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Basic Tomato Sauce

May 29, 2011

Commit this simple recipe to memory, and it’ll never let you down.

Everyone should learn this basic little pearler. Use it in its own right, or as the foundation for many other pasta dishes.

Jamie Oliver, in his excellent book, “Jamie’s Dinners”, uses this as one of his “family tree” recipes: simple recipes that can then be adapted and expanded into a range of other meals.

At the very least you can take comfort in knowing that as long as you’ve got a tin of tomatoes and a packet of pasta in the pantry, you’ve got a meal. Tinned tomatoes are one of the absolute must-haves in my pantry (a topic I will cover in a bit more depth some day soon). I usually throw one or two into the trolley at every shop, just to be sure: at well under a dollar a tin, it can’t hurt.

The best thing about this sauce is that, even though it’s ultra-cheap and rock-bottom basic, the results are still spectacular if you make it properly.

I’m not overly fussed about particular brands of tinned tomatoes, as I’ve found most to be of quite good quality. One thing I will emphasize though, is buy whole tomatoes. It might seem more convenient to buy ones already chopped, but you’re not saving yourself any more than a few seconds’ effort, and you will compromise the taste of the sauce. Tomato seeds can be bitter, and if they’re released straight into the sauce, it won’t be as sweet as it should be. Cook the tomatoes whole and then smush them up with a wooden spoon when you’re ready to serve.

What do I need?

  • Splash of olive oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 2 – 3 cloves garlic
  • One whole fresh chilli or maybe 1/2 tsp chopped (I’ll explain the difference later)
  • Good pinch of dried oregano
  • 1 440g tin tomatoes
  • Pepper
  • Salt
  • Red wine vinegar


  • Handful of fresh basil leaves
  • Olives
  • Capers
  • Anchovies

What do I do?

Heat a frypan to medium and splash in some olive oil. Add the onion and fry gently for a couple of minutes until it starts to soften.

Chop the garlic and add it to the pan with the chilli and oregano. The difference in how you use the chilli relates to how much heat you want to have in the sauce. If you want a very subtle heat, leave the chilli whole; just prick it a couple of times so that it doesn’t burst when it’s frying.

If, on the other hand, you like a nice bit of heat in the sauce, slice or chop about 1/2 a teaspoon of chilli and fry it with the onions and garlic.

Another variation you can make at this stage is to chuck a couple of anchovies in the oil before you fry the onion, and break them up with a wooden spoon and mix them up in the oil. This gives a nice, subtle undercurrent to the sauce, but obviously it’s a no-go if you’re a vegetarian, or cooking for one.

Once the onion and garlic have been frying for a few minutes and are nice and softened, empty the tin of tomatoes straight in. Remember: leave the tomatoes whole at this stage; just shove them around the pan a bit and mix them up with the onions and garlic.

Reduce the heat until it’s gently simmering, season with a bit of salt and pepper, then leave it to simmer for 20 minutes to 1/2 an hour.

While the sauce is simmering, put a saucepan of water on to boil, and cook the pasta. This sauce goes equally well with anything from rigatoni to tagliatelle, or those little shell things, whatever they’re called.

When you’re ready to serve, remove the chilli if you used one whole, and break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Add a tiny swig of red wine vinegar for a bit of tang, and you’re good to go.

If you’ve got some, tear up a handful of fresh basil leaves and throw them in just before you dish it up. They’ll release a great aroma and add a nice bit of flavour.

You could also add a small handful of capers and olives to the sauce while it’s simmering, as well.

Shave some fresh parmesan on top and you’ve got an ultra-easy meal that still manages to impress.


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