction. I'm glad I tried it, but it wasn't transformative. I have another relatively quick marinara sauce with a bit more work, but much better flavor, that I'll continue to use.

                      2. re: Gio

                        I was appalled by it, and posted as much in the thread I linked upthread. Got into a smackdown over that one but
                        I felt somewhat redeemed when I saw an episode of Mind of a Chef in which the since-departed Hazan treated the reverential, eager-to-please-her April rather ungraciously as she sampled April's gnudi.

                        1. re: Gio

                          Thank goodness. I was feeling like a grinch because I thought there was nothing much to the sauce, and what little there was to it, I didn't even like a whole lot. Didn't taste like sauce, didn't taste Italian.
                          Now I find to my relief, I'm not alone!
                          (Yeah. Meh is the word.)

                          1. re: BerkshireTsarina

                            My first thought is that it was under salted, or that the tomatoes weren't great. However, it is a very subtle sauce. It might just not be your thing.

                            1. re: Becca Porter

                              It is also not meant to be eaten in the giant quantities we tend to think of as a pasta serving.

                              And the salt is very important.

                              1. re: magiesmom

                                I think that what may have made it so great for me was the fact that I had great tomatoes that were picked and canned at home in the peak of their season and flavor.

                                This is such a simple sauce that if you don't have great tomatoes there is nothing else you have to make up for it.

                                1. re: jpc8015

                                  Yes, the tomatoes are key. The first time I made it I used excellent San Marzanos and the sauce was incredible. The second time, I used some tomatoes that my mother had grown and frozen, and it was only ok (I have no idea what variety they were but I doubt they were a variety that is generally accepted as being good for sauce).

                                  Still, I do think that butter (instead of olive oil) brings something very interesting to the tomato party. I made a garlicky pizza sauce last weekend, using butter to saute the garlic, and it was MUCH more delicious than it is when I make it with olive oil.

                          2. re: Gio

                            Gio, for me, it takes the place of "tomato sauce" and isn't a "sauce" unto itself. I use it, when I do, in place of canned or box tomato sauce.

                            1. re: c oliver

                              What you're calling "canned or box tomato sauce" is simply Italian tomatoes in a can or box To Be Used for Making The Sauce. The word sauce refers to the finished dressing for a plate of pasta, or as we call it, macaroni.. Macaroni sauce is the cooked product made from canned or boxed tomatoes. There are many types of tomato sauces: Amatriciana, alla Norma, Marinara, etc., and Marcella's.

                              Of course there are brands of already prepared sauces for pasta such as Rao's, Prego, and even a very tasty one from Trader Joe's.

                              +Finally, I Do know how to sauce a plate of macaroni. My heritage is Italian from both parents back to at least the 12th century, my mother having been born in Italy. I've been eating macaroni all. my. life.

                              1. re: Gio

                                No, I'm talking about when a recipe calls for "tomato sauce." The totally smooth stuff. I'm just saying that's how I use the Hazan one. NOT as a finished product to 'dress' pasta with but rather an ingredient to make various things that call for "tomato sauce." :) You can tell I have a couple of hours free time if I'm posting! x,c

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  Well, the fact is that MH designed the butter/tomato/onion sauce to be used w pasta. If I need a tomato sauce as an ingredient in a recipe I use a simple marinara.

                            2. re: Gio

                              I made this a few years ago after reading here. Reminded me of tomato chutney that we eat with dosas & idli, without the spice of course. Not for spaghetti, thank you.

                              But now I'm here reading again, what exactly is the original version? Canned or fresh tomatoes? I had used fresh (as per that thread). Guessing taste would be vastly different if using canned.

                              1. re: ceekskat

                                I think that fresh tomatoes are prefered. But being January in Oregon, good fresh tomatoes are next to impossible to come by. SO I used tomatoes that my wife canned this summer.

                              2. re: escondido123

                                Funny...I used it to top some chicken ravioli that I bought at Costco. I think it was a bit better than a can of ravioli.

                                1. re: escondido123

                                  Add me to the list. I make all kinds of my husband's grandmothers sauces and compared to them, this is so boring and plain. I like to add a few dabs of butter to the olive oil when starting a pot of sauce, but it is far from finished ingredientwise at that point. Not a family heirloom in my book.

                                  Just finished reading all the replies and as others have said, my suspicion is everyone who loves it is making it from home grown tomatoes. Hard for it to be all bad. That would be once a year at most around here though. Anyway the original recipe calling for canned is obviously store bought since she specifies 28z, so total fail in my book.

                                  1. re: coll

                                    I make a lot of tomato sauces and almost always used canned tomatoes. I love tomato sauces but this one definitely went off in a bad direction for me -- it wasn't subtle.

                                  2. re: escondido123

                                    I never found the aroma to resemble Chef Boyardee's Ravioli in a can. But I can't remember the last time I've opened up a can of Chef Boyardee anything. Usually the cheese in the can stuff gives it an awful smell.

                                    As far as flavor I find it a concentrated tomato taste. The butter cuts the acid in the tomatoes and if you didn't tell someone it has made with butter they wouldn't know. The butter is completely incorporated into the sauce once reduced.

                                  3. I haven't made or tried this recipe. But I'm curious - what's the advantage of combining the tomato and butter and then cooking for 45 minutes over cooking down the tomato and onion (probably with enough butter or olive oil to coat the pan initially) and then mounting with butter to finish? Seems backwards to me.

