Real Spaghetti Sauce Recipe

 A Wedding Recipe

The beautiful wife and I have driven to the picturesque town of Midway, located high in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains.  We’re the caretakers of a century-old Victorian farmhouse that was the home of her Swiss ancestors.  This trip has a special purpose, the marriage of our last child, a daughter. 

Because she had spent 18 months in Italy as a young woman, this seemed a good time for a recipe with a traditional tomato sauce.  And because the exercise of the week is stretching, I somehow thought of spaghetti.  (When you were a kid, didn't you stretch your spaghetti by sucking it into your mouth while your mom or dad frowned at your manners?)  So the recipe this week is for tomato basil spaghetti sauce.  (Because we’re away from home, we’ll have to add the picture later—sorry.)

To Make or To Buy?

We made a make-or-buy decision to buy pasta and make the sauce—here's our logic:  Following the Healthy Changes, we wanted spaghetti that was whole grain—now available in most stores.   The sauce should include vegetables in addition to tomatoes, with more natural fiber than added sugar.  Ideally, it should be cheaper, tastier, and healthier than the stuff sold in the store. 

I got a surprise at the store—you could buy a 24 oz, 6-serving jar of the generic brand, on sale, for just $1.69.  In fact there was a price dichotomy—value brands sold at $2-$4 dollars while premium brands sold for $9-$11.  Basically, the cheaper sauce uses tomato puree and soybean oil, sweetened with sugar.  The premium brand used whole tomatoes, onions and carrots, EVOO, and no added sugar.  That’s the basic rule of Food Inc:  The cheapest flavor is usually sugar.

So the first conclusion was my sauce wouldn’t be cheaper.  If I were at a point in my life where money was desperately short, I would buy the generic brand of spaghetti sauce.   If there were more money than I knew what to do with, I’d buy the premium brand.  But if I wanted the best taste and healthiness with sensible use of money, I should make my own sauce, time permitting.

Recipe Tips

This is what I learned about spaghetti sauce recipes:

  1. Good sauce takes time—allow several hours for cooking.  In fact, a crock-pot or slow cooker is as good as a Dutch oven or cast iron pot. Some recipes call for as little as 30 minutes cooking time, but it's not the same. 
  2. Because it takes time, make more than you need.  Save some in the refrigerator for another day and put the rest in the freezer.  There are lots of uses for homemade tomato sauce.
  3. Spaghetti with sauce is an example of slow food made fast:  Make the sauce ahead of time, cook the pasta in 15 minutes (5 to boil the water, 10 to cook the pasta), toss a salad while the pasta cooks, and you've got a 20-minute dinner.
  4. I didn't understand this before, but tomato sauce is a way to get vegetables into the family diet.  Besides tomatoes and onions, traditional recipes include carrots, celery, bell pepper, eggplant, and, of course, garlic.  You can even hide squash, or whatever's going bad, in the sauce. 
  5. Be careful of those old containers of dried basil or oregano—they develop a bitter taste with time and ruined my first batch.  I’m cautious to buy fresh herbs as they go bad before you use them up, but this time I bought fresh basil and put the extra in the freezer (sealed bag) for later. 
  6. Invest in some hard Parmesan cheese so you can grate it fresh.  If you're feeling flush buy Parmesan Reggiano, which is only made in certain regions of Italy and must be cured for a year.  ($22/lb at the local grocery, ouch.)

A Better Sauce

To focus on the sauce, we did our sampling without pasta, Parmesan cheese, or meat.  My first batch didn’t please the beautiful wife—she preferred the store brand.  It got crazier:  I bought a value brand and a premium brand and she liked the cheap stuff (with 2-3 tsp added sugar per ½ cup serving) best.  Did I mention she has a sweet tooth?  

Our homemade sauce also had an off taste that we traced to the aged oregano plus some metallic taste from the tomato cans.  That’s a benefit the factory sauces have—they use glass bottles so there’s no “can” taste. 

I went back to work, trying to come up with a sauce so good it masked the “can” taste, didn't need a lot of sugar, and avoided spices so old they’ve turned bitter.  One aid was to build on the taste of eggplant.  Here’s what we came up with—the beautiful wife judged it delicious.  I didn’t put my name on this sauce as it follows traditional practices.  This recipe makes enough for 6-8 servings with 1 lb. of spaghetti.  Double the recipe if you want to freeze some.

