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.
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.