Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe

Great tomato sauce in a flash. A quick, simple, easy (and absolute favorite) tomato sauce recipe. Bright and clean flavors, a vibrant red in color, exudes the essence of tomatoes.

Five Minute Tomato Sauce

Let's talk about tomato sauce. Last week in an airplane miles above the expansive plains of the mid-west, in the midst of a flurry of turbulence, it dawned on me that I've never shared with you my all-time favorite tomato sauce recipe. I've included the recipe in one form or another in both of my books, but I've never gone into depth here on the website about why it is the little black dress of my cooking repertoire.

Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe

How to Make a Simple and Bright Tomato Sauce

I realize many of you have romantic notions of what a good tomato sauce should be. And I realize it is going to be a tough sell on my part to get you to make a break with some of those hearty, meaty, long-simmering sauces. But, I'm going to encourage you to give this ringer of a tomato sauce recipe a shot. It comes together in five minutes flat, and the only chopping required is a few garlic cloves. It is bright and clean, a vibrant red in color, and exudes the essence of tomatoes, in part because there isn't much to get in the way of the tomato flavor.

Video: How to Make Five Minute Tomato Sauce



A Short Ingredient List

Many of the tomato sauce recipes in this realm (in the U.S. in particular) include all sorts of ingredients. One camp likes to kick things off by browning onions and ground beef for a chunky stew-like sauce, others love to use carrots and celery and all manner of dusty dried herbs and seasonings. This recipe is going to be on the absolute other end of the spectrum - in all the best ways.

You wouldn't wear a wool coat to the beach, right? That's what heavy spaghetti and tomato sauces in warm weather feel like to me. This sauce is a relatively pure expression of tomatoes accented with a bit of edge from crushed red peppers, a hint of garlic, and my secret ingredient - a touch of lemon zest which brings its citrus aroma and a bit of surprise to the party.

Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe

So Many Different Uses!

The first time you make this sauce I recommend spooning it over light, fluffy pillows of ricotta-filled ravioli. Beyond that there are many other avenues to explore. It is transcendent in all manner of baked pastas and pasta-based casseroles (don't skimp on the zest). Toss it with good-quality spaghetti noodles, a sprinkle of freshly chopped basil, and a dusting of Parmesan - you've got a beautiful bowl of noodles.

Beyond the pasta realm, I use it on thin-crust pizzas, in my thousand-layer lasagna, as the foundation for stuffed shells, as a base for soups, and as a way to pull together various "grain-bowls". For example, quinoa tossed with a bit of this tomato sauce, your protein of choice, and accents like basil and a bit of cheese is simple and satisfying. 

Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe

Pictured above on my favorite easy pizza dough, with some mozzarella, and fresh basil. Be sure to to pay attention to the type of crushed tomatoes to buy in the recipe headnotes. I hope you love this sauce as much as I do, and appreciate it for what it is more so than what it isn't. This page also includes an extended list of pizza topping ideas.


A bit richer. There are times when I'll add a splash of cream at the very end, totally changing the character of the sauce - it becomes silky with a bit of richness, while still being bright, and without compromising the tomatoes in the lead role.

Sarah noted in the comments below, "Mmm, I love a nice quick San Marzano tomato sauce — mine’s very similar, though I also toss in a few capers or maybe some black olive paste if I have them on hand." Love this take.

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Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe

4.05 from 82 votes

I'm very particular about the tomatoes I use in this sauce. Look for canned crushed tomatoes, some cans you will come across will say "with added puree" - this is also fine. I avoid diced tomatoes, pass on pureed, and skip whole tomatoes as well. Avoid the crushed tomatoes with added herbs, seasonings, etc. You want pure crushed tomatoes if possible. I also look for organic crushed tomatoes which can be tricky, I often come across with added basil in it - this is actually fine. Any leftover sauce keeps well in the refrigerator for three or four days.

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 3 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed red tomatoes
  • zest of one lemon
  1. Combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt, and garlic in a cold saucepan. Stir while you heat the saucepan over medium-high heat, saute just 45 seconds or so until everything is fragrant - you don't want the garlic to brown. 

  2. Stir in the tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer, this takes just a couple minutes. Remove from heat and carefully take a taste (you don't want to burn your tongue)...If the sauce needs more salt add it now. Stir in the lemon zest reserving a bit to sprinkle on top of your pasta.

Prep Time
1 min
Cook Time
5 mins
Total Time
6 mins
If you make this recipe, I'd love to see it - tag it #101cookbooks on Instagram!

