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20-Minute Marinara Sauce

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This homemade vegan marinara sauce comes together in only 20 minutes, but it’s bursting with flavor. It will become your go-to for pasta suppers, lasagna, pasta bakes, stuffed shells, and more. Plus, it’s freezer friendly, so you can always have some on hand!

A Weck mason jar holds a red pasta sauce, which is studded with garlic.

I ought to think twice before ever making big, bold statements about my food habits or preferences.

I like big opinions about food and have many of my own. I’m becoming more particular with age, so I can almost always understand a strong food preference, even if I don’t happen to share it.

But there’s a laundry list of once strongly held opinions that I’ve had to revise: the food I claimed I’d always love and don’t anymore; the ingredient or flavor that I once hated, which has grown on me; the all-time favorite dish that has been replaced by a new favorite.

My claim that marinara sauce is one of those ingredients that I’ll always choose to purchase, rather than make from scratch, is one of them.

To DIY or not to DIY?

Like most home cooks, I have some things that I like to make from scratch, and other things that I’d rather buy.

There’s no airtight logic behind these categorizations. They’re shaped by a reasoning that takes into account how much things cost, how good my homemade version tastes vs. the store-bought one, and how much I actually enjoy making the thing.

I love making my own sauces and dressings, as well as homemade vegan cheese. I save a little money when I prepare these staples at home. Since I really enjoy the process of creating them, I almost always make them from scratch.

Yeasted breads are fun to make, but even so, I’m not always in the mood. There are many store-bought sandwich breads that I like. So I’d say homemade vs. store-bought bread is a 50/50 split in my home.

Then there are sourdough and kombucha. I enjoyed making the former for a while, but in this season, I get very little pleasure from the process. And I’ve never made homemade kombucha that’s actually tastier than what I could purchase.

I leave both to the experts.

A sauce pot has been filled with roma tomatoes and garlic.

And what about marinara sauce?

Until pretty recently, marinara was a staple that I preferred to buy.

Most marinara sauces are vegan as is. Many brands are affordable. Some, including Rao’s, which is my favorite, taste better than any version I’ve ever made from scratch.

The problem is that I don’t always remember to pick up marinara sauce. Then comes a night when I’d like to prepare an easy pasta, and I don’t have sauce on hand.

My new apartment, which has limited pantry space, is making my grocery hauls smaller. Moving has also made me more conscientious about my budget.

This means that I now think twice about purchasing things that I could very easily whip up with what I already have at home.

For all of these reasons, I’ve been trying to make my own marinara sauce with canned tomatoes more often. And that effort is starting to pay off.

Just as I was starting to make more of my own marinara sauce, a few readers DM’ed me on Instagram asking if I had a recipe of my own. It was even more motivation to settle on a formula that I like.

This 20-minute marinara sauce is it.

Is the sauce as good as Rao’s? Honestly, I don’t think so. Is it as deeply flavorful as an old family recipe that has been simmering in a pot on the stovetop all day? No. Is it even authentic marinara? Probably not.

But the 20-minute marinara is very tasty. More importantly, it’s fast and convenient. You can whip it up with pantry staples in about the same amount of time it’ll take you to boil water for and cook pasta.

In my book, that makes it a winner.

What is marinara sauce, anyway?

If you’re confused about what constitutes marinara, then that makes two of us. I’ve always wondered about the differences between marinara, red sauce, pomodoro, gravy, and so on.

This post was very instructive: apparently, marinara sauce is red sauce. And it’s chunkier than pomodoro, which is traditionally made with fresh tomatoes.

The post says that marinara sauce can be simmered from anywhere from 30 minutes to hours, which makes me worry less about the liberties that I’m taking with a 20-minute version!

(For what it’s worth, “gravy” is apparently similar to ragu, and the term originated in America.)

How to make 20-minute marinara sauce

My 20-minute marinara recipe is adapted minimally from one of Colu Henry’s “Mama’s Marinara” in her great cookbook, Back Pocket Pasta.

My version has a little more garlic, some tomato paste, which I think deepens the sauce’s flavor, and a little bit of optional sugar.

Why sugar? Because just one tablespoon manages to offset some of the acidity of the tomatoes in the recipe.

