Tomato

16 Ways to Gussy Up Store-Bought Spaghetti Sauce

For when you need to face-plant into a bowl of pasta without delay.

May  7, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

For most weeknight dinners, 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 sauce from scratch in 30-ish minutes: Bring water to a boil while changing clothes; cook noodles while sautéing greens with fresh garlic; add pasta to said greens with a splash of cooking liquid and copious amounts of pecorino, olive oil, and fresh herbs; 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 yet, most jarred sauces could benefit from a bit of zhushing to reach their full flavor and freshness potential. 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. Here’s how to fancy up a jar of spaghetti sauce (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, 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.” 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.

Join The Conversation

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

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.

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. Add a Parmesan or pecorino rind while it simmers. To make the sauce more salty and savory, an oft-discarded cheese rind can help a pot of humble beans and can enliven your wan tomato sauce, too. Toss a halved onion in while you're at it.

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 until they start to brown. I usually keep it basic with onion and garlic, but mirepoix or a few handfuls of sliced mushrooms work well, too. And if you deglaze the pan with wine or stock, you’ll leave no caramelized bit behind.

7. Lean into the garlic. Most store-bought sauces contain at least some garlic, but the flavor is often dulled in the jar. Amp up the garlic factor by sautéing a couple of minced or pressed cloves for a few moments in olive oil before adding the sauce. For a richer, sweeter flavor, mash a few roasted garlic cloves and stir them in as the sauce simmers.

8. Liven things up with a little acid. Try apple cider vinegar, 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.

9. Sweeten things up with a little sugar. If your sauce is too acidic, consider adding a pinch or two of sugar (makes the medicine go down!). Jarred sauces can sometimes make you pucker, lacking the sought-after balance of a homemade sauce. As the sauce heats, add granulated sugar a pinch at a time, stirring and tasting in between additions, until the sauce is just right. Avoid brown and powdered sugars, which will add conflicting flavors to the mix.

10. Brighten with brine. Olives and capers add a punch of briny goodness and give tomato sauce some real personality. Toss in some chopped or whole, pitted olives and/or a handful of drained capers after heating the sauce for several minutes. Or, if you’re adding garlic or sautéed vegetables, add to the sauté just before you pour in the sauce.

11. 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.

12. 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, or sour cream.

13. Swirl in some high-quality olive oil Adding a glug to the sauce just before serving gives it a similar richness and shine to butter without adding dairy.

14. Cheese it up. A dollop of ricotta or mascarpone adds lightly sweet creaminess, while soft goat cheese or even a humble cream cheese adds tangy richness to elevate dull tomato sauce. A generous sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan cheese makes any plate of pasta look all dressed up, while adding a welcome kick of umami.

15. Make it meaty. Add some savory protein and texture to your sauce by introducing red meat into the mix. Crumbled Italian sausage (mild or hot for the heat-seekers) or ground beef, pork, or lamb all marry nicely with tomato sauce. Brown, break up, and drain the meat before adding the tomato sauce and simmering while the pasta cooks.

16. 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).

How do you dress up your store-bought sauce? Let us know in the comments.


Red Sauce It Up

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
    AntoniaJames
  • Colin
    Colin
  • Misty212
    Misty212
  • ALLEN
    ALLEN
  • Robin
    Robin
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.

20 Comments

AntoniaJames December 29, 2020
Two words: mushroom powder. Such wonderful stuff! A teaspoon or so will give your sauce a "little something," without actually adding a mushroom taste. I buy it from nuts.com. It comes in a bag that seems to be more than you'd expect to use in a lifetime, but it keeps well. you'll find yourself reaching it for it often. ;o)
 
Colin June 11, 2018
Please fix this grammar mistake:

And if you want to go above and beyond (or your Instant Pot-obsessed),

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
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. June 11, 2018
Hey, we all make mistakes. Give me a break!
 
Colin June 11, 2018
No sweat! Hope it was helpful
 
Ruins November 14, 2020
Most authors are pretty accessible on sites like this via e-mail. It's the POLITE way to call out grammar or typographical errors. Comments are no place for such things. We all make mistakes. Sometimes people are on deadlines. Sometimes our minds are on the next thing we have to get done or the thing we finished five minutes ago. Next time, please, take a moment, catch your breath and think about your manners. Think on how it would feel if you were called out in a public forum where you'd like to be told how good or bad your ideas were rather than a mistake you made in your typing. Tsk.
 
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
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.
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?!?