The Great Marinara Controversy

Joined Mar 16, 2009
Over the years I've noticed that there is a strange orthodoxy surrounding the "proper" way of making marinara and I was having a friendly debate at work with a fellow who adds carrots and celery to his sauce, and also cooks it for a much shorter time than I do. I know marinara is simple and not particularly fashionable at the moment, but as person of Neapolitan descent, my earliest culinary memories involve canning tomatoes and making sauce with my grandmother. Marinara, to me, symbolizes a really simple kind of cuisine which is comforting to me the same way a good chicken soup or Boeuf Bourguignon does for other people.

I'm wondering what people's thoughts are on cooking time (there seems to be a divide between folks who cook it for one hour and folks who cook it for four), and what herbs can be added. I'm also curious where these rigid ideas of the "right" way to cook marinara and other Italian foods come from. In my experience, Italian recipes vary wildly by region and family tradition, and haven't been set in stone the same way French cuisine was by Escoffier.

I was taught to use tomatoes which were grown at home, stewed and canned in the summer, peeled and seeded obviously. We made most of our marinara in huge batches in the winter and then canned or froze it for the rest of the year. We used onions and garlic, then added basil and a few bay leaves. We also sometimes used small amounts of oregano and parsley, though as a professional I've found this to be very controversial. I recall my grandmother, on occasion, sweating salt pork or bacon along with the onions, but usually only when it was intended for the base of a bolognese.

Maybe this is a little too much thought going into such a simple thing, but I like to think the simple things are sometimes the most important :) I'd be curious to know what everyone else thinks.
Joined Sep 29, 2009
I'm glad this discussion came up. Marinara is a touchy subject in the Italian/American culinary world. If you want to use Oregano and Parsley, use them. If you want, to use onion powder rather than sweated whole onions, do it. Just remember that it will be the basis for many of your dishes, so plan ahead.

Mine is stewed, crushed tomatoes (I seed them first but leave the skins intact because there's a ton of flavor in there), Kosher Salt, Black Pepper, Flat Leaf Parsley, Red and Yellow Onions(roasted), Garlic, and a secret blend of herbs. The secret is, I'm not telling until I have kids and they're old enough to cook.:smokin

Really though, don't worry about it too much. That's the beauty of Italian cooking. There was never an Escoffier to cast the rules in iron. There's a looseness to it all that lets the Chef work his(or her) magic to the fullest, being limited only by imagination and flavor.
Joined Mar 16, 2009
I agree that there is a looseness in Italian cooking not found in the French tradition, but every Italian chef does have a personal Escoffier - their grandmother :)

No matter how much I learn and what title my employer gives me, I will always hear her voice in my head when I don't do something her way.
Joined Dec 4, 2009
I think this:

tomatoes + seasoning + cooking until saucey = marinara

My "Escoffier" -- my Sicilian grandmother Vittoria -- used canned tomatoes (a combination of crushed/stewed, sauce, and paste), olive oil, garlic (lots), onions, salt and pepper, parsley, basil and fennel. Simmered for at least an hour.

That was the basic marinara.

Most of the time, it was enhanced with hunks of meat (sausage, meatballs, pork things). It was never "Bolognese", though. No ground meat. The meat was removed and plated separately before putting the sauce on the table. When meat was included, and this is important, the sauce was simmered much longer. 4 hours? Maybe.

Occasionally, come summertime, Vittoria would use fresh tomatoes from Ambrogio's garden. My grandfather. The sauce wasn't as good as the canned stuff.

When I make what I think is something close to my grandmother's sauce, I play with it and I always include the meats (including invatole/braceole) and it seems to be a 4- to 5-hour process.

Joined Jun 27, 2006
Good topic.....but since were talking Italian here.....well not Escoffier..........maybe Escoffinini:roll:

Sauce in my family gone thru a metamorphosis over the years. It's been over 4 decades since we enjoyed my Italian Grandmother's sauce. I remember it being very smooth and thick with a ton of basil (fresh during season and dried from the garden when not). I had a German Grandmother that cooked Grandfather was Italian.....and she did a good job. I miss that one too but it wasn't the same.

