As much as food bloggers like me like to preach that everyone should make their own pasta sauce at home, the reality is that some home cooks simply don’t have the time or intent to do that.
Which is exactly what I like about home cooking: it’s your kitchen and your rules. You get to choose the recipes you and your household like—and cook with the techniques that you find the most useful.
When it comes to store-bought sauce, one of the top questions that home cooks are asking is… Do you have to cook it before eating it? If that’s what you came here to find out, I’ll share my two cents with you in the rest of this post.
Do you have to cook store-bought pasta sauce?
Store-bought pasta sauce is already cooked and ready to eat, so there’s no need to cook it. Heat the sauce before you toss the pasta with it, so that you bring out its aroma and add depth of flavor.
The best time to reheat store-bought pasta sauce is while the pasta is cooking. Once the pasta is cooked, you can toss it with the sauce and send your pasta dish to the table.
To reheat pasta sauce from a jar, pour the sauce into a pan and place it on the stove over medium-low heat. Let the sauce simmer slowly for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a spoon. Avoid using a fork or spatula; you may scratch and damage your skillet’s surface.
Pasta sauce, tomato- and cream-based, is reheated when it has reached a temperature of 165°F (74°C). Though some bloggers advise you to use a food thermometer to measure the exact temperature of your pasta sauce as it reheats, if you ask me that’s overkill. As a rule of thumb, 10 minutes on medium-low heat will get you there on most cooktops.
If you have leftover store-bought pasta sauce, don’t keep it at room temperature. Leaving food out at room temperature can cause bacteria and mold to grow to dangerous levels that can cause foodborne illness.
Keep opened jars or cans of pasta sauce in the fridge for up to 5 days. Or pour the sauce into a freezer bar or airtight container and store it in the freezer. Though frozen pasta sauce will stay safe to eat indefinitely, it retains its best taste, texture, and aromatics for up to 6 months.
To thaw frozen pasta sauce, move it from your freezer to the fridge 24 hours before you plan to eat it. By that time, the pasta sauce will have defrosted and won’t take you longer than 10 minutes to reheat over medium-low heat.
How to Make Jarred Pasta Sauce Better
That jarred pasta sauce you bought from the grocery store isn’t living up to its promise on the label?
Here are my four best tricks for making the aroma, flavor, and texture of jarred pasta sauce way better.
Build the foundation of the sauce. In a frying pan over medium heat, sauté 1 onion and 2-3 garlic cloves in olive oil until the onion has softened nicely and browned lightly.
Instead of reheating the sauce, pour it into the pan and let simmer with the onions and garlic for 5 minutes. Your pasta sauce will come out more aromatic and with a deeper flavor than if you had only reheated it.
Season the sauce with salted pasta water. While the pasta noodles are cooking in salted water (Italian chefs have a saying that “pasta water should taste like the sea”), simmer the pasta sauce over medium heat in a frying pan.
Allow the noodles to cook for 2-3 minutes, then scoop out 1 cooking spoonful of starchy and salty pasta water—and pour it into your sauce.
Continue cooking for about 5 minutes until the pasta sauce and pasta water have mixed together and reduced down. The pasta water will add taste and texture to your sauce thanks to the salt and starches that it contains.
This technique works especially well for jarred pasta sauces that are a little too sweet than they should as the salt in the pasta water balances out the sweetness in the store-bought sauce.
Add fresh basil leaves as soon as the sauce has reheated. Once you’ve reheated your pasta, turn down the heat to low and add 3-4 fresh basil leaves. Continue cooking and stirring for 1-2 minutes, letting the sauce absorb the peppery and minty aromas from the basil.
Don’t add fresh herbs to your pasta sauce too soon; they won’t be as aromatic and as flavorful by the time the sauce has cooked or reheated. As a rule of thumb, incorporate fresh herbs into pasta sauce 1-2 minutes before you’re done cooking it.
Thicken the sauce with tomato paste. If your jarred tomato pasta sauce is too runny, thicken it by adding 1 tablespoon of tomato paste. Then let the sauce and the paste simmer over medium heat in a frying pan for 10 minutes, so that their flavors and texture blend together.
The longer you let the sauce simmer and the higher the heat (as long as you don’t put the lid on your pan or pot), the faster the sauce will reduce down and thicken.
Is Homemade Pasta Sauce Better Than Store-Bought?
Homemade pasta sauce is better than store-bought pasta sauce on any day.
When you make homemade pasta sauce, you can choose the recipe and select the highest-quality ingredients, while keeping salt and sugar to the levels that you want them.
You don’t really get that choice when eating jarred pasta sauce that you bought at the grocery store. And, frankly speaking, making your own pasta sauce, tomato- or cream-based, doesn’t take much more time and effort than heating up store-bought pasta sauce.
If you lead a busy life and don’t want to make your own pasta sauce every time you cook pasta, consider making homemade pasta sauce in large batches—and storing the leftovers in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
When I know I’m going to have a busy week or month, I cook up a big batch of tomato sauce that I can use as an ingredient for making pasta, eggplant Parmigiana, and meatballs with tomato sauce.
As soon as the sauce is done cooking, I transfer it to airtight containers, let it cool down for about an hour, and store it in the freezer. To thaw my homemade tomato sauce, I transfer it from the freezer to the fridge the night before I plan to cook with it.
The Bottom Line
The pasta sauce in the jars available in supermarkets is already cooked. So if you want to make a quick pasta dish at home, you don’t really have to cook it.
To reheat store-bought pasta sauce, let it simmer slowly in a pan over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. To enhance its flavor, try one of the techniques I have described in this post.