Slow cooker homemade marinara will change the way you eat pasta

Marinara sauce is one of those things we tend to take for granted, but is actually a cornerstone of so many of our favorite meals. What's a great plate of spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan, or baked ziti without a rich, velvety sauce? A good marinara is like the ultra-soft fleece blanket of sauces. It's nothing fancy, but especially on a chilly evening at home, it's exactly what you want. At its most basic, marinara sauce is just tomatoes, garlic, onion, and herbs. You can spice it up with any combination of dried peppers, anchovies, and capers for a marinara with old-school Italian vibes, or add spices like cumin and paprika for a sauce that can be used for Greek and Hungarian dishes as well as Italian classics. 

Sure, it's easy enough to grab a jar of tomato sauce at the grocery store, but making your own marinara sauce is incredible easy and totally worth it. Making your own sauce also ensures that you're primarily getting tomatoes and spices in your sauce, and not a ton of stabilizers, additives, and hidden sugar. Our recipe for the best slow cooker marinara sauce takes only five minutes of hands-on prep time before you just turn on your slow cooker and leave it alone. When you come back in a few hours, you'll be rewarded with the best marinara sauce you've ever had — it's so good, you'll never go back to the pre-made stuff again. 

Gather the ingredients to make the best slow cooker marinara sauce

The most important ingredient for our slow cooker marinara sauce is tomatoes — that is where it'll get the base of its flavor, after all, so get the best ones you can find. You'll also need a large, sweet onion, a head of garlic, and whatever spices you'd like to use in your sauce. 

As with all homemade sauces, one of the biggest benefits of making your own as opposed to buying pre-made sauce is the fact that you can customize the flavor profile to suit your household's tastes. If you have heat-seekers in your home, make a fiery marinara infused with dried chili peppers and hot paprika. If your family likes things on the funkier side, go with the classic combination of anchovies and capers. 

What kind of tomatoes should you use for slow cooker marinara sauce?

If they're in season, fresh tomatoes will of course be the best option, but you will need to remove their skins first if you want an ultra-smooth, velvety sauce. If they're not in season, or you just can't get good fresh tomatoes, go with a high-quality canned option. 

Both canned whole and canned crushed tomatoes will work just fine for this slow cooker marinara sauce recipe, but if you choose a crushed variety, make sure they aren't already seasoned, since some crushed tomato varieties can have additives that you don't want lurking in your homemade marinara. We love Cento and Mutti brand canned tomatoes, both of which are widely available in grocery stores across the United States. Both brands have transparent and sustainable farming practices, which lead to better tasting tomatoes, and a more delicious marinara sauce. 

The only hands-on work is slicing an onion and peeling some garlic

When we say this slow cooker marinara sauce recipe is no-effort, we really mean it. Aside from opening the cans of tomatoes and pouring them into your slow cooker, the only other hands-on work you have to do to make this slow cooker marinara sauce is slicing an onion and peeling and smashing some garlic. If you're really feeling lazy, you can use jarred chopped garlic, though the fresh stuff will always taste better. Once your garlic has been peeled, smash the cloves with the flat side of a large knife and toss them in the slow cooker with the rest of the ingredients. We recommend using a whole head, but we really love garlic, so feel free to adjust the quantity or eliminate it altogether if you're not a garlic fan. If you don't have fresh garlic on hand, double the amount of garlic powder in the recipe. It will still be good. 

A good spice blend can make all the difference in this slow cooker marinara sauce

If you added nothing but high-quality tomatoes, onion, and salt to your slow cooker, you'd come back to a seriously delicious sauce hours later. Sometimes simple is best, so you don't have to go crazy with spices to make this slow cooker marinara sauce, but we do recommend spicing things up at least a little bit. 

Our slow cooker marinara sauce recipe makes some recommendations, but remember that the best part of cooking at home is making your food taste exactly the way you like it. We like to add a blend of garlic powder, sweet paprika, fennel seeds, bay leaves, and dried chili peppers along with ample salt and pepper. If you love those spices, give our combination a try. 

Fresh herbs like basil and thyme also make great additions. Cumin and marjoram will give your marinara sauce a different, but still delicious, vibe that's well suited for use in dishes like moussaka or stuffed cabbage rolls. 

Layer the ingredients and turn on your slow cooker to make the best marinara sauce

You can add your ingredients to the slow cooker in any order, it really doesn't make much of a difference. We like to add a layer of onions, followed  by the tomatoes, then more onions, garlic, and spices. Put your ingredients in the slow cooker and set it on low for 8 hours. You can leave the house for the day and come back to a delicious sauce that tastes like it has been cooking all day, because it has! 

If you're a little more pressed for time or just don't want to wait eight hours for sauce, set your slow cooker to its highest setting and cook for four hours. You'll end up with more or less the same results, though the lower and slower method will have a slightly sweeter flavor than the hotter and faster approach. 