My Mother made something similar but only she would use canned tomatoes.....sauce and paste, basil and garlic. It was the convenience thing but we also never had quite the garden that my Grandparents had.

I've taken what I learned from both of them and put my own spin on things. Tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil are still the core but.........

My sauce started out using canned tomatoes as the basis. First it was just sauce and paste but over the years I started to used a mixture of crushed and diced. When we lived in areas of the country that are know for local tomatoes, Beaufort SC and here in VA with Hanover, I use fresh. A mixture of Roma's and slicers or Beefsteaks.....which ever is available or cheapest.

Some are cooked and pureed whole. The remainder are diced and just added to the sauce. I know some of you well cringe at the thought of seeds but I believe that you lose too much flavor from the attached pulp...........anyhow I haven't had a complaint yet........ from anyone. In all honesty........You really don't even know there were seeds in it when I get done.

Anyhow, add what you like but to me........ it's the simple basics I mentioned above that are the key. :thumb:
Joined Dec 4, 2009
Jim (and Greg):

I read your article. You state: "By definition, marinara should be vegetarian. It should be tomato based. It should contain little more than those tomatoes, garlic and herbs."

I must have missed the logic. Where was the "definition"? That it has to do with "sailors" doesn't tell me why it "should be vegetarian".

I'm not arguing. I'm very curious.

Tomatoes do thrive in and around Naples. And the whole Campagna. And the whole of Italy, for that matter. Particularly better south of Naples.

Was Naples the Italian home of tomato development? Were they the first to squash the fruits, add some seasoning and cook it until it was just right to pour over pasta of some kind?

Joined May 29, 1999
olive oil, garlic, tomato-whole plum and puree, basil, oregano, salt, bay leaf and black pepper. half an hour simmer. done.

onion? carrot? for a long gravy!

let the games begin!!! :)
Joined Mar 16, 2009
m brown;295134 said:
olive oil, garlic, tomato-whole plum and puree, basil, oregano, salt, bay leaf and black pepper. half an hour simmer. done.

Now I sometimes makes tomato-based sauces with a short simmering time when I want that taste of fresher tomatoes, but for it to be "marinara" I was taught to simmer for 4 hours minimum as if it were written that way in the bible. I'm curious to hear your reasons for such a short cooking time, or why you're against the longer cooking time.
Joined Aug 11, 2000
Marinara to me is a quick fresh long time simmering, that's for other sauces. Not all have names.

tomatoes.....chopped fresh in season, some plum tom that have been roasted down and usually frozen, onion, basil, garlic and really good olive oil. Occasionally a splash of wine.

Marinara to me is thin, not thick......
Joined Dec 8, 1999
Sailors were poor, meat was expensive. I imagine this is why. I don't know if Napoli was the home of tomato development per se, but the San Marzano variety grown there is known to be pretty good. It derives it's comparitively mellow flavor from the volcanic soil of the surrounding area.
Joined May 29, 2006
Mushroom girl Your definition is similar to mine. I first go back too my Brooklyn orgin of Marinara. It originally was in Sicily near the coastline . The fisherman went out (mariners)
in the morning . If they caught sa good amount they hoisted a flag on the way back so as the wives on shore could start to prepare dinner for them as they were starving by this time . The prep was quick, no time for long sauce cooking therefore The Marinara, some tomatoes, garlic, herbs s&p splash of vino and then saute the just caught fish and throw this sauce over it. Wella Seafood Marinara a la minute. Real peasant cooking but good and served a purpose. Don't believe this orgi ask any FORGETABOUTIT guy from Brooklyn or Queens
Joined Sep 5, 2007
It's refreshing to find out the recipe I've always known for "marinara" is right in line with the original, I was taught it in Tuscany and use it on its own or as the base for many pan-sauces (puttanesca, napolitana, ect)
It is just simply:
A generous amount of CRUSHED fresh garlic, lightly simmered for about 10 minutes with an equally generous amount of olive oil. Do Not Brown!
Add a few handfuls of torn fresh basil to the pot along with a few cups of water, crank up the heat and evaporate the water away. Then add your favorite italian crushed tomatoes. season with salt and red pepper flakes . Done.
-of course I have exact measurements for the restaurant recipe.

