Bachelor Frog Cooking: Basic Tomato Sauce (Marinara)

Luca Gattoni-Celli
9 min readNov 27, 2020

I get it, cooking can be intimidating. I grew up around a culinarily avid Italian father and Yankee mother who taught herself from French cookbooks, but I only started cooking after college, in the summer of 2012. Few things are more satisfying than making something you like to eat, then making it again and again until you can make it exactly how you like it. You can get a surprisingly good result with almost no experience, but with experience you can make it great. So now is always the best time to get started!

A Note on Kitchen Gear

I could lie to you and say it makes no difference, but lying is wrong. A great knife and great pan really are worth the price, if you buy the right ones. If you have neither, at least have a sharp knife. America’s Test Kitchen uses the Victorinox Fibrox Pro and you can afford it.

A sharp knife is safer and indescribably nicer to use. A dull knife is basically unusable. I have to wonder how many people struggle to get started with cooking because they have a terrible knife. Relatedly, cutting boards should be plastic or wood, never a hard surface. Glass “cutting boards” dull knives and mutilate hands.

Any old pan is fine, other than cast iron and other seasoned pans. The ideal would be a nice All-Clad stainless steel frying or sauté pan, but the battered ten-year-old nonstick you have in your cupboard is totally adequate.

“Your first mission, should you choose to accept it”

Image stolen from, whatever that is

A simple tomato sauce! I will also cover the pasta. This can be thrown together in about an hour, even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Your sauce will be a briefly simmered marinara, letting the fresh, bright taste of the tomatoes comes through. You should never, ever buy tomato sauce in a jar. It is honestly one of the simplest things to make. The real thing will always beat the pants off almost any jarred sauce, like Ron Swanson’s burger challenge.


Your tomato sauce will have four or five, depending on if you want garlic:

  • Olive oil (extra virgin a plus)
  • One or two medium-sized yellow onions, diced (as described below)
  • Kosher or sea salt (Iodine can taste gross)
  • Garlic to taste (easy to burn so maybe hold off on that, cowboy)
  • One 28-ounce can of imported Italian tomatoes (whole or crushed)
  • Plus one pound of dried pasta

Crack in some black pepper if you want, but that really is it! My biggest beef with most tomato sauces is too much stuff. They are often over-seasoned or contain inexplicable vegetables such as green bell peppers. I make all-day Sunday grandma sauces with ten sausages or two pounds of ground beef, usually without tomato paste, sometimes with. Honestly, I cannot tell the difference. Tomato paste makes the most sense in the absence of tomatoes.

Adding a pinch of sugar to a sauce rubs me the wrong way. It is unnecessary if you are using good tomatoes, which are naturally a bit sweet. People say it cuts acidity, but I am unsure of what that means or why it would be desirable.

Buying Good Canned Tomatoes

Use canned tomatoes, whole or crushed. Buying Italian ones is a shortcut to something decent. Cento is a good brand that Costco sells. You can find it at most grocery stores. Pricey but worth it if you want something really solid.

Cirio boxed tomatoes are fantastic; do not worry about the bit of added sugar, they are the real deal! My dad remembers them fondly, so case closed. Pomi is another boxed brand.

If you are feeling fancy: San Merican Tomatoes (SMT) canned San Marzanos.

Some of these brands are crushed but as a rule, whole tomatoes crushed by you will likely taste better, and should cost a bit less. NYT’s Wirecutter, which I usually love, claims Target’s private label whole peeled tomatoes are great. I find that totally implausible but if you want to save money, give them a shot.

Buying the Pasta

One reason I am skeptical of Target is that its house brand pasta was truly awful. The pasta you buy matters a bit too. For example, one time my mom made mac and cheese with the powder packet that came in a box but she had to use normal pasta we bought separately, and it was weirdly amazing. Traditionally, Italians view sauce as a coating for the pasta, so they do not put on a lot. But I like lots of sauce, so who cares!

Most grocers’ private label pasta is good. Safeway’s branded pasta is actually very nice, same for Trader Joe’s, Aldi, and our beloved Lidl. A dollar per pound is a good price. When in doubt, get Barilla, which is like the Honda Accord of pasta. (I may address bronze die pastas in a future post.)

Crushing Whole Tomatoes

Since your sauce will not cook long, they really need to be broken down before hitting the pan. You absolutely can use bare or disposable-gloved (#LifeHack) hands in a bowl, just be careful how you squeeze to avoid spatters. Wear an apron if you own one.

