Did you buy a new brand of canned marinara sauce, and realized it was too thin? Or did you try making homemade sauce for the first time, and didn’t get the right consistency? Either way, here are some tips on how to thicken marinara sauce.
Well, every tomato sauce, really.
I’ve mentioned marinara because that’s the one we use the most in Mortadella Head’s kitchen.
We put it on pizza, we make our subs with it, and we also make some of our beloved baked pasta dishes. Our Sunday Sauce Lasagna is a people’s favorite, and it’s made with marinara instead of the more traditional Bolognese sauce.
But whether it’s marinara, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or everything made with tomatoes, the process is the same. Let’s see what you should do!
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What makes marinara sauce watery? The importance of reduction
Compared to other sauces, marinara has a moderately thin consistency. But sometimes it’s just too watery. In most cases, the reason is that it hasn’t been simmered long enough.
You see, fresh tomatoes contain a lot of liquids, which are released during cooking. And if you don’t give them time to evaporate, your sauce will be diluted.
So, whether you are making homemade marinara sauce, or trying to improve a store-bought one, the best thing to do is to let it simmer on low heat.
You just need to leave it there, and stir only once or twice to keep it from sticking to the saucepan.
This can take from 10 to 40 minutes, so be patient and don’t panic when it comes to a boil. That’s actually the first step to giving it a thick texture. It can hold out much longer without being spoiled.
This way, all the excess liquid will evaporate, and the natural sugars in the tomatoes will start to caramelize until your sauce will reach the desired consistency.
This method is called reduction, and in my opinion, it is the best way to get a thick marinara sauce. It doesn’t require any thickening agent and preserves the original recipe’s flavor. It’s actually how tomato sauces were originally meant to be thickened.
How to reduce a simple sauce
You just need to pay attention to the following details.
1) Use a saucepan or a sauté pan. The larger the surface area on which the marinara is cooked, the easier it will shrink. I see that some people like to use a slow cooker, but I’ve never tried it. If you decide to use it, consider that your sauce will need much more time to thicken.
2) If you use canned tomatoes, drain them well before cooking, and press them lightly with a spoon after cutting them. This will make them lose some of their excess water and reduce the cooking time.
3) Control the heat. You can cook on medium heat until the sauce comes to a boil, but after that, it is best to switch to low heat.
Some people say that bringing the sauce to a quick boil can help thicken it because it deactivates some enzymes in the tomatoes. However, cooking marinara on high heat can cause it to lose flavor or burn, so try to find the right balance. Personally, I use medium heat until I see the first bubbles, then wait a couple of minutes, and switch to low heat.
If you’re cooking small amounts of sauce, this method does not take long. But if you are in a hurry, you might want to use a thickening agent or something that can give you quicker results. Here’s what you can do.
Other ways to thicken marinara sauce
There are many different ways to get a thick marinara sauce without waiting the necessary time for reduction. Here are the best ones.
Using thickening agents
Thickening agents are the most obvious way to fix any watery sauce. They’re easily found at home, they take just a minute to do their job, and they don’t spoil the sauce taste.
In the case of marinara sauce, you just have to add them at the end of the cooking process. Here’s what you can use.
Starch is a great way to fix a watery marinara sauce.
You can use whatever type you prefer. The most common one is probably cornstarch, but you can go with potato starch, arrowroot, or tapioca starch as well.
All you have to do is mix it with some cold water or milk (the ratio is 1:1) and then combine the resulting cornstarch slurry with the sauce and simmer over low heat for another minute. The starch molecules will do their job and absorb the excess liquid, thickening your sauce in no time.
Starch is almost tasteless, so it won’t change your marinara too much, but it can mask some of its flavors, so I recommend adjusting everything with a little salt and black pepper.
Pasta cooking water
If you are cooking pasta and want to dress it with marinara sauce, try this method.
Subtract two or three minutes from the cooking time listed on the package, and cook the pasta only for the resulting time. It doesn’t matter if it is still hard afterward.
In the meantime, toss your marinara sauce in a saucepan with a drizzle of olive oil, and heat it slowly.
Drain the pasta without throwing away the water, and then add it to the marinara sauce. After that, add up to ⅓ cup of the pasta water, and keep cooking for the remaining time.
This way, the starch in the water will act as a thickening agent, making your marinara sauce creamier without affecting its flavor.
I use this method for many other pasta dressings, but it is obviously not good for baked dishes or recipes that don’t involve pasta.
Using cornstarch or pasta water is a good way to thicken marinara sauce without altering the recipe too much, but it’s not the only one.
You can also add other ingredients. Just know that in some cases the result will taste and look different from typical marinara sauce. In fact, many of the resulting sauces would be called by another name here in Italy.
However, this does not make them any less good. On the contrary, they are all very delicious alternatives that are also occasionally used in Mortadella Head’s kitchen.
One way to thicken marinara sauce without changing its flavor too much is to add a little bit of tomato paste.
This will increase the amount of tomato in your sauce without adding more water.
For a regular saucepan, you’ll just need to add a couple of tablespoons of paste, and cook on low heat for another 5 minutes. The same goes if you’re using tomato puree instead of paste.