If you’re strict about sugar avoidance, it’s fine to omit. My own grandmother and mom always sweetened their tomato sauce a little, and I’ve come to prefer it that way.

To begin, you’ll sauté some onion in olive oil. When the onion is clear and translucent, add thinly sliced garlic and tomato paste.

Garlic, onions, and tomato paste are being simmered in a silver, stainless steel sauce pot.

Heat them for about a minute, then add whole, peeled, canned San Marzano tomatoes. I usually use the Cento or San Marzano brands.

If I find canned, San Marzano tomatoes with basil, then I often reach for them. I love the flavor of basil in this sauce.

Once your tomatoes are in the pot, you’ll need to break them down. I crush them gently with a handheld potato masher, but you can easily use the back of a spoon to do this.

The tomatoes may spatter as you crush them, so be sure to wear an apron when you make the sauce!

Add your salt, sugar if using, and some water to the mixture. Bring it to a low boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer your sauce for 10 minutes.

A stainless steel pot is being used to simmer a 20 minute, homemade marinara sauce.

The sauce should be uncovered while you simmer it. After 10 minutes, it will be thickened, fragrant, and ready to use.

You can add cooked pasta directly to the marinara sauce and call it dinner, or you can store the sauce for any future meal.

Meal prep

The 20-minute marinara sauce is a such a smart addition to any meal prep routine.

Once made, the marinara can be used for quick, easy pasta suppers. It can also be frozen, so that you don’t have to spend money on store-bought sauce (unless you’d prefer to).

Any time you prepare to make a pasta dish that calls for marinara sauce—and so many do—you can pull your homemade sauce out of the freezer. It’s every bit as easy to do this as it is to open a store-bought jar that lives in the pantry.

Storage

I store my marinara in 32 ounce mason jars. The sauce will keep for about a week in the fridge, and it’s good in the freezer for up to 8 weeks.

If you freeze the sauce, be sure to leave about an inch of head space at the mouth of the jar. Liquid expands as it freezes, and this will help to prevent accidental freezer shattering!

How to use 20-minute marinara sauce

If all that I ever did with a jar of homemade marinara sauce was to put it on freshly cooked pasta and top it with cashew parmesan, I’d be very, very happy.

Yet there are so many other things that you can do with this humble, homemade sauce. Here are some of my favorite pasta recipes, which I’ll use the sauce for sooner or later:

  • Eggplant baked rigatoni
  • Spinach lasagna rolls
  • Creamy vegan skillet lasagna
  • Pizza pasta bake
  • Easy sausage mushroom marinara pasta
  • Spaghetti and white bean balls
  • Wholesome lentil, mushroom and kale lasagna

Maybe you have your own list of beloved “red sauce” meals that you’ll want a quick, low-stress, homemade sauce for.

I’m hoping you’ll like this one.

A white plate has been covered in pasta and a red sauce, along with green sliced basil.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped 
  • 4 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 28 ounces whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes (1 28-oz/800g can)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 3/4-1 teaspoon fine sea salt)
  • 1 tablespoon brown or cane sugar (optional, to offset the acidity of the tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup water (120ml)
  • Big handful fresh, finely chopped basil or parsley (optional)

Instructions

  • Heat the oil in a medium large pot over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the onion. Cook the onion for about 4 minutes, stirring often, or until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook for another full minute, stirring constantly.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pot. Use a handheld potato masher or the back of a spoon to crush them (they'll spatter, so wear an apron!). Add the salt, sugar if using, and water. Allow the mixture to come to a vigorous simmer, then turn the heat to low. Throw in a handful of fresh herbs, if desired. Simmer, uncovered, for ten minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. 
  • At this point, you can add cooked pasta directly to the pot (you'll need about 12oz/340g pasta) for a pasta supper, or you can transfer the sauce to an airtight storage container. Store in the fridge for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 weeks.

Speaking of meal prep, it’s a Saturday! I don’t usually post on Saturdays.

But this is the day on which I do my own vegan meal prep, and sauces are especially valuable parts of that routine. One good sauce can be the backbone of a week’s worth of food.

Homemade marinara was on my mind. And this coming week, I’ll share a recipe that I recently used it in (and loved it in).

Till then,

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