When you think of the classics, spaghetti with tomato sauce is definitely up there. It’s one of those meals that never gets old and has been popular since before any of us can remember. Some of the more trendy and current food fads are definitely fun to indulge in (who doesn’t have a soft spot for cupcakes and Froyo?), but there is something to be said for perfecting the recipe for a dish as timeless as tomato sauce. It’s one of those things that even an amateur cook, like myself, should at least attempt to add to their repertoire. Although this recipe is a bit of a commitment, there is a lot of down time while the tomatoes cook that you can use to prepare other parts of your meal—or let’s be honest, you can totally do homework during that time. There’s nothing too technical about this sauce and the simple and fresh ingredients practically ensure that you’ll end up with something delicious!

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen 


Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Servings: 4 small portions

3 pounds of plum tomatoes (look for oval shaped tomatoes)
3/4 teaspoons salt
1 large clove of garlic, thinly sliced (a clove is one segment of a head of garlic)
A pinch of red pepper flakes
A small handful of basil leaves, most left whole, a few slivered for garnish
1/4 cup olive oil
12 ounces (3/4 pound) spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2. Cut a small X at the bottom of each tomato (this will help with peeling the tomatoes later).

Photo by Alia Wilhelm

3. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 10 to 30 seconds, then either rinse them under cold water or shock them in an ice water bath. They should now be very easy to peel.
4. Peel the tomatoes by hand and discard the skin. Keep the pot full of hot water; you can use it to cook your spaghetti in later.

Photo by Alia Wilhelm

5. Cut each tomato in half lengthwise and remove the seeds with your fingertips into a small strainer set over a bowl. You can toss the seeds, but keep the juices to add to the sauce later.

Photo by Alia Wilhelm

6. Add the halved tomatoes and salt to a large saucepan and turn the stove to medium-high. You will be adding the pasta to this later so make sure the pan is big enough

7. Once in the pan, break the tomatoes down. You can use your hands, a knife, or another tool like a potato masher. The more you break down the tomatoes, the smoother your sauce will be. Leave more whole pieces if you prefer a chunkier sauce.

8. Once the sauce has begun to boil, turn down the heat to medium-low and gently simmer the tomatoes for 35 to 45 minutes, mashing them more if needed. If they begin to look a little dry you can add some of the strained tomato juices you reserved.

9. While the sauce is cooking, combine the sliced garlic, a few whole basil leaves, a pinch of red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup olive oil in a small saucepan. Heat them slowly over the lowest heat so they take a long time to come to a simmer. Once it does simmer, immediately remove it from the heat and strain the oil into a small dish. You’ll need it shortly.

Photo by Alia Wilhelm

10. When the tomato sauce has been simmering for about 25 minutes (out of 35 to 45), bring your tomato-blanching pot of water back to a boil with some salt. Once it begins to boil rapidly, cook your spaghetti until it is al dente. It should feel like it could use another minute of cooking time. Reserve a half-cup of pasta cooking water and drain the rest. Adding pasta water to sauce helps thicken it because of the starch content of the water.

11. Once your sauce is cooked to the consistency you like, stir in the reserved olive oil and adjust seasonings to taste. You can add basil, salt, red pepper flakes or whatever you please.

12. Add drained spaghetti and half the reserved pasta water to the simmering tomato sauce and cook them together for another minute or two. You can add the remaining pasta water if needed to loosen the sauce.

Photo by Alia Wilhelm

13. If you decide to use the butter, stir it into the sauce.
14. Garnish with some slivered basil and serve immediately.