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Pasta sauce is the kind of thing you add to your grocery list sort of without any rational thought behind the action. Was I planning to actually make pasta any time soon? Do I really need to be prepared to eat carbs coated in tomatoes any night of the week? When did I start treating tomato sauce like flour or eggs or coffee—a pantry staple that I should never be without? It’s not wrong to think of pasta sauce that way, necessarily. When you’re having one of those nights where you’re staring blankly at your fridge and cupboards with no mental energy left to put together anything even remotely creative, dried pasta + jarred tomato sauce + some pre-grated parmesan cheese from the fridge = dinner. And a satisfying one at that.
But jarred pasta sauce should not be assumed to be a wholly finished product. There are plenty of ways in which to improve upon this pantry staple that require remarkably little extra effort and ingredients, but which yield a meal that is at least a few rungs on the ladder above “this is all I can come up with while deeply mentally exhausted and/or lazy.” Plus, if you’re entertaining on the spur of the moment? Having a few back-pocket tricks for doctoring up jarred pasta sauce to make it taste like a homemade concoction straight from the stove of a wrinkled Italian grandmother is a very handy party trick, let us assure you. Here are some ideas we here at MUNCHIES have for how you can make a passably decent jar of pasta sauce taste even better, with minimal effort.
1. Fresh Basil, Oregano, and Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
These are already the building blocks of most decent store-bought jarred tomato sauces. But the problem, especially with the cheap ones, is that they’ve likely used dried herbs and way too little red pepper. (Dried herbs are cheaper and make the sauce easier to make shelf-stable, and goddess forbid we ever take a product made for mass consumption above a 0.25 out of 10 on the heat scale.) If your jarred sauce did have fresh basil, it was probably as limp and slimy as Old Gregg’s locks. Let a few pinches of red pepper flakes and some minced oregano leaves simmer with the sauce while it’s warming up, then tear fresh sweet basil leaves and sprinkle them in right before serving.
2. Let It Simmer
A crime that a lot of jarred sauces commit is that of being too watery to be used to reasonably coat any type of pasta in any satisfying way. Let your jarred sauce simmer in a sauce pot (and maybe add a bay leaf and a parmesan rind for flavor while you’re at it) and let it thicken up just a bit more.
3. Tomato Paste
Don’t have time to let a thin sauce reduce? Stir in some good-quality San Marzano tomato paste until it dissolves, then taste. Season with a pinch of salt, sugar, or a squeeze of lemon juice, depending on which direction it needs to go. (Some jarred sauces are sweeter than others, and some are more acidic. Read your label and look for mention of whole tomatoes (good) or added sugar (bad). Those are your clues for how to start the doctoring process.)
4. Heavy Cream or Butter
While you’re heating up your sauce, before you add it to your cooked pasta, stir in a few splashes of heavy cream to add more fat and a smoother mouthfeel to a basic jarred sauce. Or, a la the inimitable Marcella Hazan, “finish” your already finished, jarred sauce with a few pats of butter to achieve an effect similar to the cream.
5. Sautéed Fresh Vegetables
Like any jarred sauce with “fresh” basil that turns into something akin to limp toilet paper, jarred sauce with “fresh garden vegetables” is uniformly a disappointment. Saute some fresh zucchini, mushrooms, garlic, and onions in a little olive oil, letting their natural sugars slightly caramelize and get toasty brown, then stir them into your jarred stuff.
6. Anchovy, Garlic, Lemon Juice
Saute a bit of minced garlic with finely chopped anchovy fillets, then deglaze the whole lot with a few tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice—it’s a classic trifecta of flavor-building in Italian cooking. Lots of jarred pasta sauces have more sugar than natural tomatoes do, and are begging for a bit more acidity to balance out all that sweetness, so a touch of lemon juice is more than welcome.
7. Ground Beef, Pork, and Red Wine
Jarred pasta sauce can be suspect even from the best of brands, but jarred sauce with meat in it??? Hard freakin’ pass, thanks. Instead, brown some ground beef, pork, or veal (or a combination of all three), then deglaze your pan with a generous glug of wine to make sure you get all of those good bits of browned fats loosened up that will infuse your store-bought sauce with extra savoriness.
8. Spinach or Kale Ribbons
Sort of like adding fresh basil, you can toss in cleaned and chopped greens like spinach, lacinato kale, or Swiss chard that will wilt relatively quickly for an easy way to get a little extra veg in your carb-heavy dinner plans.
9. Put It In the Oven
This is hardly even a hack, but you know what the best way to lean in to likely-too-sweet pasta sauce is? Let those sugars caramelize even further by slipping it into the oven to bake for a bit (toss it with meatballs or sausages, or smothering stuffed shells with it, for extra points) It’s basically the same process as letting the sauce reduce over time on the stovetop, but more hands-off.
10. Pasta Cooking Water
This, too, is sort of a no-brainer if you’re a regular pasta consumer. Always. Save. Some pasta water. What’s worth saving in there? Extra starch and salt, of course. Adding a bit of your strained pasta water to your sauce, whether jarred or not, both thickens and seasons the sauce a bit more before tossing in your cooked noodles.