Bittman Basics

9 Tomato Sauce Variations

Keep this handy

Mark Bittman
Published in
5 min readApr 13, 2020


Photo: Romulo Yanes

You can whip up a batch of tomato sauce from scratch in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta. Diced tomatoes are super convenient, whether in cans, cartons, or jars. Just don’t buy crushed tomatoes or tomato puree, which are both much too watery.

Canned whole tomatoes will give you an even meatier sauce and are easy enough to deal with: First, drain off the liquid from the can and save it; you may need it to thin the sauce. Don’t bother to core them, but do use a knife to hack away at the tomatoes right in the can to break them up a bit.

Try one of these variations on the main tomato sauce recipe, below.

Tomato Sauce with Fresh or Dried Herbs

Stir any of the following herbs into the sauce just before serving: ¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh basil, parsley, dill, or mint; 10 fresh sage leaves; 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, oregano or marjoram (or 1 teaspoon dried); 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or ½ teaspoon dried); or ½ teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon (or ¼ teaspoon dried).

Vegetable-Tomato Sauce

Chop up whatever leftover vegetables you have and warm them up in the sauce just before serving. If you don’t have anything handy, chop 2 cups raw eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, or bell peppers. In Step 1, cook them alone in the oil until the vegetables are soft and tender, 10 to 15 minutes; add more oil to the pan if it starts to look too dry. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon, then add the onion to the pan and continue with the recipe. When the sauce is almost done, stir the vegetable back in just long enough to heat through.

Spicy Tomato Sauce

Known as arrabbiata. Skip the onion and put 1 tablespoon chopped garlic in the oil along with 1, 3, or 5 small dried red chiles or a big pinch of crushed red pepper. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is brown — deeply colored but not burned — then turn off the heat for a minute, add the tomatoes, and proceed. Remove the whole chiles before serving.

Tomato Sauce with Fresh Mushrooms



Mark Bittman

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at