                                    15 Replies
                                      1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                        Translation... you're not really sure either why to do it that way either?

                                        No offense, but there are a billion recipes out there to try, and only so much time to try em. Sell me on it.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          Translation - it's taste that matters. No offense taken, but this simple recipe takes less than an hour to make and gets rave reviews from many (including me).. Any "science" explanation won't tell YOU whether you agree with those who love it or those who say "meh".

                                          1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                            I wasn't asking whether I'd love it. I'm asking why you'd choose one technique over another. Since so many people give it rave reviews, someone should be able to explain its advantages.

                                            If you're not sure yourself, you might consider changing the recipe to whisk in the butter at the end, off the heat. I would expect better emulsification and a brighter flavors this way.

                                            1. re: cowboyardee

                                              Do you think it might work with brown butter?

                                              1. re: ChrisOfStumptown

                                                You cannot mount with brown butter to finish a sauce (or at least, you won't get the same creamy, silky effect) - it doesn't stay emulsified in liquid the same way cold butter does. On the other hand, you could brown the butter for the Hazan recipe before adding the tomatoes and onion and then cook for a different effect. Might be good. And at least that seems like a decent reason to add all the butter early in the recipe.

                                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                                  Next time I attempt it I will finish with butter. It may be a while though. I've made the sauce twice, most recently about a year ago. The first bite was great, but by the end of the second batch I was tired of it. It's fatiguing. Perhaps better incorporating the butter will help with that.

                                                  The funny thing is that I usually like to drizzle olive oil over my spaghetti marinara. But the notion of melted butter on top just doesn't appeal. Maybe the Italian sensibility is just different from mine.

                                                  1. re: ChrisOfStumptown

                                                    I suspect the flavor will be a bit brighter and the texture somewhat silkier by adding in the butter at the end, off the heat - OTOH, who knows, since I haven't tried the recipe as written and the 'butter first' crowd aren't exactly detailing why or how following the recipe is better.

                                                    "The first bite was great, but by the end of the second batch I was tired of it."
                                                    I'm thinking you might still have this problem though. Either way you make it, this is a very simple sauce that might not have the depth or complexity to hold up through the last bite of a particularly big serving.

                                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                                      My favorite sauce gravy sort of sauce is just a simple marinara - oil+garlic cooked briefly plus a can of tomatoes, and some basil at the end. I never make a winter sauce with sugar, carrots, wine, oregano, etc. Simple is better.

                                                      I didn't have anyone to talk about this with, so now I'm thinking this through. Probably it's a lack of balance, sweet flavors from the onion and especially the butter with nothing to set it off against. I could eat pasta with marinara several times a week and not tire of it.

                                                      I could imagine the sauce being very good with something to soak up the butter like gnocchi, polenta, or eggplant.

                                        2. re: cowboyardee

                                          I really like this recipe for it's simplicity. It's basically a "what's in the pantry" dish that can be made in a pinch. It's also pretty delicious. If you use premium canned tomatoes (San Marzano) and some good quality butter, it's very good.

                                          You basically throw the butter, tomatoes and onion in a pot and cook. The butter and tomatoes cook down, the water evaporates and the buttery-tomato-y goodness is concentrated. The key is to add enough salt. I don't add butter at the end. I don't think it needs it.

                                          And the buttery onions are a great snack.

                                          1. re: chefhound

                                            So, is simplicity the only reason to throw the butter in at the beginning rather than the end?

                                            1. re: cowboyardee

                                              I think that cooking them together helps to create an emulsion of the two. Otherwise you may just end up with greasy tomato.

                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                In addition to jpc's thoughts...

                                                Hazan makes a point to say that sauces "cook by evaporation, which concentrates and clearly defines their flavor." While the amount of water in the butter pales in comparison to the amount of water in the tomatoes perhaps that is her reasoning for adding butter at the beginning.

                                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                                  And the butter flavour is more concentrated because the water is cooked out.

                                                  And what jpc8015 said.

                                            2. It's a sin that the recipe calls for discarding the onion. I slice it into the number of plates I'm serving and plop it right on the side of the pasta. Soft and sweet.

                                              7 Replies
                                              1. re: nokitchen

                                                ...(post I was responding to was corrected.)

                                                1. re: Springhaze2

                                                  The onion is discarded not the tomato.

                                                  1. re: Gio

                                                    Doh! Fixed. Springhaze2 and Gio above are't insane -- I previously erroneously conflated tomato and onion. Thanks for catching that, folks.

                                                    1. re: nokitchen

                                                      That's very reassuring, nokitchen. LOL

                                                2. re: nokitchen

                                                  I eat the onion as a cook's treat.

                                                  1. re: nokitchen

                                                    I separate the onion into its layers and stuff them with a sausage and mushroom stuffing (plus some bits of the onion and lots of cheese) and bake for an appetizer. SO good!

                                                  2. I made it recently - nothing to brag about.

                                                    1. Marcella Hazan"s latest COTM month was November 2013. Here's a recent discussion of this controversial sauce, and upthread from that post is an older discussion...


                                                      1. I really like this sauce. Definitely don't throw out the onion! I've made it a couple of times. I do think it's something you have to be in the right mood for. I usually tend toward more puttanesca-type sauces that have a number of assertive flavors in them, but when I've wanted something really simple this is perfect (to me). Good tomatoes are definitely a must-this isn't the time to drag out the can of Safeway-brand.