Growing up, my family ate spaghetti about once a week.
Quick and easy, it was one of my dad's favorite meals to make—plus, he always "snuck in" broccoli, which my kiddie palate only tolerated smothered in sauce. And without fail, he always used knockoff Ragu.
Somehow, though, my dad's sauce never tasted like it came from a jar—and years later, when I first made spaghetti with Ragu for myself, I was shocked at how bland it tasted. That's when I remembered how my dad cooked sauce: constantly tasting, and adding all kinds of spices, herbs, and flavors. By the time he was done, it wasn't really grocery store sauce anymore.
So don't overlook jarred sauce, pasta lovers—you too can upgrade that plain old "traditional marinara" in just a few minutes with these simple tricks. Of course, it always helps to start with a high-quality organic tomato sauce, like our own.
1. Sauté some onions and garlic.
I dare you to find something that doesn't taste better with the addition of sautéed onions and garlic. Whether in a simple marinara or spicy Tuscan pepper sauce, these two veggies add extra savory flavor.
2. Add more vegetables or meat.
Wow your palate with the addition of some ground beef, mushrooms, winter squash, or any other hearty vegetable your heart desires. Just brown and caramelize the ingredients in the pan before you add the sauce.
Bonus tip: Deglaze the pan with a little stock or white wine before pouring in the sauce to get all the flavorful little fried brown bits incorporated.
3. Sprinkle in fresh or dried herbs.
True homemade pasta sauce—or gravy, as some Italian Americans call it—always includes plenty of aromatic herbs. The canned and jarred stuff, however, often doesn't. Spice it up (literally) with basil, sage, thyme, oregano, and a bay leaf for good measure.
4. Pull out the red wine.
Got some two-buck chuck on hand? Perfect! Pour yourself a glass and add a hearty glug to the sauce. Any kind of red wine—from merlot to pinot noir—will add robust, rich flavor. Just make sure you leave enough time for the alcohol to cook off so you don't end up with drunken noodles.
5. Toss in a cheese rind.
Here's a handy tip, and a way to cut down on food waste: Save that hard rind of Parmesan or Romano cheese. Letting it simmer in a pot of pasta sauce contributes just a hint of that salty, umami cheesy flavor. (Plus, what else were you going to do with it?) Remember to scoop out the rind just before serving.
6. Let it simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
Though it's tempting to just get the sauce hot enough to serve, let it go a little longer on the stove. A few extra minutes of cooking time really allows more complex flavors to develop.
7. Pour in some pasta water.
Once your pasta has cooked to al dente perfection, try this final step: Before you drain the noodles, reserve a spoonful (about 1/4 cup will do) of the starchy, salty pasta water. Then add drained noodles and the reserved pasta water back to the saucepan. The starch in the liquid helps bring the sauce and noodles together, evenly coating every strand of spaghetti or piece of penne.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont