tomato sauce with butter and onion

tomato sauce with butter and onion // the muffin myth

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at my desk feeling grumpy on a Friday afternoon. One of those days where the weight of the world was catching up with me, I was feeling the pressure of a full time job plus full time thesis work, and feeling rather far away from my family at the same time. I knew, as I was sitting there, exactly what I wanted to have for dinner: a bowl full of pasta with the most simple yet decadent tomato sauce I know of.

When I got home and talked to Paul about what he wanted for dinner he, uncharacteristically, agreed that pasta with a simple tomato sauce was exactly the thing he was in the mood for. Usually he wants to put ALL the things into a sauce (or in an omelet, or on a pizza), but for some reason on this grumpy Friday we were aligned. And so, the sauce was made.

tomato sauce with butter and onion // the muffin myth

This recipe isn’t new. It’s been going around the blog-o-sphere for many a year now, but it’s the first time I got around to trying it out, and it definitely won’t be the last. It’s so simple, necessitating only that you put three ingredients together in a pot and wait for a little while, patiently sipping a nice glass of wine and occasionally poking at the sauce with a wooden spoon. You don’t even chop the onion, you simply slice it in half, peel it, and toss it into the pot with everything else.

It might seem like a lot of butter to put into a sauce, but when it all comes out in the wash it’s really only about a tablespoon of butter per serving, which is just fine in my books.

tomato sauce with butter and onion // the muffin myth

I cut a bit of a corner by starting with diced tomatoes rather than canned whole tomatoes, largely by virtue of that being what was in my cupboard and feeling far too lazy to walk across the street to buy a tin of whole ones. Since the simmering and spoon-poking are supposed to break the whole tomatoes down anyways, I just simmered for a little less time.

The original recipe directs you to discard the onion at the end of cooking, but we took one look at the softened, saucy, buttery onion and each took a half on the side of our bowl. I suggest you do the same, or save it for some other use. I bet chopped up or pureed it’d be fantastic on little bits of toast. In any case I do hope you try this recipe out, I know it’ll be making regular appearances in my kitchen while the weather is cold.

Between the time it took me to make this dish, photograph it, and publish this post (the post has been in various draft stages for several weeks), the creator of the original recipe, Marcella Hazan, passed away. As a nod to her, and her contribution to Italian cookery, I think you should make this sauce.

tomato sauce with butter and onion // the muffin myth

One year ago: Whole Wheat Ricotta Muffins with Cinnamon Roasted Apples and Multigrain Edamame Salad
Two years ago: Pumpkin and Black Bean Taquitos
Three years ago: Roasted Pumpkin Lasagna

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion Recipe:

This simple and luxurious tomato sauce comes originally from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. She explained there that “Pasta sauces may cook slowly or rapidly, they make take 4 minutes or 4 hours, but the always cook by evaporation, which concentrates and clearly defines their flavor. Never cook a sauce in a covered pan, or it will emerge with a bland, steamed, weakly formulated taste.”  Noted.

Serves 4


800g tin of whole or diced tomatoes
70g (5 Tbsp) unsalted butter*
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
salt, to taste


Combine tomatoes, onion, and butter in a saucepan. Cook on a slow but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you’re using whole tomatoes, towards the end of the cooking time you’ll want to start breaking them down with a wooden spoon. You’ll know the sauce is ready when the onion is soft, and the butter has separated from the tomatoes and floats in little pools at the top of the sauce. Remove the onion (but don’t throw it out!), add salt to taste, and spoon the sauce over freshly cooked pasta**. Top with freshly grated Parmesan if you like – I preferred it just as it was.

*I used salted butter because that’s what I always have on hand. I found that I didn’t need to add any salt at the end of cooking.

**We had this with whole wheat linguini, but frankly, I would have preferred it with plain spaghetti or bucatini. You do what you like.


I could go on about the virtues of tomatoes here, with all their lycopeney goodness, but I’m not going to. This sauce is comfort food all the way, and although the amount of butter per serving is reasonably moderate, I still think this is a special occasion and moderation situation. Enjoy it!

All text and photos © The Muffin Myth 2013



  1. Sandra says

    Sometimes simple is best, right! I actually have an Aunt that makes her sauce like this with the butter and whole onion that she throws away at the end. I never understood why she would take the onion out at the end but now that I have seen this recipe more then once I guess there really is something to it. Well, now I’ll have to give it a try…but it will be very hard to take the onion out at the end though!!!

  2. Christina says

    I will never tire of this recipe. I just told a few friends about it the other day, and one of them was hooked. My go-to quick sauces use to be marinara but now I make this sauce. Mmm.

    Beautiful pictures!

  3. Kathryn says

    This is pretty much my favourite tomato sauce – I always have a stock of it in the freezer (although I tend to use less butter than the recipe calls for and often add a touch of chilli). It’s a true classic though and very hard to beat.

  4. erika says

    Aww haha I know exactly what you mean about sitting grumpy at your desk and just fantasizing about the comfort food that’s going to make you feel better. I saw this on Smitten Kitchen years ago and have been dying to try it!! The amount of butter kind of scared me, but as you point out….a tablespoon per serving isn’t bad! Resolution: make this for Erik sometime when the weather gets colder 🙂

  5. Tessa says

    So glad you are not butter phobic. Makes me feel better we only do butter or very nice oil at our house. No margarine…ever. A tablespoon of butter once a week or so can’t be bad.
    I will try this!


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