Do Italians put onions in sauce? (5 Italian sauces)

In this article, we will answer the following question: “Do Italians put onions in sauce?” and discuss which Italian sauce contains onions, the ingredients that are commonly used to make Italian sauces, what are the benefits of adding onions to the tomato sauce and how to prepare an authentic Italian sauce with onions.

Do Italians put onions in sauce?

Yes, Italians use onions when making ragù or bolognese sauce, which is a tomato meat sauce that originated from the region of Emilia-Romana at the end of the 19th century (2).

However, not all Italian sauces contain onions. Alfredo sauce, for example, does not have onions and also pesto sauce contains no onions (3,4). Tomato sauce may contain onions, but it is optional (5).

What are the traditional Italian sauces and their ingredients?

The traditional Italian sauces are the ragù from the region of Bologne, the carbonara sauce from Lazio / Abruzzo, the pesto sauce from the region of Liguria and the sauce puttanesca from the region of Rome (1).

These sauces were introduced and adapted to American cuisine with variations. For example, the Alfredo sauce may contain garlic and parsley and be added with chicken when prepared in the United States. These practices are not found in Italy and were not originated there (2).

Some traditional Italian sauces and their ingredients are:

Ragù sauce from the region of Bolonge: ragù is also known as sauce bolognese. It is made with tomato sauce and meat. It contains also bacon or pork loin, onions, celery, tomato and spices (3). 

Pesto sauce: the main ingredient of pesto sauce is basil. It also contains olive oil, pine seeds, garlic, salt and grana cheese. Basil is widely used in Italian cuisine and sometimes added to other sauces, including tomato sauce (3,4).

Alfredo sauce: this sauce is made from butter and cheese, mainly pecorino or parmesan (both Italian kinds of cheese) and can be added with pepper, salt and cinnamon. It does not contain onions or garlic (2).

Sofrito: sofrito is a tomato sauce prepared with tomato, onions, garlic and olive oil and may contain other herbs. It is widely consumed in Italian, most frequently twice a week (5).

Tomato sauce: authentic Italian tomato sauce must be prepared using fresh tomatoes rather than from tomato-concentrated products, such as paste or puree (6).

Fresh tomatoes have an exclusive profile of volatile compounds which can indicate their freshness. The analysis of volatiles in tomato sauce is used to control the authenticity of tomato sauce attested by its origin.

What are the benefits of adding onions to tomato sauce?

The benefit of adding onions to tomato sauce is that onions can increase the bioavailability of lycopene in the sauce (5).

This is possible when tomato sauce is cooked by long simmering of the ingredients, which include, in addition to tomatoes, onions and other vegetables and spices, rather than by the dilution of tomato paste.

Through long-time cooking, polyphenols and other compounds become more bioavailable in the sauce and may improve the nutritional properties of the food. However, on the other hand, long cooking causes the loss of vitamin C, which is very thermosensitive.

How to prepare an Italian sauce?

To prepare an Italian ragù sauce, you will need (3):

  • 40 g butter
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 150 g minced beef
  • 50 pork pancetta
  • 1 tomato, cut (optional)
  • a portion of white or green celery
  • half a carrot
  • pepper, cinnamon and salt
  • a little pot of broth


Cook the beef and the pork pancetta with butter till they are brown. Add the onions and other herbs, then the vegetables. Add broth and cook till the vegetables are soft.

Cook an Italian pasta of your preference till they are “al dente”, add the sauce and serve.

Other FAQs about Onions that you may be interested in.

How do you cut onions for spaghetti sauce?

How to tell if an onion is bad?

Are onions poisonous the next day?


In this article, we answered the following question: “Do Italians put onions in sauce?” and discussed what Italian sauce contains onions and which are the common ingredients used to produce Italian sauces, what are the benefits of adding onions to tomato sauce and what are the traditional Italian sauces.

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Professor Maryann Tebben writes about Italian/American sauces [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from:


Cesari L. A Brief History of Pasta: The Italian Food that Shaped the World. Profile Books; 2022 Oct 27.


Gwinner T. The origin and evolution of ragù bolognese (Bolognese Sauce). Int J Arts Humanit. 2018;4(3):16-28.


Fabiano B, Perego P, Pastorino R, Del Borghi M. The extension of the shelf‐life of ‘pesto’sauce by a combination of modified atmosphere packaging and refrigeration. International journal of food science & technology. 2000 May;35(3):293-303.


Beltrán Sanahuja A, De Pablo Gallego SL, Maestre Pérez SE, Valdés García A, Prats Moya MS. Influence of cooking and ingredients on the antioxidant activity, phenolic content and volatile profile of different variants of the Mediterranean typical tomato Sofrito. Antioxidants. 2019 Nov 14;8(11):551.


Zappi A, Marassi V, Kassouf N, Giordani S, Pasqualucci G, Garbini D, et al. A Green Analytical Method Combined with Chemometrics for Traceability of Tomato Sauce Based on Colloidal and Volatile Fingerprinting. Molecules [Internet] 2022;27(17):5507.