Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik
I’m a huge fan of a satisfying bowl of weeknight pasta, almost as much as I am a proponent of convenience. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit that making tomato sauce from scratch is almost as easy as opening up a jar, but…I also know almost none of you will believe me. But it’s true! OK, fine. It’s almost true. Let’s all just agree that once you’ve landed on “it’s a jarred sauce-kinda night,” it almost requires the same amount of effort to open said jar as it does to sprucing it up.
Still no? Store-bought tomato sauce right out of the jar can often be too thin and watery, or slicked with oil, or too sweet or too salty, or lack depth of flavor. Even so, when jarred is simply in the cards (and, listen—that’s great and fine!), we urge you to turn to the next logical step in the convenience equation: The question of whether there are quick and easy ways to spruce up a store-bought product to make it taste just a little more homemade. If you can add just a touch of something fresh with only a few additional minutes of cooking time, it could be worth it.
By applying at least one—if not a combination—of any of the tips below, you’re guaranteed a sauce that’s arguably many, many times better than just popping open a jar and dumping its slippery contents over your pasta. So the next time you reach for that jar of tomato sauce in a pinch, take just a few extra minutes to dress it up a bit. It’s worth it! You’re worth it.
Start With a Good Jar
The best way to make a jarred sauce taste more like a good homemade one is to start with a high-quality product. Rao’s, for one, is a longstanding SE staff favorite in need of little improvement. The sauce is bright and fruity, with a balanced acidity and the pleasing flavors of garlic, olive oil, onion, basil, and oregano.
You can treat a jarred sauce the same as a homemade sauce by sautéing classic alliums like garlic and/or onions in olive oil or butter before adding the sauce. In most cases, the jarred sauces will already have these ingredients cooking into them, but doubling down on garlic and onion is unlikely to elicit any complaints.
Amanda Suarez / Serious Eats
Deglaze With Wine
If you have a bottle of dry red or white kicking around, there’s no harm in adding a splash to the pan after sautéing the above alliums in fat. Make sure to simmer the wine long enough to cook off its raw alcohol flavor before dumping the sauce into the pot.
Season With Fresh or Dried Herbs and Spices
While most jarred pasta sauces already contain some degree of seasonings like dried oregano and basil, a boost of these ingredients in a fresher form can enliven a sauce. A couple generous sprigs of fresh herbs like basil, parsley, rosemary, or sage can all amp up the flavor of a jarred pasta sauce.
Keep in mind that when you add the fresh herbs to the pot will depend on the herb and the flavor you want. Simmered for longer, delicate herbs like basil and parsley lose some of their freshness in exchange for a deeper infusion, whereas adding them off the heat keeps things lighter and brighter. Woodsy herbs like rosemary, meanwhile, require some simmering time to extract their flavor compounds, but if left too long (or used in too great a quantity) can end up making the sauce unpleasantly piney or menthol-y.
Photograph: Vicky Wasik
Dried herbs are another great option, especially if you want to go for a more classic Italian-American marinara vibe. Generally speaking, woodsier dried herbs like oregano are preferable to dried delicate herbs like basil, the latter of which lose almost all of their flavor once dried. And because many dried herbs like oregano have fat-soluble flavor compounds, you’ll get more benefit out of blooming them in oil or butter before adding the sauce. That said, take care with how much you add: It’s better to start with a small pinch, taste, and adjust to taste as needed, since it’s always easier to add flavor than take away.
Putting herbs aside, some ingredients in your spice cabinet can make a good addition to a tomato sauce. Toasted and ground fennel seeds stirred into a sauce to deepen its intensity and offer a suggestion of Italian sausage without actually adding any meat (as with the dried herbs, most spices will bring more flavor to the sauce if you toast them in oil or butter first, though this does add marginally more time and effort compared to just stirring the spices into the sauce and simmering for a few minutes).