A potato masher works extremely well and is my personal favorite, producing a result close to a food mill (what my Italian Nonna used). Be deliberate to avoid splatter, use small up and over and down motions. You also may chop up the tomatoes in the can with kitchen shears. Just keep the tips off of the sides of the can to avoid scraping any plastic liner.

Do not blend your tomatoes. I have found introducing air hurts the final texture and seems to dull the flavor too. A food processor might be OK, but I honestly think a potato masher is best, and much easier to clean up.

Dicing the Onion with The Claw

Learn to love the claw, the safe way to hold food you are cutting. It takes getting used to but will keep your fingers attached to your hand and eventually help you chop faster. The usually correct YouTube hot take merchant Adam Ragusea claims the claw is pointless due to a lack of evidence for it, but this is a case where common sense should prevail. If you keep your fingertips away from your knife blade, it cannot slice them.

In general, cutting up an onion will feel and be really slow at first, which is just fine. This video is actually pretty close to how I like to do it, except I really do not think slicing into half an onion from the top is necessary. As Shrek taught us, onions have layers, so they fall apart in layers.

Pointless Finger Danger

Take the time to make the pieces of onion small and even, which works best for a quick sauce. The outer layer of an onion is sometimes too tough to cook down, but the tough part may be only the end of the outer layer near to top.

Cooking the Sauce

  1. Preheat your pan on medium-high heat, after adding a splash of oil if it is nonstick to avoid polymer fume fever (I often differ with Adam Ragusea’s cooking, but his mini-documentaries are awesome).
  2. Once the pan is up to temperature, add a few generous glugs of oil then the onions. Make sure to add a few generous shakes of salt. Mix a bit to distribute the salt, then let the onions sit until they get up to temperature. Adding salt early lets you use less while drawing out water so the onions steam slightly so they are softened then brown better.
  3. This is easy to mess up, so pay attention: Let the onions cook until they are soft enough! As the onions start to break down, reduce heat to medium. Sauté by stirring occasionally. If you are not sure if they are done, fish out a piece and try it. This may take longer than you think. Undercooking onions was my big rookie cooking mistake. Sautéing them enough is extra important for a sauce that does not simmer a long time.
  4. Add garlic, if you want to, when the onions are about half-cooked. Easily remove garlic skin by carefully crushing a clove under your knife. Garlic browns and burns very easily, so you have to stir and mix it in. For a lot of flavor without overbrowning, cut the garlic lengthwise into quasi-strips (picked up that trick from our go-to dim sum place, Hong Kong Pearl).
  5. Once the onions are translucent, add in your crushed tomatoes and mix. The acid will help deglaze any fond, which is the browned bits on the surface of your pan. A little black fond will not ruin your sauce, so do not worry if you burned the onions a bit. Better than undercooking them!
  6. You may want to bring the heat back up to high to help the tomatoes get up to temperature.
  7. Once the sauce is simmering, take the temperature down low and let it cook for about an hour. Stir it periodically to avoid burning and taste about half an hour in to see how the patient, as my dad likes to say, is doing.

Cooking the Pasta

  • Salt the water generously to ensure flavorful pasta. Add your dried pasta once it is up to a boil. If your pasta is decent quality you should only have to clear it off the bottom of the pan and stir it a little at the beginning to prevent clumping.
  • Set your timer for at least four minutes less than the package indicates. Once it goes off, fish out a piece of pasta to taste. You will get the consistency right by observation, not in 60-second increments.

I have cooked enough pasta that I can tell when it is done just by stirring it. Cooked pasta gets noticeably bigger and is a bit floppy. If the pasta is close to done you can turn off the heat so it cooks that last bit gradually.

The Magic of Pasta Water

  • Just before the pasta is done, scoop out about half a cup of starchy water. Adding a bit of this to your sauce will thicken it and add a nice salty touch. Pasta water is also an emulsifier that helps sauce stick to and coat pasta.
  • After draining the pasta, return to the hot pot so it does not cool down too much. If you sauce pan is big enough, you can add the pasta right in, or even drain it undercooked then finish it in the sauce, to absorb the flavor.

Mission Accomplished

You did it! You made delicious, wholesome tomato sauce with pasta. I hardly ever make sauces like this myself, though I will on Black Friday to go with some fresh egg pasta. I really enjoyed writing this and intend to do a few more bachelor frog cooking posts, likely starting with carbonara and low and slow, Sunday tomato tomato and sauce. Feel free to request a dish! Ciao, guys.



Luca Gattoni-Celli

Recovered federal tax reporter currently working as a management consultant. Catholic, husband, father, student of economics. SDG