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.)
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:
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.”)
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.
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.