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Marinara is as delightfully simple as it is delicious and has long been a staple sauce in Italian and Italian-American cuisine.

Made with just a few ingredients - most of which you probably already have on hand - homemade marinara sauce is easier to make than you might think. It requires very little preparation, and you definitely don’t have to be an expert home chef to master this beloved recipe. Besides being one of the simplest sauces to make at home, it’s also impressively versatile: from pasta and appetizers to veggies and rice, there are plenty of dishes that pair perfectly with a rich, flavorful marinara sauce. 

We’re going to walk you through how to make marinara sauce from scratch, giving you a step-by-step guide for a final sauce that’s sure to become a “secret” family recipe in no time. 

What is Marinara Sauce?

Before we talk about what marinara sauce is, let’s first clarify what it’s not: when it comes to sauce, marinara is not the same thing as spaghetti, tomato, or pizza sauce. Although all of these sauces start with a tomato base, each one is unique. That being said, marinara is an excellent stand-in for any of those sauces when you’re in a pinch!

Marinara sauce is a very simple, tomato-based sauce believed to have originated in southern Italy. Like many traditional foods, its exact origins are somewhat difficult to trace. However, most experts agree that it was likely first introduced sometime around the 16th century when New World explorers would have arrived in Europe. Interestingly, that’s quite a few centuries after the earliest forms of pasta (which were brought to Italy by Arab traders in the 12th century). 

What are the marinara sauce ingredients?

The basic ingredients for this sauce make up a shortlist, but they certainly don’t skimp on flavor: San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and salt. You’ll often see these lasagna dinner recipes containing additional elements, such as oregano, black pepper, or red pepper flakes.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of marinara is how it is cooked - and the effect that the cooking method has on its flavor. Because the ingredients are cooked quickly and vigorously, all of the bright zestiness of the fresh tomatoes is preserved. So, while your sauce will be much thinner than one that spends all day simmering, the best marinara sauce has a distinctive tomato flavor all its own.

Keep in mind that, as with anything you cook at home, the quality of your final product rests largely on the quality of your ingredients. The easiest way to elevate your marinara sauce recipe is to incorporate fresh, fine ingredients.

What’s the difference between marinara sauce and tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce?

The word “marinara” loosely translates to “seafaring,” or in colloquial terms, “sailor-style.” This particular sauce earned its name because it was one of the favorite meals of Italian merchants, specifically while they were away at sea for long expeditions. 

But it’s not just its title that makes marinara different from spaghetti or tomato sauce. Tomato sauce uses more ingredients, typically adding carrot, onion, celery, and bay leaf. It’s also intended to simmer for far longer so that it can thicken and achieve a deeper, sweeter flavor. Similarly, spaghetti sauce has a long list of ingredients, frequently including vegetables or meat. 

Simply put, marinara is the most basic of Italian pasta sauces - making it the perfect recipe to add to your skillset.

Make Homemade Marinara Sauce

Here’s our favorite simple homemade marinara sauce recipe, which captures all of the authentic Italian flavors in just 25 minutes.

Ingredients for the marinara sauce

  • 1 28-ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (look for the label “Certified D.O.P” if available, as this is a guarantee that the tomatoes used are actually of the variety)

  • ¼ cup good-quality extra virgin olive oil

  • 7 cloves of garlic, peeled and slivered

  • A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 large sprig of fresh basil

  • Optional: ¼ teaspoon of dried oregano

Instructions to make this recipe

  1. Pour the canned tomatoes into a large bowl (save the can), and crush the tomatoes using your hands. Then, add one cup of water into the empty can, swirling it around to collect the tomato juices. Reserve. 

  2. Heat a large skillet on medium heat, adding the oil so that it can also get hot. When the oil is ready, add the garlic.

  3. Watch garlic closely so that it does not brown. As soon as it begins to sizzle, add the tomatoes and the reserved tomato water. Then, add the red pepper flakes, salt, and oregano (if using). Stir.

  4. Place the basil (with stem) directly on the surface of the pasta sauce. Allow it to wilt, then gently submerge it in the sauce. Simmer the sauce for about 15 minutes until it has thickened, and you can see a deep orange layer of oil on the surface. Discard the basil, then serve.


Though you most often see marinara sauce used for pasta, there are so many other ways to enjoy it as well. Try it as a dipping sauce for breadsticks, fresh garlic bread, or even a thick, crusty baguette. Or, spoon it over vegetables or rice for added flavor. 

A few tips for making the best pasta sauce

  • Always taste your sauce as you’re cooking it because the flavor can vary depending on the brand of tomatoes you’re using. Some are more acidic, tart, or sweet than others, so you may need to make adjustments to balance out the flavor. Add a bit of sugar or shredded carrot to cut the acidity if needed.

  • Canned tomatoes are one of the pantry ingredients almost everyone has on hand, but if you happen to have fresh tomatoes, it doesn’t hurt to include those as well. Be sure to peel your tomatoes before adding them. 

  • Oftentimes, canned diced tomatoes don’t quite produce the same result. So, stick with whole canned tomatoes whenever possible. 

Find High-Quality Ingredients at Gelson’s Supermarkets

Whether you’re shopping for a quick weeknight dinner or an all-out, Italian-inspired feast, Gelson’s Supermarkets has the items you need for a wow-worthy meal. From fresh produce and premium meats to pantry staples, spices, and more, you can find all your cooking necessities at your local Gelson’s.

Make cooking more fun - and your meals more delicious - when you shop at the Gelson’s Supermarkets nearest you today. Contact us or visit your neighborhood Gelson’s today!

Image credit: Shuttershock/Marie C Fields

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