Real Spaghetti Sauce  (Serves 6-8)


  • 2 T olive oil, plus 1 T butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • ½ bell pepper (orange or red is best), chopped
  • 3 slices eggplant (or zucchini squash), peeled and chopped
  • 4 med. garlic cloves (or 2 tsp garlic puree)
  • 1-28 oz can diced tomatoes (or whole tomatoes, mashed)
  • 2-6 oz can tomato paste
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped (best if from your garden)
  • 1 C chicken stock (2 C if fresh tomatoes are not used)
  • 1 T fresh basil, chopped, or 1 tsp dried (but not old) basil
  • Optional: ½ tsp dried oregano (but not old, taste it for bitterness)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼-½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • ½ tsp pepper, or to taste
  • 2 tsp sugar (just enough to offset acidic tartness of tomatoes)
  • 1 lb. whole-wheat spaghetti


  1. Wash and prepare vegetables.
  2. To a hot cooking pot, or frying pan, add olive oil, butter, onions and carrots.  After 5 min. add bell pepper, eggplant and garlic.
  3. If using frying pan, transfer vegetables to cooking pot when onions are translucent.  To the pot, add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, and stock.  Also add basil, optional oregano, lay leaf, red pepper flakes, sugar, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil then turn heat down and simmer two hours or more; a shorter cooking time will work if you’re in a squeeze, but time brings out the flavor and blends the vegetables.  Add liquid if the sauce gets too thick; if too thin, remove lid from pot to hasten evaporation.
  4. Cook the spaghetti al dente, grate some Parmesan cheese, and serve with tossed salad and bread.

Often the guys prefer meat with their spaghetti, either sausage or meatballs.  I’ll look for a good source for a follow-up post.  Anybody have a good meatball recipe?

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Reader Comments (12)

I have been looking for something like this and I can't wait to try it! I may add some mushrooms to mine as well.. I really love mushrooms! Thanks for sharing your recipe! Love your blog! PS. The meatballs recipe I use is straight from the Betty Crocker cookbook. It is my very favorite!

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela A

Skip -
A couple thoughts on the tinned taste of canned tomatoes:

Muir Glen is reportedly using a plastic coating in their cans that taste tests online confirm a better tasting product, but I'm not convinced that adding more plastic to one's diet is a better thing.
Tomato paste tastes better if allowed to develop. Adding them to the last minutes of the vegetables cooking should cut any off tastes and possibly make it easier to blend as well.
Roasting your whole tomatoes will also develop the flavor. Cut them in half with kitchen shears and let them go in a 300 degree oven until they soften, but not brown.
According to chef Mario Batalli, Italian/European food is one of the four "mother cuisines" of the world. Perhaps adding a splash of Balsamic Vinegar will open up the palate and naturally sweeten a pot of sauce during The Beautiful Wife's next taste testing? This must sound blasphemous to many Italian grandmothers, but may put a homemade Red Sauce a little closer to that of a jarred sauce many of us were raised on and break us of the sugar habit.

May 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

This looks like a great recipe. Last year I made a batch with fresh tomatoes, but wow, that was a lot of work: seeding, blanching, peeling, chopping, boiling. I really like Costco's brand of marinara sauce; I started buying it because it doesn't have sugar or the ubiquitous "spices" or "natural flavors" on the label that many companies use to hide MSG. Also, I prefer bottled sauce because all (maybe this has changed since I researched it) tomato cans contain BPA which I try hard to avoid.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Good tips for spaghetti sauce. Peppers and carrots are natural sweeteners--and using a sweeter onion like yellow instead of white helps to reduce added sugar. Your sauce sounds delicious.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLC

i too have discovered the kirkland brand marinara. the ingredients read simple and it's delicious. but there is nothing like a pot of homemade sauce. i've enjoyed a recipe i found in giada's cookbook. but your's sound wonderful and want to give it a try.
my favorite meatball recipe is one that uses ground turkey and they're baked on a cookie sheet, so no extra fat and less work. i love to make extra and keep em in the freezer. just add desired amount to a simmering pot of sauce.
thanks for the recipe! i love your blog!

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterteresa

I make my own sauce, I do use a jar of Aldi sauce as my base and then add crushed tomatoes, oregano, basil, whatever veggies I have on hand and hamburger. I don't sauté the veggies first. Just throw everything in the crock pot and come back a lot later.

Question: When I cook my sauce it doesn't seem to reduce. I don't add water/stock because it is already runnier than I really like it. My grandmother made an awesome sauce that was cooked a long time and reduced to stick to the noodles rather than a thin coating on the noodles with the meat and sauce sinking to the sides and bottom. Any advice on how to make my sauce reduce to the consistency I want?

