All About Marinara Sauce


Hey, it’s tomato harvesting season. Need a quick marinara recipe? Got you covered.

At once sublime and ubiquitous, marinara is one of the most enjoyed sauces on the planet. Its simplicity and versatility make it highly adaptable, and cuisines as diverse as Japanese to German have made some version of it their own. Its origins, however, are rooted firmly in good old southern Italy, where little girls learned from their Nannas how to make it as early as they could hold hold a wooden spoon to stir.

So, what is Marinara?

Marinara sauce is garlic-scented olive oil to which tomatoes and herbs have been added. Herbs include basil, oregano, and sometimes Thyme. The definition of Marinara sauce is based on its ingredients. Once you start adding other stuff, it’s not marinara sauce anymore. Add anchovies and it’s freaking delicious, but it’s puttanesca, not marinara. Add hot peppers? You got yourself a nice arrabbiata, but that’s not marinara. Olive oil, garlic, tomato, herbs. End of story. Capiche?

The Marinara origin story

So this sauce seems like it’s been around as long as Italy has, but it sure as hell hasn’t. To begin with, tomatoes didn’t arrive in Italy until the late 15th or early 16th century from the New World. And for a while, they were considered ornamental and were stuck in flower beds, if you can imagine. When they did start being used for food, it was only the peasants that really glommed on. Cause, see, tomatoes, left to their own devices, grow crawling along the ground which these literal-minded bastards took to mean it was “low class” food. Jesus.

Anyway, the first documented proof of tomato sauce being a thing in Italy was in a cookbook from 1692, and the first record of it being used with pasta didn’t show up until 1790 when this dude Francesco Leonardi claimed he created that dish when he put it in his cookbook. I mean, I’m not arguing that he was definitely the first to actually write it down, but I bet a buck it was his Mama who first came up with that whole concept.

Why’s it called Marinara if there’s no marine food in it?

The sort answer is, who the hell knows? But here’s an awesome story that is pretty much marinara cannon at this point. Here’s how it goes:

Neapolitan wives would stand by the walls of their scenic cliff-side homes and look out over the sea. Upon seeing the sails of their husbands’ fishing boats, they’d have time run home and whip up this sauce by the time those stinky, fish-smelling bastards trudged up the hill.

Nice, right? But if you think about it, this must be bullshit. Who had time to sit looking longingly over the ocean for their husbands back in the day when washing clothes (and everything else) was done by hand?

Making Marinara sauce

I have a whole recipe for homemade marinara sauce, but here’s a few high-level notes.

Since there are so few ingredients, the ingredients really really, really really really matter. I can’t stress really enough here.

Marinara is at it’s absolute BEST when made from home grown San Marzano tomatoes at the height of the harvesting season (mid to late August through September, if you’re in Pennsylvania like I am.) If you got Roma Tomato seeds, you’re in luck, cause they share the same genetic base as San Marzano and should work just as well.

Both Roma and San Marzano are “paste” tomatoes that have lots of fiber in them. You can get away with using oxheart tomatoes or other “beefsteak” tomatoes in a pinch, but other kinds of “salad” tomatoes that are mostly delicious juice and won’t provide enough body for the sauce without boiling all that good stuff away. Leave those hard-earned and hard-to-grow heirloom varieties for a nice, fresh Caprese salad.

If you’re not using home-grown, it’s cool, no judgies! It’s totally possible to make an excellent marinara with canned tomatoes as long as you choose your brand wisely. Go for canned, crushed San Marzano tomatoes. I like the Cento brand personally, but just make sure those suckers are actually from San Marzano, and that actually does make a difference. See, back in the day, Vesuvius blew up and covered the area there with this thick layer of ash that gave it a great terroir for the ‘maters.

Your garlic choice is equally as important as your tomato choice. Avoid the easy to peel “elephant” garlic because it’s been hybridized to make peeling it easier rather than to taste like garlic. Peeling little garlic cloves is the most worth-it pain in the ass ever.

Finally a note on olive oil. Extra Virgin is delicious AF, but the flavor tends to break down a bit when you cook it and it ends up tasting like your normal, cheaper olive oil. So use your normal day-to-day olive oil to cook the garlic with and then sprinkle a little of the good (expensive) stuff on at the end to get the nice, nutty flavor.

Ok. Now you know all about Marinara, and knowing is half the battle! If you want to actually MAKE some, check out my marinara sauce recipe.

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