Why You Should Add Butter to Your Pasta Sauce

This pasta sauce recipe comes together with just three ingredients!

A great pasta sauce is all about balance. To achieve this elusive quality, chefs and home cooks toil for hours over the stove sweating the sharpness out of onions, slowly reducing stocks and softening fresh vegetables. But this three-ingredient red sauce recipe from a world renowned cookbook writer turns all of these sauce-making techniques upside down thanks to one secret: butter. Here’s our favorite brand.

How to Make Marcella Hazan’s Super-Easy Pasta Sauce

Marcella Hazan is best known for bringing Italian home cooking to the United States. (These are some of our favorite Italian dishes to make at home.) Her best known recipe is also one of her most unconventional. It’s not often that you can develop the flavors of a classic Italian dish in less than an hour with just three ingredients and some salt, but this one really is that easy.

Step 1

Cut a whole, peeled onion in half and throw it in a sauce pot. Add five tablespoons of butter and a 28 ounce can of peeled, whole tomatoes.

Step 2

Bring ingredients to a simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon and gently break tomatoes as they become soft.

Step 3

Remove and discard onion and salt to taste before tossing with pasta.

In under an hour, you have a velvety delicious sauce good enough to impress at a dinner party, made from ingredients that are often already on hand.

My Taste Test

I went to the store with the shortest grocery list I’ve ever used the night I was making Hazan’s sauce. (For more recipes with just a handful of ingredients, check out these dinners with five ingredients or less.) Heading home with my extra-light shopping bag, I was skeptical about how four ingredients could make a world-famous meal.

The recipe required almost nothing in the way of work, I just tossed the ingredients in and stirred on commercial breaks while I caught up on The Bachelorette. Just over an hour later, my first taste completely erased all the doubts I had—this woman is clearly a genius.

Deep tomato flavor with none of the acidic bite was accompanied by a smooth, full mouthfeel from the butter. Stirring the pasta into the sauce I was stunned by how bright and vibrant red the sauce appeared compared to its more mellow flavor. The sauce is also very light in weight so it perfectly coated each piece of pasta (I was using linguini but you can make your own pasta). I didn’t miss the herbs or garlic from my typical sauce recipes at all.

My favorite part of making this sauce was actually eating the onion I removed from the pot. I just went at it with a fork, but I could see it being spread on some crostini for a perfect appetizer!

Why Butter Makes It Better

This recipe seems so convenient that it must be magical. But the real magic at work is the butter. The fat imparted by five whole tablespoons of butter mellows the acid from the fresh onion and the tomatoes. Because there is so much fat in the sauce, you don’t need to cook the onions to rid them of acidic bite.

Butter also acts as an emulsifier giving you a thick, velvety sauce without adding texture that is associated with olive oil. Olive oil is a classic Italian flavor, but it’s not one that you always want in a sauce, especially when showcasing bright tomato flavors. Butter helps all kinds of flavors shine, even sweets like these buttery dessert recipes.

Next time your homemade sauce is a touch too sharp after a taste test, stir in half tablespoons of butter until the bright flavors mellow a little. Then serve and send Marcella Hazan a thank you for saving dinner!

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Mandy Naglich
Mandy is a food and beverage writer with bylines at WNYC, Munchies, Mic and October. She's a Certified Cicerone and award-winning homebrewer living, writing and cooking in New York City.