Kitchen Hacks

A Genius Trick for Brighter Marinara Sauce

September 23, 2015

With one ingredient, make your marinara taste like the best tomatoes on earth.

"Secret ingredient" is a term that's tossed around much too casually. (I've tried to use it judiciously when explaining Genius Recipes, but you can be the judge of that.) What we need more of are the true secret ingredients—the ones that filter in without announcing themselves, but leave everything better in their wake. I've seen pickle juice do this for mushrooms, red onions for balsamic vinaigrette.

I found a really good one recently while taking a class with David Mawhinney, Culinary Director and Executive Chef at Haven's Kitchena trick for making tomato sauce taste so good that you assume the tomatoes must have been grown by monks on a biodynamic farm, irrigated with anchovies or MSG. Or at least that the sauce must have been carefully constructed with garlic and onions and just the right blend of herbs. Nope, none of this.

Mawhinney tosses fresh pasta with butter and a fine dusting of lemon zest, then with a tomato sauce made from little more than coarsely grated roma tomatoes, simmered down to a marinara-like consistency (see my dramatic recreation in the video above). He finishes with Parmesan, tapping the same Microplane he used on the lemon. 

"Lemon zest adds a brightness," he told me. "Without adding additional acid (already provided by the fresh tomato). The addition of a small knob of butter supplies richness and helps bind everything together." Just be sure to add the zest just at the end, he points out—reheating will kill the fragrance and will make everything taste like ordinary tomatoes again.

Try this with the last of this season's tomatoes before they flee the market. See if anyone can guess your secret.

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Got a genius recipe (or tip!) to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Video by Madeline Muzzi

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Anne B. April 1, 2022
I often add lemon zest to pasta. It takes the pasta to a whole new level. I like Tonino tuna lemon zest arugula and cherry tomatoes. It is a fabulous dish.
John G. October 6, 2015
It's not a "secret" ingredient if you know what it is and tell everyone. "Hey everyone this is secret information" . Not any longer it isn't. Wish educated people would stop abusing the English language.
Barb M. October 7, 2015
Lighten up.
Chloe October 1, 2015
Tried the butter and lemon zest tip tonight on spaghetti with a veggie bolognese and it made such a difference! My husband asked where I bought the pasta (it was from the grocery).
chefrockyrd September 30, 2015
love the lemon in it.
in the video -what happens to that smidgen of tomato stuck in the pot?
why not put the pasta in IT then mix. my italian grandmother never wasted a drop.
Kristen M. September 30, 2015
Good question! Since I wasn't using a recipe, I wasn't really sure if I would use all the sauce I made, so I added it a little at a time.
maci B. September 24, 2015
i was going to mention that i've been using this trick (and loving it!!) since i first saw it on 101 cookboks years ago. healthierkitchen beat me to it :)
healthierkitchen September 24, 2015
one of my favorite quick meals by Heidi Swanson also uses zest!:
702551 September 23, 2015
This works with a bunch of vegetable preparations, not just marinara sauce. It's the essential oils in citrus. You can do this with lime, orange, etc.

It's basically the same concept as rubbing some citrus peel on the edge of a martini glass for some cocktails: it brightens the aroma.
AntoniaJames September 23, 2015
Seriously, yes. Thank you, Kristen! ;o)

P.S. This also solves a problem. I use a lot of lemon juice; when tossing the juiced halves lately, I've been making a mental note to figure out more ways to use the zest. (There's only so much lemon salt and lemon sugar that one can use.) I have a big bowl of tomatoes from the farmers' market on my counter right now. I cannot wait to try this. Cheers.
nancy E. September 29, 2015
haha, I am the opposite, I have 5 lemons without their zest in the fridge right now. I put zest on many things.
MeanGreenBean November 15, 2017
When I juice a lot of lemons, I first zest them and freeze the zest. It thaws in seconds when incorporated into a hot dish.