Learn how to make a thick, rich tomato oil-free marinara sauce with zero oil or added sugar!
A friend of mine challenged me to go WFPB (whole food, plant-based) for the month of July. That means vegan (of course), no added sweetener, no oil, and no refined grains.
(The WFPB challenge led me to devise this fat-free marinara recipe, and I have many findings from my experimentation. But click “Jump to Recipe” above if you’d like to just get the recipe!)
Normally I eat a well-balanced diet that consists of minimal sweets, moderate and not-egregious amounts of oil, and honestly a lot of white rice – which was easily swapped for brown. So this didn’t feel like much of a stretch for me nutritionally – but cooking-wise it’s a whole different ball game.
Cooking without oil this month has not been a straightforward swap and it has resulted in some serious kitchen disappointments. The internet continues to tell me to simply substitute water or vegetable broth for oil in savory recipes. Ask my oil-free fried plantains if that substitution works.
However, I’ve had many successes as well and this oil-free marinara is the first to be shared here!
Why oil-free tomato sauce is tricky + what I learned
There is one commercial oil-free tomato sauce I’ve identified – it’s made by Engine 2. But, it’s only sold at Whole Foods due to an exclusive contract. So when the craving for lasagna hit me one day this week, I realized I needed to make a WFPB marinara on my own.
If you’ve read my other tomato sauce articles, you know that garlic is a crucial component. Its aromatic, slightly sulfuric flavor balances out the acidic tomatoes handsomely.
Normal tomato sauce relies on the fat solubility of the flavor compounds in garlic to infuse flavor throughout the sauce and give it mouthfeel and body. It’s no surprise that when I simply swapped water for the oil, the result was over-browned garlic with minimal flavor. (That’s why you see so many oil-free marinara recipes telling you to add a bunch of spices.)
I went back to the drawing board and did some research about garlic flavor solubility. Oil-free culinary science is not well understood, even though oil-free nutrition and eating are extensively written about. So, I didn’t find a lot of info except to underscore that fat solubility is important; but I didn’t want to ask you to blend a garlic clove with cashew butter or something like that, just to make an oil-free marinara.
However, I had some luck when I looked for research about how to maximize garlic’s health benefits, reasoning that whatever maximizes garlic’s benefits may also maximize its flavor. As it turns out, the next best carrier of garlic’s beneficial compounds seems to be alcohol. It’s similarly known that alcohol added to a finished dish can bring out some flavors that would otherwise be muddled. And so I had myself a theory.
How to make oil-free marinara
After a friend left a bottle of white wine at my house, I put my newfound scientific suspicions to the test. I chopped up a few cloves of garlic and left them in a jar soaking in white wine while I was at work.
When I got home that evening, I threw my wine-garlic in a pan with some tomatoes, and only a few short minutes of simmering later I was surprised to discover that it was already better than the prior edition of my oil-free tomato sauce, when I sauteed the garlic in water.
You’ll need a good nonstick saucepan, and the rest is fairly simple. Add your wine-soaked garlic mixture to a warm pan, then quickly add tomatoes and some salt (and some bruised fresh basil if you’ve got it). Simmer until the tomatoes are cooked down and thickened, season to taste with more salt, add soy sauce if you’ve got it on hand, and enjoy!
Why soy sauce? Olive oil is a little bit umami. It’s why super rich sauces like Rao’s have an almost meaty flavor. With no olive oil at all in the recipe, it helps to replace the savory flavor a little bit and a tiny dash of soy sauce will do the trick. However, the sauce is just fine without – I tested it!
Why this recipe works
- In the absence of oil, alcohol is the next-best carrier of the aromatic compounds in garlic.
- Pre-soaking the garlic in white wine helps distribute garlic flavor into the wine, and mellows out the sharpness of the garlic.
- Using fresh tomatoes or tomato puree ensures that the tomatoes have enough liquid content for the raw garlic to cook, and enough sweetness to balance it out.
- A tiny, tiny splash of soy sauce replaces some of the umami missing without the olive oil.
Is this as good as oil-full tomato sauce? I’m in the business of honesty, and I don’t think it is, but I’m still darn proud of the sauce I came up with here and I’d be happy to eat it even once I’m not eating oil-free in general.
Oil-Free Marinara Sauce
Wonder no more about whether delicious oil-free marinara is possible! This fat-free tomato sauce uses the powers of white wine to infuse garlic flavor into the tomatoes, sans oil. Recipe is easily doubled or halved!
Add the minced garlic to a small bowl and cover with the white wine. Let sit for 15 minutes (or covered in the fridge for up to 24 hours for even better flavor) while you prep the rest of the recipe.
Heat your nonstick pan on medium-low heat. When warm, add the white wine and garlic mixture (it will bubble quite a bit), then immediately add the tomato puree.
Stir well, scraping any wine solids from the bottom of the pan. If using the fresh basil, gently bruise or tear it and then add it to the pan. Continue to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have thickened and turned a richer red color, and the garlic is softened.
Remove the basil from the pan and discard, if using. Stir in the optional soy sauce if using, and season to taste with salt.
TOMATO TYPE: You should use puree from fresh tomatoes or whole canned tomatoes, or simply buy strained tomatoes with no other ingredients added. Canned diced tomatoes don't work well for this recipe because they don't break down well when cooked, and they typically have citric acid added to them, which will throw the sauce's acidity off balance.
If you want your sauce to be a little bit chunky, you can set aside some of the whole tomatoes and hand-chop them. Or, if you can find canned diced tomatoes with no ingredients other than tomatoes, perhaps tomato juice, and salt - more likely to be available at natural stores - those can be used.
Adapted from my 30-minute fresh tomato marinara.