Marinara vs. Pasta Sauce – What’s The Difference?

When looking at marinara vs. pasta sauce, it’s easy to get confused. After all, both are red, used on pasta, and often contain tomatoes. So, what is the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?

The major difference between marinara and pasta sauce is the addition of other ingredients. Marinara sauce is a basic sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, while pasta sauce contains these ingredients plus meats. As a result, marinara is lighter and has a simpler flavor than pasta sauce.

To help clear up the marinara sauce vs. pasta sauce debate, we’ll explore the key differences between these two popular sauces. We’ll also share their commonalities, tips for thickening them, and suggestions for serving each sauce.

Let’s start by learning a little more about marinara and pasta sauce.

What is Marinara Sauce? 

Marinara sauce is a tomato-based sauce commonly used on pasta dishes. Prepared with tomatoes, garlic, onion, and sometimes other vegetables such as olives, the sauce typically does not include meat like other sauces such as Bolognese or Alfredo.

While the ingredients vary depending on the region, the basic recipe for this classic sauce remains pretty consistent. The sauce is popular not only in Italy but also in other countries such as the United States.

Marinara sauce in a cup

What is Known as Pasta Sauce?

Pasta sauce is a type of sauce used on pasta dishes. The sauce generally contains the traditional ingredients in marinara sauce, such as tomatoes, garlic, and onions. However, pasta sauce also includes meats, which gives the sauce a heartier flavor and thicker consistency.

Pasta sauce is popular in various Italian, American, and British cuisines. The sauce, also known by other names such as spaghetti sauce and tomato sauce, is a key ingredient in many pasta dishes, such as lasagna, macaroni, and cheese.

In addition to its use on pasta, you can also use pasta sauce as a dipping sauce or a topping on pizza. Most store-bought pasta sauces are ready to eat, while others may require the addition of water or other ingredients.

Pasta sauce

Marinara vs. Pasta Sauce – the Differences

So, back to the debate about pasta sauce vs. marinara sauce – what are the key differences? We’ll break it down for you:


As mentioned earlier, the ingredients are critical differences between marinara and pasta sauce. The traditional marinara sauce contains tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and olive oil. Fresh herbs like basil and oregano give your sauce a more authentic flavor. 

On the other hand, pasta sauce contains these same ingredients but also includes meats (usually pork or beef) and other elements, such as mushrooms, tuna, tofu, or any other ingredient you want to add.

You’ll also find that some marinara sauces contain wine, while this is less common in pasta sauce.


Another key difference between pasta sauce vs. marinara is the texture. Marinara sauce is thinner than pasta sauce since it doesn’t contain meats. If you want to thicken your marinara sauce, you can do so by simmering it for a longer period or adding tomato paste.

Pasta sauce, on the other hand, is thicker than marinara sauce since it contains meats. The addition of meats also gives pasta sauce a heartier flavor. Add water or broth if you want to thin out your pasta sauce.


The marinara sauce has a simpler flavor than pasta sauce since it only contains tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. This sauce is a good option if you’re looking for a light sauce with a fresh flavor.

Pasta sauce has a meatier/protein-rich flavor since it contains meats, mushrooms, and other ingredients. This sauce is a good option if you want to add more flavor to your dish.


Telling these two sauces apart by color can be tricky since they are both red. If you look at them from a distance, you might be unable to tell which is which.

However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that marinara sauce has a brighter red color, while pasta sauce has a darker red color. This is due to adding meats and other ingredients to pasta sauce.

Cooking Time

One of the biggest differences between marinara and pasta sauce is the cooking time. Cooking marinara sauce is quick and easy since you don’t have to cook the sauce for a long time. All you need to do is add the ingredients to a pot and simmer for about an hour. 

On the other hand, preparing pasta sauce takes a bit longer since you must cook the meats before adding them to the sauce. This extra step can add an hour or more to the cooking time.

Summary Table

Here’s a quick summary of the key differences between marinara and pasta sauce:

IngredientsTextureTasteColorCooking Time
Marinara SauceTomatoes, garlic, herbs, and olive oilLighter and thinnerSimpler flavorBrighter red colorAbout an hour
Pasta SauceIt contains all the ingredients in marina sauce plus meats and any other ingredients you might want to add.Heavier and thickerMeatier/protein-rich flavorDarker red colorAbout 2 hours

What are the Similarities Between Pasta Sauce and Marinara?

Now that we’ve gone over the key differences between pasta sauce and marinara let’s look at the similarities between these two sauces.

  • The biggest similarity between pasta sauce and marinara is that they are red sauces. The physical appearance of these two sauces can be quite similar, making it hard to tell them apart.
  • The base of both sauces is tomatoes. Tomatoes are the main ingredient in both marinara and pasta sauce.
  • Both serve as great toppings for pasta. Whether you’re in the mood for a light and fresh sauce or a heartier sauce, marinara or pasta sauce will do the trick.
  • You can make either sauce at home or buy it pre-made from the store. If you’re short on time, you can always opt for the store-bought version.

The Best Way to Thicken Both Sauces

If you find that your marinara or pasta sauce is too thin, there are a few things you can do to thicken it up. To help you out, we’ll review each sauce individually and give you tips on thickening them.

Thickening Marinara Sauce

There are several ways to thicken your marinara sauce. Here are a few of the most popular methods:


One of the easiest ways to thicken the marinara sauce is to let it simmer. Cook the sauce on low heat for an extended time. This will allow the water to evaporate, leaving you with a thicker sauce.

Adding Tomato Paste

Tomato paste is a great way to add flavor and thickness to your marinara sauce. Add a spoonful or two of tomato paste to the sauce and stir until thoroughly combined.

