A Simple Basic Tomato Sauce

In an ideal world, my kitchen counters would overflow in late summer with vine-ripened tomatoes of all shapes and sizes and colors, picked that morning and still warm from the sun.

Though my thumb is arguably quite green, I am, at present, keeper of a garden routinely ravaged by an impressive array of creatures and forces of nature. Each season my tomato plants are the most spectacular failures. Plans to preserve the tastes of long-faded summer sunshine with jars stacked upon jars of whole tomatoes, tomato chutneys, fiery salsa and a killer homemade tomato sauce are shelved for ‘someday.’

For tomato sauce there is, thankfully, another way. Maybe even a better way.

This is one of those clutch recipes I turn to again and again, and have been for over a decade now, because it’s so dang simple and good. My secret: canned tomatoes.

It’s a departure from my love of seasonal and homegrown, or at least local, produce, but canned tomatoes are inexpensive time-savers with just as much flavor and often a slightly better nutrition profile than their fresh counterparts. Talk about a winning ingredient that flies under the radar.

You may already have a favorite store-bought tomato/marinara sauce, and I agree that it can be a great, quick pantry staple. Some of those pre-made jars, however, contain unnecessarily high amounts of salt and sugar — upwards of 600 mg sodium and 6 g sugar in a 1/2-cup serving. This DIY version tastes as good or better, allows for flexibility with the textures + flavors, as well as control over ingredient quality + quantity, and thereby the sauce’s nutrition.

What’s in it for me?

One cup of canned tomatoes contains only 41 calories and just shy of 10 g carbohydrate, but clocks in at 13% of your daily ironpotassium vitamin B6, plus nearly 40% of your vitamin C. This serving also comes with almost 2 g protein, over 2 g fiber, and almost 10% of your daily recommendations for a slew of other vital nutrients, including vitamins and E, several more of the B vitaminscalcium and magnesium.

Canned shortly after picking tomatoes that are at the peak of ripeness ensures the best fresh flavor and texture + maximum retention of nutrients. The process of canning helps enhance the nutrient profile of certain foods, and research shows that canned tomatoes, in particular, contain significantly higher amounts of the heart-healthy, phytochemical lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Cooking further increases the concentration of anti-inflammatory lycopene. And a bonus for this recipe: The heart-healthy unsaturated fats in the olive oil  enhances the body’s absorption of lycopene + other antioxidants found in canned tomatoes.

The continuum of ‘processing’ foods ranges from minimally to heavily processed. For the purposes of this post: Fresh tomatoes at a farm stand are “unprocessed,” assuming that washing was the only ‘alteration’ from their original fresh-picked state. Tomatoes that are packaged for convenience, say in a plastic-wrapped foam tray or in a hard plastic clamshell, are “minimally processed.” Canning of freshly-picked tomatoes helps lock in freshness + nutritional quality, and even those with one or two additional ingredient ‘additives’ are considered “basic processed.” Canned tomatoes, as you can see, are fairly low on the ‘processing’ continuum, and can be a convenient, inexpensive and nutritious part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Among the common one or two ingredient ‘additives’ mentioned above is salt, and some canned tomatoes contain upwards of 300 mg sodium per serving (about 13% of the DV). To help you stay under the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation of no more than 2,300 mg sodium per day, look for canned tomatoes labeled “No Salt/Sodium Added” or, at the very least, “Reduced/Low Sodium.” Citric acid or calcium chloride are two other additives you may find. Both are considered safe to consume, and are used in very small amounts with the purposes of preserving color + texture, respectively.

If you’re concerned about BPA (bisphenol A), there are now quite a few brands of BPA-free canned tomatoes. Alternatively, tomatoes in cardboard containers will naturally be BPA-free.

The recipe yields approximately 2 cups of sauce — enough for about 4 to 6 servings. Open another can or two, slice a few more garlic cloves, and you can easily double or triple it, as I do almost religiously, to stock the freezer (or feed a crowd).

