Tomato sauce can be so many things: fresh and simple, marinara full of vegetables, or slow-cooked until it is so luscious and rich that it's the stuff of memories. This is the story of a sauce that delivers such a delicious, powerfully memorable impact that it is worthy of two days — yes, days — of cooking. So when you have a weekend to spare, or you're snowed in and want a pot of sauce bubbling away all day long, here is the recipe your pasta dinner deserves.
What Does Two-Day Tomato Pasta Sauce Taste?
And almost like caramel.
That last description might sound a little odd, but given how long this sauce is left to cook, it really comes as no surprise that there is an elusive burnt sugar sweetness buried in it. It's subtle, though, and more likely to hit your nose than appear on your tongue. Instead that sweetness acts as one layer of flavor in this sauce that contains multitudes.
- There's the herbaceous undertone from a handful of dried herbs. Each herb takes a turn wading in and out of the depths of this sauce, so sometimes it's the basil you taste and other times it's the three-headed flavor of mint, thyme, and marjoram that you find in summer savory.
- Olive oil has the particular job of making this sauce taste "round," a word that at first sounds too abstract to be meaningful until you realize that its flavor has no edges. It tastes complete. The olive oil brings together all the flavors so they curve into each other to create one unified taste.
- This sauce is thick. In fact, you could call it gravy — and there are some pockets of Italian Americans that do. It's "sauce" in this recipe, but that doesn't stop it from being delightfully dense and weighty. You know those picture-perfect bowls of pasta where the red sauce clings to the noodles like it's met its soulmate? That's what this sauce does. It holds on.
In-Law Tomato Sauce
Nicole Collins is a talented artist, photographer, and designer who lives in Upstate New York and loves to cook. Culinary skills skipped a generation in her home when she was growing up. "My mother isn't really a cook, and my father's specialty is hot dogs and beans," she said when I spoke with her recently. "But my bobchi (Ukrainian for grandmother) lived with us, and I cooked with her every night. She made everything from scratch, and I just thought that was how everything was done. I always enjoyed cooking with her; it was our time to chat, and for me to learn."
After Nicole married into an Italian-American family, her in-laws took on the task of teaching her their heritage recipes. That included slow-cooked tomato sauce with roots in Italy. The recipe came with a family tale. Nicole's mother-in-law, Cynthia Collins, taught her. Cynthia learned the recipe from her parents, Regina Corsi and John Corsi. Regina, in turn, learned it from her own in-laws. "My husband's grandmother [Regina] didn't know how to cook," Nicole explained, "[so] ... before she married my husband's grandfather, her mother-in-law (from Italy) showed her how to make the sauce."
Nicole honed the treasured sauce recipe over time, with her mother-in-law, Cynthia, coaching her along the way, with more than a few statements resembling "No, you need more garlic … " she recalled. Her mother-in-law's sudden passing recently made this recipe even more meaningful to Nicole. "I miss her instructions," she said.
How This Sauce Came to Kitchn
I had a chance to enjoy this sauce from Nicole when she cooked it for a group of old friends for dinner earlier this winter. You could smell this sauce the moment you stepped into the house. And it wasn't like any tomato sauce I had smelled before. A bit of burnt sugar came with the scent of tomatoes and herbs, and when I asked Nicole about that particular smell, she told me she had been cooking the sauce for two days! After the first bite, I knew this was a recipe we had to share with the readers of Kitchn, and Nicole and her family were gracious enough to oblige.
This deeply flavored tomato sauce is as good as the story it tells. The process, the longer list of ingredients, and even the patience is a small cost for the outcome. It's a reminder that sometimes the success of a good recipe is about all the moments that lead up to it. Nicole's family story of this recipe is already a good one. It's a little bittersweet, and it's got depth — just like the sauce itself. We're happy to be sharing it here, knowing that anyone who comes to it through this site has a little part in it as well.
Why Tomatoes and Slow-Cooking Work So Well
Nicole's family's versions of this sauce are deeply tomato-y tomato sauce reminiscent of the Italian-American classic immortalized on film in Goodfellas (the character Vinnie's sauce, made behind bars, was famously made with garlic shaved ultra-thin with a razor blade). They share the same premise: Canned tomatoes plus slow cooking over low heat means intense flavor.
The long simmer, with the pot's cover slightly ajar, allows the liquid to cook away and mellows the tomato's natural acids. It even lets the mild, natural fruit sugars of the tomato caramelize and give the sauce balance. The overnight refrigeration gives the ingredients time to marry, allowing the sauce to settle happily in and taste even better, almost like a stew.
Different Tomatoes Make Many Textures
This recipe uses canned San Marzano tomatoes for their sweet, deep tomato flavor and low acidity, and so does our adaptation. Nicole's recipe also embraces the various textures of the different tomato products, and so does this one, too.
Read more: Our Guide to Tomato Products
Additions Beyond Tomatoes: Homage to the Traditional
Each ingredient in this recipe has a major role to play — including the reasoning why some ingredients often found in tomato sauce were left out. There's an added layer of nuance with some of the ingredients, but it's par for the course when many cooks have put their stamp on a recipe. When you make this recipe, there is still room to make this version your own. The herbs, spices, and aromatics are the place to do it.
Traditionally, cooks add a pinch or two of sugar to increase that brightness, and many modern renditions of tomato sauce leave it out. Embracing the past, our recipe has just a little sugar.
