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How to make a hearty vegetarian marinara sauce

This is an easy, flavorful tomato sauce with practically no prep. It’s also the perfect sauce to make in a big batch and freeze in small portions, because it tastes just as good a couple of months later as it does right after it’s made!

A large bowl of red sauce.

Marinara, Tomato, or Spaghetti Sauce?

I eat some variation of tomatoes with pasta almost every day. Sometimes I make a quick sauce with fresh tomatoes, but more often than not I grab a brick of my vegetarian marinara sauce out of the freezer and thaw it in the microwave while my spaghetti cooks. 

Around the house I always just call this my homemade tomato sauce, but if we want to get technical, it’s not a tomato sauce in the traditional sense. So what is it? And what is it not?

Tomato sauce

A real Italian tomato sauce is what you would hear mobsters on TV shows refer to as “gravy” and is definitely not vegetarian.

It’s a thick sauce that usually starts with the drippings from cooking meat, and also has stock or broth, some kind of thickener, and either onions or a soffrito (carrots, celery, and onions)—basically, how I start when I make turkey gravy on Thanksgiving. And, of course, tomatoes. It should cook for hours. All day, even. Picture Henry Hill’s wheelchair-bound brother towards the end of Goodfellas, stuck next to the stove, stirring the sauce so it doesn’t stick, yelling “I’m stirring it!” That’s a Sunday gravy, or tomato sauce.

Marinara Sauce

My sauce is much closer to a marinara sauce. Depending on who you listen to, marinara never has onions or always has onions, never has sugar or always has sugar, never has oregano or always has oregano…you get the idea. So some people might not consider this a marinara sauce, either, since my sauce has none of those things.

But most Italians agree that marinara sauce always has garlic, crushed red pepper, and basil, and is cooked for an hour or less. So mine is pretty close to that definition.

However, there are two big differences between my sauce and a traditional marinara sauce. One, I like mine very thick, while marinara is usually fairly thin. And the secret ingredient in my sauce is cheese, which is very much not traditional.

Spaghetti Sauce

Spaghetti sauce is often a generic term used for whatever red sauce you’re putting on your spaghetti, but it’s usually thicker than marinara, and has meat.

Ingredients

Canned tomato sauce

To complicate things further, the main ingredient in my marinara sauce is…wait for it…tomato sauce.

What??

I hear you, just a few paragraphs up I defined tomato sauce as a thick, meat-based red gravy that cooks all day. But if you buy a can of tomato sauce from the grocery store, that’s not what you’re going to get!

The tomato sauce sold in stores is made up of un-seasoned or very lightly-seasoned tomatoes (including the seeds and skins) that have been cooked and then blended until totally smooth. Technically it could be eaten as-is, but it would be super bland and boring.

You can substitute tomato puree, which is similar to tomato sauce but is uncooked, or passata, which is also uncooked, but has had the seeds and skin strained out. If you use either of these, you should cook the marinara for closer to an hour, to make up for the fact that the tomatoes haven’t been pre-cooked for you.

But how much?

I didn’t want to give an exact amount for the tomato sauce, because there are so many different ways to buy it. Sometimes I use three of these tetra packs, which are 33.5 ounces each. Sometimes my grocery store has 28-ounce cans, and I use three of those. Sometimes I even get my hands on a giant can from Costco, which is usually 105 ounces. Any amount that’s roughly 100 ounces will work.

Garlic

Garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in olive oil.

Giving measurements for garlic is difficult, because the cloves can be so many different sizes. I use ten of the biggest cloves I can find. If your cloves are smaller, use more. In my opinion, you can never have too much garlic in a recipe like this that cooks for a long time—it’s going to mellow out quite a bit.

On the other hand, if you actually want to have a sharper garlic taste, add in a couple more crushed garlic cloves right at the end.

Dried herbs

I love fresh herbs. In some recipes, fresh herbs can be the difference between an OK dish and an amazing dish.

This isn’t one of those times.

Using fresh herbs in this sauce would be a complete waste of time. That’s just not the flavor we’re going for! Use dried herbs, and think of all the time you saved.

Romano cheese

A good amount of Romano cheese, stirred in right at the end, is what sets my sauce apart from other sauces.

Romano is never the first cheese I reach for when making Italian food. I adore Parmesan, and usually only add a small amount of Romano for some complexity. But I’ve tried making this with Parmesan, and it’s nowhere near as good. There’s something about the tanginess of Romano that makes this sauce great!

Besides, I’m definitely going to pile on the Parmesan when serving anyway, and the two cheeses go so well together.

Equipment

Dutch Oven

An enameled Dutch oven is the best pot to make this in. The thick bottom will help to keep the sauce from burning, and the enamel will protect the cast iron (you should not make this sauce in a regular cast iron pot).

I use a 5.5-quart Dutch oven, and that’s the absolute smallest you should go. A bigger pot will help minimize splatter.

If you don’t have an enameled Dutch oven and are instead using a regular metal pot, make sure to stir more often, scraping the bottom each time to keep the sauce from burning.

Splatter Screen

I consider a splatter screen essential for this recipe, but I don’t like wiping up spots of sauce from my stove and floor. Splatter screens are an inexpensive way to keep sauce, oil, and whatever else you’re cooking from splattering outside of your pot, while still letting steam escape.

If you don’t have a splatter screen, you can use a regular lid, but don’t put it on all the way—try to leave an inch or two open so that steam can escape and the sauce can thicken. On the other hand, if you don’t want your sauce to thicken, you can just put the lid on all the way.

Big batch or small?

I make this sauce in a big batch and freeze it in individual portions, which is super convenient and saves me a lot of time. I’ve also included a smaller version in the recipe notes if you don’t want a lot leftover, but honestly, it takes hardly any extra time to make a big pot and save most of it for later!

Yield: 10-12 cups

Vegetarian Marinara Sauce

A large bowl of red sauce.

This is a hearty, vegetarian marinara sauce that even meat-eaters will love!

Have a question about this recipe? I may have answered it here.

Prep Time 2 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 32 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Heat a large (at least 5-quart) pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat (or low heat if your burner is very large)
  2. Add the olive oil and let it warm up for a minute
  3. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 2-3 minutes (do not let the garlic brown!)
  4. Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, dried basil, dried parsley, and kosher salt, stirring well to combine (tomato paste will still be lumpy)
  5. Cover with a splatter screen (if you don't have one, partially cover with a lid or baking sheet) and let cook for at least half an hour (an hour is ideal), stirring every few minutes to make sure the bottom isn't sticking; it will take a while for the sauce to warm up, but don't be tempted to raise the heat (if the sauce starts bubbling hard, turn the heat down to low)
  6. When the sauce is as thick as you want it, take it off of the heat and stir in the Romano cheese
  7. Taste, and add more salt if necessary
  8. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months

Notes

Want a thinner sauce? When you add the tomatoes and other ingredients, also add a cup or two of water.

Small Batch

If you don't want to commit to a giant pot of this sauce, you can easily make just one-third of the recipe in a large saucepan. The ingredients would be:

2 teaspoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced or crushed
1/8 rounded teaspoon crushed red pepper
28-33.5 ounces tomato sauce
6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoons dried basil
1 tablespoons dried parsley
1/4 rounded teaspoon kosher salt
1 ounce Romano cheese, finely shredded or grated

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- jdw

Thursday 6th of May 2021

I just call mine "tomato sauce." It has more olive oil but no cheese. Also celery, onion and sometimes bell pepper and/or carrot. I usually use fresh herbs and 3 or 4 bay leaves.

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