Store-bought pasta sauce doesn’t always taste that great. Sure, it can save you time on a busy day or free you from the burden of cooking when you’re tired. It can also taste pretty bland and make you regret buying it in the first place.
If the jarred pasta sauce that you bought in the grocery store tastes bland, in this post I’m going to show you five techniques for how to make it taste better.
Each of the techniques I’m about to share with you below works on both tomato-based and cream-based sauces.
You can use only one technique, combine several of them, or apply all of them to make store-bought pasta sauce taste like it was freshly made in the best Italian restaurant in town.
Build a Base for Your Sauce
Building a base for your sauce will help you take it to the next level.
Step 1. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and preheat it for 2-3 minutes over medium heat.
Step 2. As the oil in your pan heats up, peel and dice one yellow onion into even and small cubes. When the oil starts to move around in the pan, you know it’s hot enough and ready for cooking. Add the onion cubes and season them well with salt and black pepper. Cook, stirring every 30 seconds or so, for 5 minutes.
Step 3. Peel and mince 2 garlic cloves in the meantime. 30 seconds before the onions are done cooking, toss the garlic in the pan and cook it, stirring continuously, with the onion in the hot oil.
Step 4. As soon as you’re at the fifth minute, pour the sauce into the pan and cook it, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Doing so will incorporate the sauce with the base that you just built.
Optionally, add 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar when you pour the jarred sauce in the pan if you like your pasta sauce more acidic. Sprinkle some chili flakes at the same time if you like it hot.
Cooking is all about layering taste.
Professional chefs like to say that every dish has a base, a foundational taste that the rest of its taste is layered on.
For example, when you made beef stew and cooked the meat and vegetables in beef stock, the beef stock is considered to be the base of your stew.
If you don’t build a base for your dish, it will come out bland. Your dish will be unappetizing because it will taste as if it’s missing salt, is unsavory, and lacks depth of flavor as a whole.
Unfortunately for folks like you and me, some store-bought pasta sauces are missing a base. Not all food companies get their recipes right and, even when they do, some batches can come out less tasty than others.
By building a base of onion and garlic, cooked in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, you’re righting that wrong in your home kitchen.
The onion adds sweetness and the garlic pungency. The salt and pepper balance them out. The olive oil, as any cooking oil or fat, dissolves the flavor and aroma compounds and carries them as a vessel for taste and smell into the rest of your dish.
Simmer the Sauce in Pasta Water
Boil your pasta noodles in salted water. Italian chefs have a saying that pasta water “should taste like the sea.”
In practical terms, this translates to adding a generous pinch of sea salt for a regular-sized pasta pot. If you like being more precise, the ratio is 4 quarts (16 U.S. cups) water seasoned with 1 tablespoon of sea salt for each 1 pound pasta.
The salty water will season your pasta noodles as they rehydrate and cook. Pasta contains starch, and starch is soluble in water. Some of the starch granules on the surface of your pasta will inevitably dissolve and swell up, making the pasta water thick and cloudy.
That salty and starchy pasta water, folks, is liquid gold. Save a cup of it before you drain the rest in your kitchen sink.
You can do this technique instead of building a base for your sauce.
Or you can combine the two to get maximum flavor. If you combine this, add the pasta water after you’ve cooked the onions and garlic and at the same time when you pour the sauce from the jar.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1. Add 1-2 cooking spoons of salty and starchy pasta water to a frying pan. Pour the pasta sauce in it and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Step 2. Let the sauce simmer until enough liquid has evaporated and it has reached the texture and thickness you’re looking for. How long this takes will depend on the cooktop, frying pan, and heat.
If you’re using a saucepan or a pot, don’t put the lid on. You want the liquids to escape from your cookware so that the sauce reduces and thickens.
The store-bought pasta sauce will embody the aromas and flavors of the pasta water. As the liquid evaporates from the pan and the sauce thickens, these aromas and flavors will become more and more concentrated.
Remember and use this technique not just on bland pasta sauce but also on store-bought pasta sauce that’s too watery.
Add Fresh Herbs to Your Sauce
Fresh herbs like basil, bay leaf, rosemary, and oregano are an excellent source of aroma and flavor for your pasta sauce.
Step 1. Finely chop some of your favorite herbs.
Step 2. Add them, stirring for 10-15 seconds, at the end of the reheating or cooking.
I like to add mine as soon as I’m done cooking and when I’ve taken the pan away from the heat.
Adding fresh herbs at the end of the reheating or cooking process allows them to release their flavors into the sauce, without cooking these flavors off. The flavor compounds that fresh herbs release are too susceptible to heat and prolonged cooking, which is why you should be gentle with them.
Toss the Sauce With the Pasta Noodles
Even if you made the perfect sauce, your pasta dish will still come out tasting bland if you don’t do these two things:
- Cook the noodles in generously salted water
- Toss the noodles with the sauce
Having a hard time to believe me? Just take a look at the two photos below and see the difference for yourself.
The photo on the left is of fusilli with store-bought pasta sauce that haven’t been tossed together. On the right, you see fusilli and jarred pasta sauce after the two have been tossed together. When you cook pasta at home, tossing the pasta noodles with the sauce can make all the difference in the world.
The surface of your pasta noodles may look smooth to the naked eye, but it’s actually filled with tiny holes and imperfections. The rougher the surface, the better pasta sauce clings on to the pasta noodles.
When that happens, the noodles come out smelling great and tasting delicious as they’ve captured all of these small aromatic and flavorful compounds on their surface.
Tossing the noodles with the sauce before you plate and serve your pasta allows sauce particles to fill the nooks and crannies of the noodles.
The highest-quality pasta sold in grocery stores is bronze-cut pasta and it’s made in bronze molds that produce a rough and porous surface.
Grate Hard Cheese on Top of Your Pasta
To add a final touch of brininess and pungency to your pasta dish, grate some hard Italian cheese on top as soon as you’ve plated it.
I like to use Pecorino Romano, a hard cheese from Rome and its surrounding villages in the Lazio region that’s made from 100% sheep’s milk and comes with a distinct smell and taste.
You could also use a Pecorino Romano substitute like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, or aged Asiago cheese.
Store-bought pasta sauce doesn’t have to taste bland.
If you give it a couple of tweaks as it reheats in your frying pan (and simmer it for a bit longer than you originally planned), jarred pasta sauce can come out tasting pretty darn good.
But here’s the thing… Next time, you can just as well make your own at home with some olive oil, a couple of cloves of garlic, a can of tomatoes, salt, pepper, and fresh basil leaves. It’s not going to take you more time than it will to enhance that ready-made sauce you bought in the store.
Bought a big jar of pasta sauce and you now have leftovers? Here’s how to freeze it for longer-term storage.
How did these techniques work out for you? Let me and the rest of this post’s readers know in the comments below.