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCagesjamtoo

You have some amazing ideas about sauce. Thanks for all your great suggestions. I can't wait to try roasting fresh tomatoes later this summer as they come out of my garden!

In my experience, cooking in the crock pot doesn't allow a sauce to reduce because the lid traps all the moisture. I prefer to make my sauce on low heat on the stove with no lid, but if I'm using the crock pot, I definitely leave the lid off to allow for reduction. Perhaps this can help you too. The other thing you might try is add some tomato paste to your sauce.

One of my favorite way to give spaghetti sauce a "meatier" flavor is to use beef stock instead of chicken. I've been making and canning my own beef and chicken stock since you gave us such great information in an early post Skip! I also love using 8 oz. of fresh baby bella mushrooms (essentially small portabella mushrooms) because they give the sauce a wonderful meaty flavor too. I partially saute them with a small amount of olive oil, and then add them to the sauce about halfway through the reducing process.

If I'm in short supply of veggies, especially mushrooms, I add 1/2 lb of cooked hamburger to the sauce right after adding the onion and garlic. By adding it early and allowing the flavor to develop within the marinara, it definitely boots the meatiness of the sauce. This much meat is the perfect amount for my family of 8.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervalena

Also... a note about fresh herbs. I think their flavor is definitely superior, so I've cultivated a small herb garden. I have one small plant each of oregano, parsley, cilantro and rosemary. Then, because we love them, I've got larger plants of basil and chives. I try to use them on a regular basis to keep my plants healthy, but if I've got more than I can use I dry them myself in my food dryer. If I've got just too much basil, I grind it up for pesto sauce.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervalena

Hi Skip,

I don't know if you remember the downstairs neighbors at your daughter's apartment in Brooklyn? We met when your delightful little grandson celebrated his birthday in the back yard, and I remember you washing down the landlord's outdoor table.

We have been greatly enjoying your blog, and I wanted to share our version of a wonderful meatball recipe from Linda Larsen's "Everything Meals on a Budget Cookbook". I often double this and freeze half the cooked meatballs on a cookie sheet, then put them in a ziploc bag.

Sicilian Meatballs

2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
4 tbsp tomato paste
4 tbsp water
1 1/2 cups dried breadcrumbs (from whole wheat bread)
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tsp dried oregano (or Italian seasoning)
2 eggs
1 pound 85% lean ground beef
1 pound ground pork (or, if you prefer, ground turkey, or all beef).

1. In a large bowl, mix breadcrumbs, cheese and oregano or seasoning. Set aside.

2. Saute onion in olive oil until tender, about 4 mins. Stir in tomato paste, and on low heat, cook, stirring occasionally until tomato paste begins to brown in spots (this gives a lovely flavor).

3. Once tomato paste has begun to brown, add water and stir to loosen brown bits from the pan. Add to the large bowl along with meat and eggs. I mix it all together with a large metal potato masher, but clean hands work fine too.

4. Form into 30 meatballs and place on a lightly-oiled rimmed cookie sheet. I use a 1 1/2 tbsp cookie scoop, and roll them into a smoother shape afterwards.

5. Bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes or until meatballs are thoroughly cooked (165F). Use immediately in a recipe, or cool and chill to use the next day. Freeze for up to 3 months.

All the best,

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Hi Julie So kind of you to remember the birthday of our above-average grandchild's (aren't they all?). Your recipe sounds great, we'll get back to meatballs in a future post.

Liz and Valena, Thanks for sharing your tomato sauce experience. Comments like yours are what makes this blog work.

LC So good to hear from you. Our regrets to your family for your loss.

Lindsey and Teresa OK, you win. We got some Kirtland Tomato Sauce tonight and we'll do a taste test and share the results. You can't beat the price and it does have healthy ingredients--real tomatoes, EVOO, and no added sugar. Stay tuned.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I am excited to try the tomato sauce recipe, especially since I have an over abundance of tomatoes from our Bountiful Baskets right now. My favorite meatball recipe is I have made it several times: as written, just ground beef, and just ground antelope and it was delicious every time!

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

My favorite homemade tomato sauce is simple, healthy and tastes like it's straight out of a gourmet restaurant.

2 lbs roma tomatoes, quartered
1 med onion, chopped
8 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
3 TB olive oil
2 TB fresh oregano (or 1 TB dried)
1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss all ingredients in glass baking pan and roast for one hour. Cool slightly and puree.

May 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJodi

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