Whisk in Tomato Paste
To double down on tomato flavor in your sauce, heat up a spoonful or two of tomato paste in a couple tablespoons of oil until softened and caramelized before pouring in the sauce and whisking to combine. Since tomato paste is heavily reduced and has such a concentrated tomato flavor, it’s a quick way to make a sauce taste like it’s been simmering for hours without actually having to do so.
Boost the Acidity
Tomatoes are naturally acidic, but sometimes a jarred pasta sauce can lose that welcomed pop of fresh fruitiness during the pressure-canning process. Incorporating acids like lemon juice (and even zest), balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar right before serving can round out your sauce. Added acidity also balances the sweetness often found in many lower-quality jarred tomato sauces.
Toss in Olives or Capers
Briny ingredients like olives or capers are another way to brighten up your pasta sauce while also introducing texture and depth of flavor. Roughly chop a handful and stir them into your sauce while it’s heating up on the stove. If you go heavy on some of these ingredients, you can bend a store-bought sauce in the direction of a puttanesca, one classic sauce that can be hard to find on store shelves.
Sautéing vegetables in olive oil before adding your sauce can boost flavor while also creating more texture. A “battuto” (the Italian term for a finely minced mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots) is a great place to start, but you can also try sautéed mushrooms, which will add a boost of umami, or fresh fennel, which will add complexity.
A variety of meats can work to infuse fat, flavor, and texture to a jarred sauce. The best meats for this are fatty cuts with big flavor that will turn tender in a short simmer—think Italian sausage, pancetta, ground meats (like beef, pork, or lamb), and even bacon. Brown your preferred meat (or a combination) in a pan with olive oil to render its fat, then add your sauce and simmer until the meat is tender and fully cooked. Even as little as two ounces of cut meat will add big flavor. This is a great way to add richness and protein to your sauce, turning it into a more filling meal.
From left: bacon (smoked and cured pork belly), pancetta (cured pork belly), and guanciale (cured pork jowl).
Amp Up the Umami
Incorporating umami-rich ingredients into a jarred pasta sauce can increase complexity and savoriness. In addition to umami-rich ingredients like mushrooms and grated cheese mentioned in other sections here, you can melt a couple anchovy fillets in some olive oil before adding in the sauce, or dissolve in a bouillon cube, a spoon of miso paste, or a splash of fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce. Just be careful you don’t go overboard and throw all these things into the same pot.
Enrich With Dairy or Olive Oil
Just because a sauce is pre-made doesn’t mean it’s finished. Just as we like to simmer pasta in its sauce with a little bit of the pasta-cooking water for the last few minutes of cooking, we also like to enrich most sauces with a final glug of fresh olive oil, a pat of butter, and/or a big handful of finely grated cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. Vigorously stirred into the sauce off the heat, these ingredients thicken the sauce for a more silky texture and round out any lingering tangy notes from the tomato sauce.
Olive oil: Is it okay to use for high-heat cooking or not?Photographs: Vicky Wasik
On a related note, if you have some old grated-cheese rinds awaiting a purpose, you can also toss one of them into the sauce to make use of their flavor (…though this will require a longer simmer that arguably defeats the purpose of a jarred-sauce convenience hack).
Beyond those basics, you can in some instances enhance a sauce with a splash of cream or half and half, a dollop of ricotta or some mascarpone. These can transform a sauce into something more like a creamy vodka, but please be thoughtful about what kind of jarred pasta sauce you’re starting with. The sweetness of cream, ricotta, and mascarpone all blend more seamlessly with a sauce that has a similar flavor profile—more fruity and sweet than acidic and herbal. That’s not to say a classic oregano-tinged marinara can’t be mixed with creamy dairy, just that not all sauces are good fits for that kind of fat.
Kick Up the Heat
Sometimes all it takes is a little spice to amp up a pasta sauce’s flavor. Try sprinkling in some red pepper flakes or stirring in some Calabrian chile paste for a welcome kick, though as noted with some of the other ideas above, these ingredients tend to incorporate most seamlessly into a sauce if heated in oil first, which will add time to the process.