Garlic is important to this recipe, but it should all but melt in the sauce, so mincing or grating are your best bets. Nicole's recipe uses garlic powder, but nowadays we can easily source fresh garlic, and the long cooking keeps it mild. The kiss of heat over a long time makes the fresh garlic soft and delicate, mellow like roasted garlic, with nary a tad of raw bite.
Twentieth-century recipes generally use dried herbs because that was what was available in grocery stores. This recipe does, as well, but it's got two twists. I kept the basil and oregano, and omitted the dried parsley. I added in traditional Sicilian herbs, like marjoram and savory.
Savory is sometimes hard to find, and sage is a reasonable substitute. You also have the option of going very Southern Italian and adding ground fennel, but the addition of anise-like sweet fennel isn't loved by everyone, so I'm leaving it up to your taste.
The same idea applies for the optional addition of dried red pepper flakes, but make sure to consider that if you use them, both fennel and red pepper flakes are cooked for a long time in this sauce, which makes them quite a bit milder. I added the herbs three different times during the cooking of the sauce to build flavorful layers.
Nicole doesn't usually bother with the sautéed mushrooms that were in her mother-in-law's version, and I don't add them in this iteration, in order to allow the depth and umami from the tomatoes to take center stage.
Olive oil, however, is important to the recipe. It adds a "roundness" of flavor — the element that makes this sauce feel buttery and lush. Chose an oil that isn't strongly peppery or earthy, because that flavor will remain even after the long cooking.
There are no onions in this recipe; nor were there any in Nicole's recipe. Onions are ubiquitous in many sauces, but here they simply aren't necessary. Nicole's recipe uses onion powder, but I took her tomato focus one step further and streamlined the ingredients to include only those that highlight the tomatoes and support them gently. I didn't want cooked onions to water down the tomato flavor.
Stock and Wine
None of the original recipes use either; instead, they use water. I like adding flavor whenever possible, as long as it supports and does not mask the central flavors. Stock and white wine do exactly that to the tomatoes. (Please use a wine you love to drink and avoid anything oaky.)
The wine highlights the acidity, and the stock, the savory umami. When cooked over such a long time, they meld into the sauce so completely that they transform into deep, soft undertones.
Serving This Sauce
Nicole's family often cooks meatballs right in the sauce to serve, which can take this sauce into a meatier, richer direction. But because you're stretching the process of cooking this sauce into two days, it's already incredibly flavorful. Go ahead and ladle a few spoonfuls over a favorite pasta, add a generous dusting of cheese and a splash of olive oil, and dig in.
How To Make 2-Day Tomato Pasta Sauce
Makes 8 to 10 servings
What You Need
(28-ounce) cans whole, peeled tomatoes with basil, San Marzano preferred
(28-ounce) cans chopped or diced tomatoes
(6-ounce) cans tomato paste, San Marzano preferred
(24-ounce) boxes strained tomatoes
dry white wine
(4 cups) low-sodium chicken or beef broth
dried savory or sage
kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
ground fennel (optional)
red pepper flakes (optional)
granulated sugar, plus more as needed
9- or 10-quart Dutch oven or pot with a lid
Heatproof mixing spoon
Measuring cups and spoons
Heat the tomatoes: Place the whole and chopped tomatoes into a 9- or 10-quart Dutch oven or pot, reserving all the empty cans. Add the tomato paste and strained tomatoes, place over high heat, and stir well.
Add the wine, preserving every bit of tomato flavor along the way: Add the wine to one of the reserved cans and swirl gently to get the stuck bits off the sides and bottom. Pour the wine into the next empty can and repeat, pouring the wine from can to can, but using only a only small amount in the small tomato paste cans, ending with the empty tomato boxes. Add the wine to the pot and stir.
Add the stock: Stir in the stock. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
Add the seasonings: Stir in the garlic. Stir the basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and savory or sage together in a small bowl. Sprinkle in about 1/3 of the herb mixture into the pot, rubbing it between your fingers while you drop it in to release their essential oils. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper and stir to combine.
Cook for 8 hours: Partially cover the pot. Cook for 8 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be reduced by about one-fourth, the large tomatoes will be broken up, and the sauce will have thickened and darkened a bit.
Season the sauce again and chill: Add another 1/3 of the dried herbs, rubbing the mixture between your palms over the pot. Add the fennel and/or red pepper if using and stir to combine. Turn the heat off and allow the pot and sauce to cool until it is warm, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours.
Cook for 4 hours: Uncover the pot and place over high heat. Stir gently until the sauce comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for 4 hours, stirring about once an hour.
Add the seasoning and cook for 4 hours: Add the remaining third of the herbs, again rubbing them in your palms over the pot. Add the sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and stir to combine. Partially cover the pot and cook for 4 hours, stirring about once an hour. The sauce will be thick, and a very deep burnished warm rusty red. It will be reduced from the initial amount by about 1/3 to 1/2 at the end of 16 hours of cooking.
Finish the sauce: Stir in the olive oil. Taste and add up to 1 teaspoon more salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or 1 teaspoon of sugar, one at a time, tasting between each addition.
Storage: This sauce will keep in a covered container, refrigerated, up to 3 days.
Serving suggestions: This sauce is marvelous over spaghetti with meatballs, but it is equally terrific on a chicken, eggplant, or veal parmigiana; beef braciole; sautéed sweet sausages and peppers; or really, any Italian-American classic