All-purpose flour is another thickening agent commonly found at home. However, I decided not to add it to the previous section.
The reason is that if you use it as you would with cornstarch, you will get a “raw flour” taste that may ruin the overall flavor of your sauce.
Luckily, there is a far better method to thicken marinara sauce with flour.
Have you ever heard of roux? It is a mixture of butter and flour that is used in the preparation of many sauces. I have already mentioned it in my béchamel sauce recipe. The roux has thickening qualities, and professional chefs often use it to make their sauces less watery.
Making it is super easy. Just add butter and flour in equal parts to a pot, and cook them together for a few minutes. You should start smelling a nutty aroma when it’s ready.
If you combine roux with your marinara sauce, you’ll get a great dressing for baked pasta dishes, as well as a delicious filling for any stuffed recipe.
Cheese or dairy products
Butter is not the only dairy product you can use to turn your marinara into a thicker sauce.
Many people like to add a little grated parmesan or pecorino cheese. It gives the sauce extra creaminess and flavor. Chuck and Sebby often do this for their signature subs.
Alternatively, since we’ve already mentioned it, you could add bechamel sauce. Any cream cheese will do, too.
Many people like to thicken their tomato sauce with egg yolks. I’ve never tried it, but they say it will allow you to improve your marinara without changing its appearance, texture or flavor.
The method is as follows: take 1 or 2 egg yolks, and whisk them in a bowl while slowly adding a couple of ladles of hot sauce. This will prevent them from overcooking later. After that, add the egg mixture to the rest of the marinara and mix well, heating it for some more minutes.
I am gonna try this next time I make marinara at home.
Using solid ingredients to thicken marinara
The ones you saw above were the best ways to thicken marinara sauce. But if none of them convince you, you can try adding other solid ingredients.
This is not exactly a thickening method. Indeed, the ones you’ll see below are rather recipes that include marinara.
Anyway, it still allows you to give your sauce a thicker texture. And maybe it can give you inspiration for your next pasta dressing or pizza topping.
When I want to improve the texture of a sauce, meat and cheese are the first ingredients that come to mind.
But we’ve already talked about how you can use cheese, so let’s spend a few words on the other one.
Unlike dairy products, if you want to use meat, you’ll have to cook it separately beforehand. After that, add the marinara sauce, and then let the two simmer together for as much time as possible. This will take your sauce to the next level. It will give it a strong flavor, and a thick texture that will linger on your tongue.
The most common types of meat used for this method are ground beef, pulled pork, and diced bacon. You can also use harder types of meat, but they’re not as good in my opinion.
Recipe idea: sauté some smoked bacon cubes in a saucepan, then add in the following order marinara sauce, cubes of provolone cheese and parmesan shavings, and some cooking cream. Finally, season with chili powder, nutmeg and ground black pepper. This way, you will get a fumè sauce. It is a creamy, delicious sauce that is typically used to season macaroni. Might write a proper recipe post about it someday.
Pro tip: When you cook the meat, add a little red wine or beer and wait for it to be fully absorbed before throwing in the marinara sauce as well
After meat, let’s look at some veggies that you can combine with marinara to make a thick sauce.
The first thing that comes to mind is black olives. Remove their pits, cut them into rounds and let them simmer in the marinara for a couple of minutes. This is a very common pizza topping here in Italy. Some people like to add tuna, but you could also take everything to the next level and make a puttanesca sauce.
Another good option is boiled or mashed potatoes. They are almost pure starch, so they will thicken your marinara sauce while they simmer with it.
Cut them into rounds; they will blend better. The resulting sauce is a great pizza topping, but I wouldn’t use it on pasta.
You could also use corn kernels. Similar to potatoes, they will give the marinara a thicker texture both because of their firmness and because of the starch they contain. Add some sausage or frankfurters, and try using the result as a topping for our Roman Pizza recipe.
Finally, the last thing that you can add to thin marinara sauce in order to make it thicker is bread crumbs. This is a very good way of reusing leftover/stale bread, and it’s the cheaper option we’ve seen so far.
As with the methods above, just add a small amount of bread crumbs to your marinara a few minutes before taking it off the heat. It’ll make it chewier.
Recap: all the ways to thicken marinara sauce
So, the best way to get thick marinara sauce is reduction. It consists in cooking the sauce over low heat until all the excess liquid evaporates.
Compared to other tomato sauces, it doesn’t take long. But if you can’t wait you could:
- use thickening agents such as starch and pasta cooking water. In the first case, you’ll need to make a slurry by mixing the starch with milk of water. The right liquid to cornstarch ratio is 1:1;
- add some tomato paste or puree;
- make a roux with butter and flour and add it to the sauce;
- add egg yolks or dairy products (e.g.: parmesan cheese, béchamel sauce, or cream cheese);
- simmer some meat in the sauce;
- add veggies like olives and mashed potatoes;
- use breadcrumbs from leftover stale bread.
I hope you found this article useful. Have fun experimenting in your kitchen. See you soon!