Slow Cooker

Consider using a slow cooker if you want to thicken your marinara sauce without watching it closely. Add all the ingredients to the slow cooker and let it do its thing. After a few hours (about 4 hours), you’ll have a thick and flavorful sauce.

Add a Cornstarch Slurry

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to thicken your marinara sauce, consider adding a cornstarch slurry. To make a cornstarch slurry, mix equal parts cornstarch and water. Then, add the slurry to the sauce and stir until it’s fully combined.

Thickening Pasta Sauce

Just like with marinara sauce, there are a few different ways you can thicken pasta sauce. Here are a few of the most popular methods:


Again, to thicken pasta sauce, you can let it simmer. This reduces the water content and will thicken your sauce. Just be sure to simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Simmer for 10 to 60 seconds or until you reach your desired consistency.

Slow Cookers

Use a slow cooker such as a Crock-Pot if you want to let your sauce simmer all day long without worrying about it. This is a great method for thicker pasta sauces, as well as for more complex flavors.

Add Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes will absorb some of the liquid in your sauce and thicken it. For best results, add cold or room-temperature mashed potatoes. Mix them in slowly, stirring as you go. After adding the mashed potatoes, you may need to add more liquid (stock or water) to thin out the sauce again.

You can also use mashed potato flakes, which will have a similar effect.

It’s crucial to note that adding mashed potato will change the flavor of your sauce, so only do this if you’re okay with that.


A roux is a mixture of flour and fat (usually butter) used to thicken sauces. To make a roux, melt the butter over low heat and then add the flour, whisking until the mixture is smooth. Then, slowly add it to your pasta sauce, whisking as you go.

Beef Your Pasta Up

Adding some beef to your pasta sauce will also thicken it up. This is because the beef will release its juices as it cooks, adding some extra body to the sauce.

Use Pasta Water

When you cook pasta, reserve some water before draining it. Add this starchy water to your sauce to help thicken it up. Add it slowly, as you don’t want to make your sauce too watery.

Recommended Flavor Boosters

While you’re working on thickening your pasta sauce, you might want to consider adding some of the following ingredients to boost the flavor:

  • Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, parsley)
  • Garlic
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Ground black pepper
  • Salt
  • Fresh or diced canned tomatoes
  • Sugar (or other sweeteners)
  • Red wine
  • Ground beef, Italian ground sausage, or ground beef (for pasta sauce)
  • Balsamic vinegar

These are just a few ingredients you can add to your marinara or pasta sauce to give it some extra flavor. Be creative and experiment until you find a combination that you like. And, as always, taste as you go!

Can You Use Marinara for Spaghetti?

If you’re in a pinch with marinara sauce, you can use it for spaghetti. However, marinara is thinner and less flavorful than traditional spaghetti sauce. You may want to add some extra seasoning to your marinara-based spaghetti dish.

In addition, you can also try using the marinara sauce as a base for other Italian dishes such as lasagna, eggplant parmesan, or chicken parmesan. Just ensure to add some extra seasoning to these dishes as well.

Pasta Sauce and Marinara Serving Suggestions

Here are a few serving suggestions for your homemade pasta sauce or marinara:

  • Serve it over your favorite pasta (spaghetti, fettuccine, rigatoni, etc.)
  • Use it as a dipping sauce for breadsticks or garlic bread
  • Add it to chicken, fish, or beef dishes
  • Use it as a pizza sauce
  • Serve it as a side dish with roasted vegetables

As you can see, there are many different ways to enjoy your pasta sauce or marinara. So get creative and experiment until you find the best way.

Can Marinara Sauce Go Bad?

Yes, the marinara sauce can go bad. If stored properly, it will last for 3 to 5 days. However, if stored improperly, it can develop mold or bacteria and should be discarded.

To store marinara sauce properly, place it in an airtight container and store it in the refrigerator. When ready to use, reheat the sauce until it is steaming hot. Do not reheat more than once.

If you notice any signs of mold or bacteria, such as a change in color or texture, an off odor, or the presence of mold, discard the sauce immediately.

Can Marinara Sauce be Frozen?

Yes, you can freeze the marinara sauce. Place the sauce in a freezer-safe container and store it in the freezer for 3 to 4 months.

When ready to use, thaw the sauce in the refrigerator overnight and reheat it for 5 to 7 minutes before serving. Do not reheat more than once.

Is Marinara Healthier Than Pasta Sauce?

In general, marinara is made with simple ingredients and contains no added sugars or fats. As such, it is generally considered healthier than traditional pasta sauce.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. For example, some marinara recipes may call for adding olive oil or Parmesan cheese. And, of course, store-bought marinara sauces may not be as healthy as homemade versions.

So, if you’re looking for a healthy pasta sauce, opt for a homemade marinara sauce made with simple, whole ingredients.

Can You Use Marinara Sauce on Pizza?

Yes, you can use the marinara sauce on pizza. Many pizza restaurants use marinara as their base sauce. If you’re making pizza at home, spread the marinara sauce over the dough and then top it with your favorite toppings.

Marinara Sauce on Pizza

In Conclusion

There you have it! We’ve finally established the age-old debate of marinara vs. pasta sauce. As you can see, the two sauces have some key differences. However, it comes down to personal preference.

So, feel free to use whichever sauce you like best. And, if you’re ever in a pinch, you can always use the marinara sauce as a stand-in for pasta sauce. Just add some extra seasoning to make up for the difference in flavor.

Do you have a favorite marinara recipe? Could you share it with us in the comments below?

Happy cooking!

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