Marinara vs. Tomato Sauce: What’s the Difference?

Confused about the difference between marinara vs. tomato sauce? They're both made with tomatoes, but one is thicker and more complex than the other. Here's how to make (and use) each one.

Most of us are pretty familiar with Italian tomato sauce. It’s tossed with pasta for any number of quick-and-easy weeknight dinners, simmered with eggs for shashuka or slathered onto homemade pizza dough.

We often see the terms “tomato sauce” and “marinara” used interchangeably on the jars of sauce in the grocery store. You’ll even find some specifically labeled as spaghetti sauce or pizza sauce.

Which begs the question: Other than the fact that they all contain tomatoes, are these sauces actually that different?

Marinara vs. Tomato Sauce

Marinara is a simple sauce made with garlic, crushed red pepper and basil, and it comes together in about an hour. Tomato sauce, on the other hand, is thick, rich and complex. Making it takes hours. Tomato sauce typically contains more ingredients, too, including vegetables and salt pork.

What is marinara?

When most of us think of tomato sauce, we’re actually thinking about marinara. Marinara is tomato sauce, but it’s a thinner, simplier sauce that cooks very quickly: It only needs to simmer for about an hour. The sauce gets its characteristic flavor by the addition of garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and herbs like basil and oregano. You can make marinara with any type of tomato, but varieties of plum or paste tomatoes work best. For a classic version, use sweet, low-acid San Marzano tomatoes.

Because marinara isn’t too complex in flavor, it’s perfect for pasta and pizza (and these other marinara-based recipes). It may even be labeled “pizza sauce” at the store.

Wondering about the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce? Spaghetti sauce is a version of marinara, but it usually contains additional ingredients, like meat or vegetables.

What is tomato sauce?

Unlike marinara, tomato sauce is thick, rich, complex and not traditionally vegetarian. It’s based on the classic French mother sauce, sauce tomat. It starts with salt pork or bacon, onions, carrots and a roux made of flour and butter. Then, you add fresh tomatoes, bay leaves, garlic and veal stock (although many modern-day recipes use chicken stock instead). This sauce isn’t finished quickly, either; it simmers for hours, thickening up as it goes and allowing the flavors to deepen and become almost sweet.

If you’ve ever heard of Sunday gravy or Sunday sauce, that’s a variation of classic tomato sauce. It usually contains additional meat, like pork ribs, ground beef or Italian sausage.

Tomato sauce’s rich flavor and thick texture make it better suited for smothering foods like a gravy. It can be ladled over pasta, but it’s almost never used as pizza sauce. You can also serve it over biscuits for breakfast or use it to smother meat dishes like chicken cacciatore.

Give this old-fashioned tomato sauce recipe a try, or take your tomato sauce to the next level and make Sunday sauce.

Can you substitute marinara sauce for tomato sauce?

Since both sauces are made with tomatoes as their base, it is possible to substitute marinara for tomato sauce. Using marinara instead of tomato sauce can make a recipe vegetarian-friendly, and it’s a great way to shave time when preparing weeknight dinners. That said, marinara is not as heavy or flavorful as tomato sauce, so the flavor and texture of the finished dish will be very different.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.