Decide whether you want your slow cooker marinara sauce to be chunky or smooth

Once your sauce is finished cooking, you have two options: a velvety, smooth sauce, or a hearty, chunky sauce. Both are very good, and to some extent, which texture you choose depends on how you're planning to use the sauce. A smoother sauce is best for dishes like pizza, lasagna, and classic spaghetti and meatballs. Chunkier sauces work great for a wide variety of pasta dishes, especially ones made with shapes like orecchiette or conchiglie. 

If you want a smooth sauce, you'll need to blend it. If you have an immersion blender, this is the method we recommend, since you can blend the sauce directly in the slow cooker. Otherwise, you'll need to pour the finished sauce into a regular blender before serving or freezing. For a chunkier sauce, you can also use an immersion blender — just pulse it until you get the texture you want. You can also use a potato masher for a chunky slow cooker marinara sauce. Whichever you choose, be sure to remove bay leaves and any herbs with stems (like rosemary or thyme) before you blend. 

What if you don't have a slow cooker?

If you don't have a slow cooker, you can still make our slow cooker marinara sauce. If you have an Instant Pot, you can also use that to slow-cook marinara sauce, but you'll need a tempered glass lid. You can also just make this marinara sauce on the stovetop, like a real Italian nonna. The one major drawback to this method is that you do need to be in your house for the full cook time, since we absolutely do not recommend leaving your stove on unattended. If you're planning to be home all day, though, making marinara sauce on the stovetop is a great way to both pass the time and make your house smell really, really good. Just be sure to stir the sauce periodically so it doesn't burn, and be sure to keep your burner on the lowest setting the whole time. If you aren't using nonstick cookware, adding a little olive oil to stovetop marinara is also a good idea. 

Why should I make slow cooker marinara sauce?

Since you can make this sauce on the stovetop, you might be wondering why you'd want to make slow cooker marinara sauce in the first place. There are a few pretty serious benefits to using this method, the first of which is that you don't have to be home all day. It's safe to leave your slow cooker on while you're out of the house, which means your sauce can cook while you're at work. You could also put the sauce together before you go to bed and wake up with perfect tomato sauce ready to go in the morning, which is a great excuse to make some shakshuka for breakfast. Another benefit to the slow cooker method is the fact that you don't have to add any oil to the sauce while it cooks, which means your marinara sauce can be 100 percent fat free, if that's important to you. 

How can I use this marinara sauce?

One of the best things about slow cooker marinara sauce is that it has practically endless possibilities. This recipe doubles and triples easily, so you can make a big batch and freeze it in Ziploc bags or mason jars (your future self will thank you for it). It makes a grate base for some of our favorite recipes, like Instant Pot spaghetti and meatballs, 20-minute lasagna, and butternut squash stuffed shells. Use it to elevate a store-bought pizza crust, or toss it with your favorite pasta and a bit of Parmesan cheese for a simple meal with a ton of flavor. It can even be turned into tomato soup by cutting it with a little bit of stock — chicken, vegetable, or veal stock if you have it are all delicious. 

Remember, too, that you aren't limited to Italian food when it comes to using your marinara sauce. Branch out and try French classics like ratatouille, hearty African stews, and shakshuka — a delicious Mediterranean dish where eggs are poached in a skillet of tomato sauce — are just some of the ways you can use this marinara sauce as a launching pad for culinary exploration. 

Slow cooker homemade marinara will change the way you eat pasta
4.8 from 53 ratings
Our recipe for the best slow cooker marinara sauce takes only five minutes of prep time before you turn on your slow cooker and leave it alone. When you come back, you'll be rewarded with the best marinara sauce you've ever had — it's so good, you'll never go back to the pre-made stuff again.
Prep Time
5
minutes
Cook Time
8
hours
Servings
7
cups
slow cooker marinara sauce
Ready in 8.08 hours
Ingredients
  • 2 28-ounce cans of whole peeled or crushed tomatoes (or 3 ½ pounds of fresh tomatoes) 
  • 1 large sweet onion, sliced 
  • 1 head of garlic, peeled and smashed 
  • 1 tablespoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder 
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds 
  • 3 bay leaves 
  • 2-3 whole dried chili peppers, or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes 
Directions
  1. Peel and slice the onion, then peel the garlic and smash the cloves with the flat side of a large knife. You can roughly chop the garlic if you like, but it isn't necessary.
  2. Place the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and whatever herbs and spices you're using in a slow cooker.
  3. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours. If you want a quicker version, set your slow cooker on high for four hours.
  4. When your sauce has finished cooking, remove bay leaves and any herbs with stems. Using an immersion blender, blend the sauce until completely smooth. For a chunkier marinara sauce, use a potato masher to mash the ingredients until you get the texture you want.
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