What is the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?

Marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce are two famous and important components of Italian cuisine in the U.S. and all over the world. While they have been highly Americanized like pizza and pasta, tomato sauce is an essential ingredient in Italian dishes that we have all come to love.

However, are you sure that you know them as well as you thought? Do you use the terms “marinara sauce” and “spaghetti sauce” as two interchangeable terms? Well, these are two very distinct sauces, and in this article, we will answer the question: “What is the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?”

So, keep reading and let’s get started!

What Is Marinara Sauce?

Marinara is a kind of sauce that traces its origins in Naples, Italy. It is the most basic of all tomato-based sauces and is made with tomatoes, tomato juice, garlic, onions, olive oil, and herbs like basil or thyme. 

The authentic marinara sauce was initially used for seafood, thus the term “marinara” which is derived from the word “mariner’s” describing how fishermen from the sea would often use this type of sauce for cooking their fresh catch. Traditionally, Italian-style marinara sauce also has a thin consistency, whereas Americanized versions are much thicker. 

Like any other dish, there are variations or added ingredients that can be incorporated into the sauce but still preserve its identity as marinara. These include peppers or chili flakes. In some regions of Italy, sour ingredients like wine, capers, or olives can also be added. 

In the U.S., marinara sauce is a vegetarian style tomato sauce with an Italian influence. It may have olive oil or cheese like parmesan cooked with it. However, it also does not have any anchovies or meat.

If more ingredients are added other than these, however, it is no longer considered marinara sauce. Technically, in the truest, traditional Italian sense, the marinara sauce should not contain any meat, cheese, or anchovies.

What is Spaghetti Sauce? 

Spaghetti sauce is the generic term used for sauces put on spaghetti or other similar pasta dishes. Marinara sauce can be considered a spaghetti sauce. However, spaghetti can be eaten with a wide variety of sauces with some using a tomato base while others do not.

For example, you can eat spaghetti noodles with, say, a bolognese sauce or alfredo sauce, both of which can then be considered spaghetti sauces. A drizzle of olive oil or some sage and butter can also be regarded as spaghetti sauces.

More often than not, spaghetti sauces have a marinara or tomato base. The confusion between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce is therefore understandable since many people automatically assume that spaghetti is served with a red or marinara-based sauce. However, they are not the same. 

In other words, when most people think of spaghetti sauce, we picture a thick, savory red tomato based sauce, usually with meat and cheese. This is because “spaghetti sauce” is used as a culinary slang for any tomato-based sauce served over spaghetti in the U.S. and other parts of the world other than Italy. 

However, there are many other dishes that use spaghetti noodles and spaghetti sauce like Spaghetti Aglio e Olio which is spaghetti with garlic and oil, Spaghetti alla Carbonara which translates to “spaghetti coal worker’s style” and uses an egg, bacon, and cheese-based sauce, and Spaghetti with meatballs, an Italian-American dish that uses a tomato-based sauce. 

What is the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?

Because these two are pretty similar, you can use both of them interchangeably for many recipes. But if you want to understand the preparation, flavor profiles, and texture better to decide which one is best to use for a particular meal, check out these significant differences:


A tomato-based spaghetti sauce cooked with meat has a decidedly richer and meatier flavor. Using this is great if you want all the flavors to combine together beautifully. 

Flavor-wise, however, the marinara sauce has a light yet complex flavor profile. It naturally brings out the individual tastes and aromas of each ingredient. It is also milder and allows you to experience all the flavors better. You can make your dish shine with a marinara sauce if you are using fresh ingredients. 

In other words, spaghetti sauce is best for creating flavor in a dish while marinara sauce works better in accenting a flavor or several flavors. Pro-tip: use the marinara sauce in seafood pasta dishes to allow the seafood flavors to come through. 


In terms of texture, there is a considerable difference between spaghetti sauce and marinara sauce. Marinara sauce is more watery and thin while spaghetti sauce is a lot thicker due to the cheese, cream, vegetables, and meat that are added. 

To make spaghetti sauce from a marinara base, you add more ingredients or more tomatoes. Alternatively, you can reduce a marinara sauce to get the trademark thick texture of spaghetti sauce. 

A thicker, reduced marinara sauce or a spaghetti cause is excellent for cooking dense and hearty comfort foods. For more delicate dishes, choose a runny and silky smooth marinara sauce instead.


Again, the basic ingredients for both sauces are very similar. The only significant difference is that spaghetti sauce needs meat. While marinara sauce is just tomatoes, basil, and garlic, you can put sausages, peppers, mushrooms, cheese, olives, and other ingredients into spaghetti. 

What many chefs suggest doing is to start with a marinara base and then add meat for a richer flavor. Some spaghetti sauce recipes can also be turned into a marinara sauce by merely taking out the meat. 


Unlike a thick tomato-based spaghetti sauce, cooking marinara sauce does not start with onions or any meat or meat flavorings. On the other hand, spaghetti sauce almost always requires meat.

Preparing spaghetti sauce starts with sauteing onions and garlic with olive oil and some meat like ground beef or neck bones before adding the tomato paste or sauce. You also need to simmer it longer to combine the flavor of the ingredients well and achieve the desired thickness. 

Many spices and herbs like basil, oregano, and thyme can also be added to spaghetti sauce as it cooks down. Meatballs are also often added later. 

Therefore, if you want something quicker and easier to prepare, go for marinara sauce. If time is not a concern, choose a spaghetti sauce. 

In Summary

Basically, marinara sauce is the base of what most people have come to know as spaghetti sauce. However, technically, spaghetti sauce can be made with or without a tomato base. While marinara sauce can be a spaghetti sauce, spaghetti sauce will not always be marinara. 

Now that you know all these, you can now make a wise decision every time you are choosing between the two for your recipes. 

I hope this article was able to answer your question, “what is the difference between marinara sauce and spaghetti sauce?”. If you have any more concerns, questions, or recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments section down below!

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