Serve it warm with calzones, sandwiches or socca to dip; as the cooking sauce for meatballs, seafood or eggs; over spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini with chicken or beef, crumbled or creamy cheese, toasted nuts, lentils or beans. Friday night pizza is a given (with fresh mozzarella), but chillier evenings on the horizon bring cozier, tomato-based dishes like peppery bucatini all’Amatriciana and shortcut versions of long-cooking French braises to mind.

On its own or as the flavorful base of other dishes, this recipe is healthy, quick and simple — perfect for your back pocket. There really is something special about a homemade sauce… even one made from canned tomatoes!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Any secret recipes you have to share that use tomato sauce?

Tomato Sauce
Prep Time
Cook Time
Total Time
Double or triple ingredients below to make a big batch and freeze for whenever the mood strikes! (Freezing tips in the HGN Notes.)
Recipe Type: sauce, dip, condiment
Makes: approximately 2 cups
  • 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced as thinly as you can
  • pinch of dried red chilli flakes (optional)
  • 1 28-oz can (or 2 14-oz cans) peeled whole or diced tomatoes (see HGN Notes)
  1. Pour the olive oil into a medium-sized skillet, saucepan or Dutch oven, and sprinkle over the garlic slices and chilli flakes. Place over medium-low heat and cook gently until the garlic is golden -- watch carefully and adjust the heat as needed so the garlic does not brown or burn.
  2. Once the garlic is golden and sizzling, add the tomatoes with their liquid, then slosh 1 to 2 Tbsp water around in the can and add that as well. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are very soft and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 25 to 30 minutes. If at any point you feel that the sauce is getting too dry, stir in 1 to 2 Tbsp more water. (Cooking with a glass of wine in hand? Add a splash of that for bonus flavor!)
  3. Now it's time to choose the final texture. For a rustic and chunky sauce, simply bash up the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon and call it a day. For a smooth sauce, transfer the cooked tomatoes into a food processor or high-powered blender, let cool a few minutes, then puree to your desired consistency (if using a stainless steel pan, an immersion blender works as well). For an in-between sauce, use a food mill or go easy on the food processor/immersion blender to leave a few chunks.
  4. Transfer the sauce back to the skillet, and simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes to concentrate the flavors, adding another 1 to 2 Tbsp of water (or wine!), if necessary. Taste, season with salt and pepper, as needed, and serve immediately. Leftovers keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
HGN Notes
I make at least a double batch of this recipe every 1 to 2 months, dividing what we don't plan to use in the next couple of days between freezer bags to easily grab and quickly thaw at a later time.

Here's how to do it: Label snack- or sandwich-sized bag(s) with the contents, date + amount, spoon or pour in the sauce, then press out as much air as possible before sealing. Transfer the bags to the freezer and lay on a tray or other flat surface so that the frozen bags easily stack on top or next to one another. (p.s. This is a smart tip for other sauces, dips, pestos, hummus, soups or stews!)

+ Use fire-roasted tomatoes or canned cherry tomatoes instead of standard whole or diced tomatoes.
+ Instead of dried red chilli flakes, substitute 1 whole fresh red chilli that has been punctured with the tip of a knife so it doesn't explode while cooking. (This also ensures the sauce isn't too fiery. If you're into that, cut the chilli all the way in half and add that.)
+ Add a sprig of fresh basil, oregano, rosemary or thyme, stem and leaves intact, when you add the tomatoes to infuse some herby flavor; remove before mashing/pureeing.
+ For an unexpected hit of flavor and brightness, add 1 to 2 tsp red wine or balsamic vinegar, or the same amount of lemon or orange zest at the end of cooking.
+ A splash of wine, red or white, added while the tomatoes are cooking down gives the sauce a subtle flavor and richness. Try a full-bodied merlot, a crisp pinot grigio, even a dry sherry or marsala.
Nutrition Info
Serving Size: 1/2 cup Calories: 58 Fat: 3 g Saturated fat: 0 g Unsaturated fat: 3 g Trans fat: 0 g Carbohydrates: 9 g Sugar: 5 g Sodium: 21 mg Fiber: 2 g Protein: 2 g Cholesterol: 0 mg

Recipe adapted from jamie’s dinners by Jamie Oliver.

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Check out my downloadable nutrition guides.

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