Pasta

10 Ways to Make Store-Bought Tomato Sauce Taste 10x Better

May  7, 2018

Most nights of the week, my goal is to reduce the amount of time between entering my apartment and eating pasta. The ultimate victory, of course, would be to walk through the door while eating pasta (or—if angels have descended—to arrive home to a table already set with mac and cheese). Instead, I usually settle for 30-ish minutes: Bring water to a boil while changing clothes; cook noodles while sautéing greens; add pasta to said greens with a splash of cooking liquid and copious amounts of pecorino and olive oil; face-plant into plate.

My parents, on the other hand, reduced the door-to-pasta period by handily employing the microwave and the glass jars of marinara sauce we always had in the fridge. Boil pasta, microwave sauce, mix the two together, hush your hungry crew of children.

Many avid home cooks might stick up their noses at store-bought “spaghetti sauce,” but at the end of a long day, it’s the fastest way to get to a bowl of red sauced noodles; it's quicker than cooking down canned tomatoes, which despite the admonitions, I don't always have in my pantry. (And besides, we on the East Coast still have some time to kill before we're in fresh tomato sauce territory.)

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And yet, most jarred sauces* could benefit from a bit of zhushing to reach their full flavor and freshness potential. Here’s how to make your store-bought tomato sauce taste better (if not entirely homemade), easily:

The bare-bones, do-this-one-thing approach:

1. Reduce it on the stove or in the oven. To concentrate the flavor of your sauce, you’ll want to cook it down so that some of the water evaporates, leaving you with something thicker and more tomato-y. As your pot of heats up and your noodles cook, let your sauce simmer on the stovetop for at least 10 to 20 minutes. Or, pour the sauce into a Dutch oven or baking dish at roast it at 300° F, stirring from time to time. This will take a few extra minutes, sure, but you need to heat up the sauce before mixing it with your pasta anyway. (Unless, that is you follow my dad’s best bad piece of cooking advice: If the pasta is hot, you can add cold pasta sauce to it.”)

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Top Comment:
“I always "doctor" any jarred sauce with at least an onion, a couple minced garlic cloves and a glug of red wine if I have an open bottle. Looking forward to trying anchovies and lemon zest. Unfortunately the link to the Cooks Illustrated taste test of jarred spaghetti sauces took me to a members only page. Looks like Rao's was the winner. Funny thing though... ghosted back, behind the ad for their online membership, seems to be the results for a peanut butter taste test :) ”
— Gammy
Comment

And if you want to go above and beyond (or you're Instant Pot-obsessed), try pressure-cooking the sauce with a halved onion and a few tablespoons of butter, à la Marcella Hazan).

2. Squeeze in tomato paste, flavor booster extraordinaire. Let’s say you don’t have time to simmer your sauce (or you’ve reduced it yet it’s still lacking oomph), add a dollop or two of tomato paste, which is.... just super-duper concentrated tomatoes! Bonus points if you coax out the full power of your tomato paste by sautéing it in hot olive oil before adding in the sauce. Ultra bonus points if you throw some red pepper flakes into that oil, too.

And for extra credit, take on any—or all!—of the following:

3. Turn to your spice drawer and condiment cubby: If your sauce is missing depth and complexity, open your pantry or fridge and start exploring. Decide whether you’re aiming for spicy (Sriracha, gochujang, cayenne, harissa, horseradish), smoky (smoked paprika, diced chipotles in adobo), or fruity (roasted red peppers, Calabrian chiles), and mix and match to your heart’s desire. Remember to taste often, before things get too wild.

4. Or, to make the sauce more salty and savory, add a Parmesan or pecorino rind while it simmers. If an oft-discarded cheese rind can help a pot of humble beans, it can enliven your wan tomato sauce, too. A halved onion is welcome here, too.

5. Speaking of a salty je ne sais quoi, introduce an anchovy. Heat some olive oil in your saucepan, sauté an anchovy or two until it starts to melt down into oblivion, throw in a few smashed garlic cloves if you’ve got them, then pour in your tomato sauce. (Call me crazy, but I’ve also been known to skip the anchovies and add a splash of fish sauce and a glug of soy instead.)

6. Harness the power of sautéed vegetables. Before you heat up the sauce, sauté vegetables (I usually keep it basic with onion and garlic, but mirepoix, or a few handfuls of sliced mushrooms, would work well, too) until they start to brown. And if you deglaze the pan with wine or stock, you’ll leave no caramelized bit behind.

7. Liven things up with a little acid: apple cider or red wine vinegar, capers, chopped olives, or lemon juice. If the sauce is plenty acidic—as many store-bought varieties are known to be—use just the lemon zest instead. Stir it in at the end of the cooking process to preserve as much bright freshness as possible.

8. Basil! Basil! Basil! You’ll find lots of “basil leaves” swimming around in store-bought jars: These are so dark, slimy, and seaweedy, it’s hard to imagine that they were once on a basil plant at all. To remedy the situation, add freshly torn basil at the end of heating up your sauce so that its fragrance perfumes the whole pot.