I've had endless arguments on this topic, and people are always amazed at how flavorful this sauce is, but, as with all Italian cooking, with these few ingredients the quality of each one will have strong effect on your finished product.

You cannot make good sauce from bad tomatoes.
Joined Jan 23, 2010
I have to agree with you on "simple" I also have been a firm believer in there not being a certain "set of rules"

Italian cooking is very regional.
When I make marinara, I prefer to use canned whole tomatoes, with some dried basil, thyme and a little toasted fennel. I've found a cook time of only an hour to be just fine.
Joined May 29, 1999

the fast cooking is for a fast sauce. Bright, thin and flavorful.
Can be served with fish on Friday or anyother time and tastes best while cooking on dunked bread.
Joined Sep 16, 2009
No not Italian, and now just use the tomatoes we grow to make marinara, and am in the 4 hour simmering fraternity.
Also now make the marinara partly with our tomatoes I've either roasted and those made into confit.
In addition, chopped onions, garlic, tomato paste, basil, oregano and red pepper flakes.
Joined Mar 2, 2009
I know I'm not the professional but I am Italian and have been cooking it for friends and relatives for 50 years so I've got some credentials so excuse my two cents worth.

Marinara was always a non-meat sauce and could be made quick or slow depending on how much time you had to make it. The ingredients were always garlic, EVOO, onion, basil, some oregano (always fresh herbs) some red wine and crushed tomatoes.

You'd brown the onion lightly and then add the garlic to do the same. You then add the wine on high heat and wait until the wine smells 'sweet' before adding the herbs and the tomatoes. Bay leaf was ONLY if we made the sauce with lamb and then we'd use the bay leaf instead of basil and no oregano as that was Bari style where my family hails from. It makes for a much sweeter sauce.

Another trick, as taught by my grandmother, was to add a handful of raisins to the sauce and let it simmer for the 3-4 hours. The raisins were a natural sweetener (some add sugar) and helped cut the acidity of the tomatoes. Professionally speaking, it's really not true but who's going to argue with my long past Nonna? However, it just adds something to the sauce.

As for the addition of celery and carrots, many Italians in Italy use this as when they shop at the Frutta e Verdura, they give them a carrot, a stalk of celery and some parsley with their order. It's the Italian version of the Bouquet Garni. If you did use it, it's finely chopped and sauted until it's golden with the onion & garlic before you add the tomatoes.

I've been through thousands of discussions, including with many professional chefs in Italy and there are no standards in Italian cooking and it was usually, as mentioned, a grandmother that created her standard for the family!! Even in Bologna there is no true standard recipe for Bolognese Sauce.

No matter what... homemade marinara over some pasta with a generous serving of freshly grated parmigianno reggiano over the top.... it's the ultimate comfort food!
Joined Jan 27, 2010
I worked in Italy for about 1.5 yrs and thought before I left that I was going to learn how to make THE tomato sauce. Wrong. Every kitchen that I went into made it differently but what was the same was the method.
i'm not going to say what's right and wrong but offer only my method. i do think that it should be vegetarian not only from what I've seen but also because the public's perception of it is that it's vegetarian and you might run into some trouble there.
We use 2 different types of whole canned tomatoes. Half are of very high quality and the other half of medium quality. We sweat onions and garlic in olive oil, then add the tomatoes. Simmer and stir for about 3-4 hours. It shouldn't cook out too much or it tends to get jammy but just enough to kill the acidity. Seasoning, lots of fresh basil, and that's it. For service, we sautee some fresh chopped tomatoes with some garlic, then add the sauce. Just before using it we monte with some cold butter and away you go.
Joined Feb 18, 2009
my dad is austiran, i will have to ask him what he has made. he always said marinara in america is really a bolognese or something.

he mentioned the differences between milano (is that it) style of tomato suace, bolognese, and alamatriciana,

he soemtimes ahs used cellery and carrots, soemtiems does not. rarely did he use tomato paste but soemtimes he does. defintiely garlico nions and olive oil and parsley

marjoram and fennel are favorites of him. oregano and basil less so.

he doesnt use thyme in tomato sauces. as far as i can tell. i will discuss this with him!
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