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Recipe Rating


Great recipe. Never tried lemon, but always use a little anchovy - just add to the saute and it will dissolve quickly. Don't use too much, but a small amount adds nice depth with zero anchovy flavor. My little secret.


I just made it - and it surpassed my expectations. I had never thought of using so much olive oil in a tomato sauce...that's definitely the key to why its texture is better than the previous tomato sauces I've made. Penne was the only thing I had in my cupboard to try it with, so I spooned it over that, and when I ran out of penne, I just ate it like tomato soup, with a spoon.

Herman Schenker

Never heard of lemon zest in the sauce.... and I am Italian. It is amazing how in US all the recipes change....


I have to disagree with the "fresh tomato" poster above to a degree. For cooked tomato sauces, in general, you get a consistent, and delicious results from good quality canned/jarred tomato sauces each and every time. Even the most sensitive of palates can't discern the difference from using fresh tomatoes. I have tested this many times. Although if you want to make a very fresh tomato sauce (not cooked for long), or if you are going to either use unique fresh tomatoes or prepare them uniquely (such as caramelize the skins), you certainly can taste the difference between using fresh and canned. However, this time of year, when tomatoes are in abundance (at least here they are), you certainly can use fresh, and I do just to use them up. I make my quick sauce just like this one except that I usually have finely chopped onion in the oil before I add the garlic. I use either lemon zest (never juice) or red/white wine to add zip or brighten the taste (as with lemon zest). You can throw in a handful of basil leaves too if in the mood for basil. regano and marjoram, or whatever herb you have around can be added, but you should add it to the oil just after the garlic is added and allow them to sweat a bit before adding the tomatoes. If you want a ragu, after adding tomatoes add ground meat (veal/pork), skip the lemon zest and simmer slowly for about 2 hours adding hot water if it gets too thick.


This sauce sounds wonderful - I'm wondering how it would respond to canning? I would like to take advantage of the farmer's market tomatoes and do some canning, but I'm wondering how the flavors of the sauce would hold up? Any thoughts? Thanks! I'm looking forward to trying this sauce!


This is identical to the light sauce recipe I use for gnocci, plain spaghetti etc except for the lemon zest. Several others have commented on this but it is a wonderful touch. Haven't tried it yet but I just know it's going to work. :)


That sauce looks yummy... Have never tried lemon zest in my sauce but I will, cos it sounds like a good adition. I'm a compulsive tomato-eater, I know about tomatoes, and I agree with Babette in that fresh tomatoes would give a much better and summer result. Heidi, do you have an alternative version using fresh tomatoes?


I always wanted to make my own tomato sauce but thought it was too daunting of a task! This makes it look so easy. Thanks! Also, I LOVE crushed red pepper flakes so that looks like a great addition to the ordinary tomato sauce! Way to go!




I consider the addition of lemon your latest stroke of genius.


Made this for dinner last night. It's beyond fantastic! The lemon zest is pure genius and works so well with the red pepper. Thanks!


wow! that looks incredible. and lemon zest in the tomato sauce? that's new ! will definitely try it. makes me smile just to think of eating it :-)


Lemon zest, eh? Interesting addition. I think I can see where that would be just wonderful. I must make note to give it a try. Cheers!

almost vegetarian

Heidi, Is your preference for crushed tomatoes here just a texture issue? I love the idea of the lemon zest. I've long done a simple tomato sauce simmered with olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper with a little fresh basil tossed in at the end, but this sounds like a great variation.


What a great recipe! Looks simple and delicious.


I'm actually planning to make spaghetti tonight for friends so this recipe comes at a very apropos time. I would never have thought to add lemon zest. I'm looking forward to seeing exactly what sort of flavor the sauce takes on from that simple addition. Thank you for always having such lovely items and ideas to share!


That sounds like the perfect hot/warm tomato sauce. For warm summer days I like something even simpler: Cut fresh tomatoes in half and grate until all that's left in your hand is skin (tomato skin...). Toss with pasta, sprinkle with fresh basil.


I use the same little extra as Babette, a pinch of sugar. Lemon zest is also fantastic in tomato sauce, I agree (it seems especially good in chicken dishes)


Looks absolutely delicious! For sure I'll give a try. Thanks for sharing!


Nice, looks great. I follow the same technique mostly but vary it by using diced tomatoes with italian spices or using black pepper instead of red pepper...of Course, the lemon zest never thought of :)


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