9. Bring on the butter—and other dairy products. To make your sauce rich and luxurious, finish it with a pat of butter, a splash of cream or coconut cream, or a spoonful of yogurt, crème fraîche, ricotta, or sour cream.

10. Make use of your pasta water. You won’t want to add a bucketload of water to the bowl, but a generous splash of that starchy water will help the sauce adhere to the noodles (but you knew that already).

*P.S. Some jars of tomato sauce are, indeed, superior to others. Look for sauces that use whole tomatoes and no added sugar. Here are Cook’s Illustrated’s top picks.

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18 Comments

Colin June 11, 2018
Please fix this grammar mistake:<br /><br />And if you want to go above and beyond (or your Instant Pot-obsessed), <br /><br />your --> "you're". we are all adults here. we can tell the difference between possessive pronouns and the verb "to be" right?
 
Colin June 11, 2018
Not to mention your bio says you are a former student of English
 
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Sarah J. June 11, 2018
Hey, we all make mistakes. Give me a break!
 
Colin June 11, 2018
No sweat! Hope it was helpful
 
Misty212 May 15, 2018
I've just discovered a little goat cheese in store bought sauce w/ a little extra garlic, cracked black pepper and olive oil drizzle is excellent. I highly recommend
 
ALLEN May 11, 2018
AKR<br />In a rush I add some red wine, hot pepper flakes, extra garlic and basil......Also, I subscribe to COOK'S ILLUSTRATED and have yet to be able to access the the Cook’s Illustrated link on the web
 
Robin May 11, 2018
Or you can just buy Ooma Tesoro's Marinara Sauce and not need to doctor it up.
 
Ellie May 11, 2018
Hot dang I did this last night and I didn't even know it was cool! Sauteed onion and sausage, added in frozen kale and some leftover chickpeas, jar sauce and pasta water, then finished cooking pasta in sauce. High recommend. Super stoked for lunch leftovers!
 
Ann May 11, 2018
I usually make my own sauce, but when time doesn’t allow, I reach for Raos. Yes it is pricey, comparatively, but it is wonderfully pure tasting and worth it. I haven’t tasted any jarred sayce this good. Pasta is so inexpensive that even with Raos added on, it is still a budget dinner, at least that is how I justify the cost.<br />Regarding the Cook’s Illustrated link....although a fan, and a fan of Milk Street as well, the way they string you along and then all of a sudden tell you that you need a subscription for the final results is really offputting. I get magazines are expensive to produce when they don’t have ad revenue but there has to be a better way than doing this.
 
Jenny R. May 11, 2018
Amen about RAO's sauce. They had a sale on it at World Market (Cost Plus) and I stocked up big time.
 
Nancy May 11, 2018
Since I find most jarred sauces are too sweet, I usually add a 15 oz. can of crushed tomatoes to it and let it simmer together for 20 minutes or so. I've even added a 28 oz can and it still works !
 
Jennifer K. May 11, 2018
The best jarred pasta sauce we've ever tried was from Costco. I think it was Classico Organic Tomato, Herbs, & Spices. We like it so much that we don't even need to really do much to it. I have made Shakshuka with it by adding more paprika, cayenne, and cumin to it.
 
Christine May 11, 2018
Newman's has a new organic sauce out with no sugar and olive oil and it's not bad as a base for tinkering. We also have a Vermont-made brand here called Bove's, also no sugar and olive oil not cheap vegetable oils in it.
 
Laura May 11, 2018
The link to the article seemed very interesting but requires signing up for a paid site. (After trial). The same thing happens with New York Times articles. I signed up for the temporary New York Times and have been saturated with more emails than I want.
 
Gammy May 8, 2018
Great ideas! I always "doctor" any jarred sauce with at least an onion, a couple minced garlic cloves and a glug of red wine if I have an open bottle. Looking forward to trying anchovies and lemon zest. Unfortunately the link to the Cooks Illustrated taste test of jarred spaghetti sauces took me to a members only page. Looks like Rao's was the winner. Funny thing though... ghosted back, behind the ad for their online membership, seems to be the results for a peanut butter taste test :)
 
sue May 11, 2018
You noticed that too :-) Maybe it's time for a best peanut butter for your pasta article ;-)
 
les C. May 11, 2018
Yup peanut butter,Skippy smooth wins however that jar of Raos will set you back $6.99 and is barley enough for two. Lidia Bastianich`s quick marinara with 28 oz. whole mators crushed by hand,1/2 cup EVOO,8 sliced cloves garlic and a Basil sprig for 30 min. and you are ready to go.
 
FS May 11, 2018
Lidia for the win!! Have to try that recipe soon ... the local Walmart dropped the Rao sauce after it sat on the shelf for nearly ever. I'd try a jar if deeply discounted, but $6.99?!?