16 ways to make store-bought tomato sauce more delicious

For most dinners during the week, my goal is to reduce the time between walking into my apartment and eating pasta. The final victory, of course, would be to cross the threshold while eat pasta (or, if the angels have come down, arrive home at a table already set with mac and cheese). Instead, I usually settle for a marinara sauce made from scratch in 30 minutes: bringing the water to a boil while changing my clothes; cook the noodles while sautéing the vegetables with fresh garlic; add the pasta to these vegetables with a splash of cooking liquid and abundant quantities of pecorino cheese, olive oil and fresh herbs; face-plant in the pot.

My parents, on the other hand, shortened the time for pasta by conveniently using the microwave and a glass jar of store-bought marinara sauce that we always had in the fridge. Boil the pasta, the sauce in the microwave (or reheat it in a saucepan on the stove if you’re feeling really extra), mix the two together, and silence your gang of hungry kids.

Many avid home cooks might turn up their noses at store-bought “spaghetti sauce”, but at the end of a long day, it’s the quickest way to get to a bowl of red sauce noodles; is faster than cooking canned tomatoes with onion, fresh garlic, olive oil and red wine, which despite the admonitions, does not always have in my pantry.

Still, most potted sauces could benefit from a little zhushing to reach their full flavor and freshness potential. Some jars of tomato sauce are, in fact, superior to others. Look for sauces that use whole tomatoes with no added sugar. Here you are Cook’s Illustrated better choices. As for our team, we agree that the best marinara sauce in a jar is, without a doubt, Rao’s. Staff writer Kelly Vaughan is a devoted user, as are editorial guide Margaret Eby and editorial assistant Lucy Simon. Lucy, however, makes an important distinction: “she must be seafaring, not the tomato and basil sauce “.

Here’s how to make a jar of flavored spaghetti sauce Like this much better (if not entirely homemade), easily.

The bare-bone approach, do-this-one-thing:

1. Reduce it on the stove or in the oven. To concentrate the flavor of store-bought pasta sauce, cook it so that some of the water evaporates, leaving you with a thicker, more tomato-like tomato sauce. While your sauce pot heats up and your noodles cook, let the sauce simmer on the stove for at least 10-20 minutes. Or, pour the sauce into a Dutch oven or 300 ° F roast pan, stirring occasionally. It will take a few more minutes, sure, but you need to reheat the sauce before mixing it with the pasta anyway. Unless you follow my dad’s best bad cooking tip: if the pasta is hot, you can add the cold sauce “. If you want to go further (or are obsessed with the Instant Pot), try pressure cooking the sauce with an onion cut in half and a few tablespoons of butter, à la Marcella Hazan.

2. Squeeze in tomato concentrate, an extraordinary flavor enhancer. We say you not have time to simmer the sauce (or you have reduced it but still lacks oomph), add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, which is … super duper concentrated tomatoes only! Bonus points if you extract the full power of your tomato paste by browning it in hot olive oil before adding it to the sauce. Extra bonus points if you also put some chili flakes in that oil, for some kick.

For extra credit, assume any or all of the following:

3. Go to the spice drawer and condiment holder: If your sauce lacks depth and complexity, open your pantry or refrigerator and start exploring. Decide whether to aim for spicy (Sriracha, gochujang, cayenne, harissa, horseradish), smoked (smoked paprika, diced chipotles in adobo) or fruity (roasted red peppers, Calabrian peppers) and mix and match to your liking. Remember to taste often, before things get too wild.

4. While cooking, add a parmesan or pecorino zest. To make the sauce more salty and flavorful, an often discarded cheese crust can help a pot of humble beans and can liven up your pale tomato sauce as well. Throw an onion cut in half while you’re at it. Insider tip: Store the Parm rinds in the freezer (just wrap them very well and store them in an airtight container). Whenever you want to season a jar of store-bought tomato sauce, the zest will be ready to use

5. Speaking of salty I do not know whatintroduce an anchovy. Heat some olive oil in a saucepan, sauté an anchovy or two until it begins to melt into oblivion, add a few crushed garlic cloves if you have them, then pour into the tomato sauce jar . Call me crazy, but I’m also known for skipping anchovies and adding a splash of fish sauce and a splash of soy sauce instead.

6. Harness the power of sautéed vegetables. Before heating the sauce, sauté the vegetables until they begin to brown. I usually keep it plain with onion and garlic, but mirepoix (celery, carrots, and onions) or a few handfuls of sliced ​​mushrooms work just fine too. And if you blend the pan with wine or broth, you will not leave any caramelized pieces.

7. Lean on garlic. Most store-bought sauces contain at least some garlic, but the flavor is often muted in the jar. Amplify the garlic factor by stir-frying a couple of chopped or pressed cloves for a few moments in olive oil before adding the sauce. For a richer, sweeter flavor, mash a few roasted garlic cloves and mix them while the sauce is boiling.

8. Spice things up with some acid. Try apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, capers, chopped olives, or lemon juice. If the sauce is very acidic, like many store-bought varieties, use only lemon zest instead. Mix at the end of cooking to preserve the brilliant freshness as much as possible.

9. Sweeten things up with some sugar.
If your jarred tomato sauce is too acidic, consider adding a pinch or two of sugar (after all, it drops the medicine!). Potted sauces can sometimes make you wrinkle, lacking the sought-after balance of a homemade sauce. As the sauce warms up, add the granulated sugar a pinch at a time, mixing and tasting between additions, until the sauce is just right. Avoid brown and icing sugars, which will add contrasting flavors to the mix.

10. Illuminate with brine. Olives and capers add a touch of salty goodness and give the tomato sauce a real personality. After heating the sauce for a few minutes, add some pitted or whole olives and / or a handful of drained capers. Or, if you’re adding garlic or sauteed vegetables, add to the stir-fry just before pouring the sauce. They bring a saltiness similar to anchovies, but they are vegetarian.

11. Basil! Basil! Basil! You’ll find many “basil leaves” swimming in store-bought jars – they’re so dark, slimy and seaweed it’s hard to imagine they were once on a basil plant. To remedy the situation, add the freshly chopped basil at the end of cooking so that its fragrance perfumes the whole pot, preserving the bright green color.

12. Bring butter and other dairy products. To make your sauce rich and luxurious, finish it off with a pat of butter, a splash of cream or coconut cream, or a spoonful of yogurt, crème fraîche or sour cream.

13. Mix with some high quality olive oil Adding a glug to the sauce just before serving gives it a butter-like richness and sheen without adding dairy. We especially love olive oil from Brightland, Kosterina, and Kolossos (which you can buy at the Food52 store!).

14. Season with cheese. A dollop of ricotta or mascarpone adds a slightly sweet creaminess, while soft goat cheese or even a humble cream cheese adds tangy richness to elevate the dull tomato sauce. A generous sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan makes any pasta dish look well dressed, adding a welcome touch of umami.

15. Make it meaty. Add some salty protein and texture to your sauce by introducing red meat into the mix. Crumbled Italian sausage (sweet or spicy for those who love heat) or minced meat, pork or lamb go well with tomato sauce. Brown the meat in a pan, break it up with a wooden spoon and drain the meat of excess oil or fat before adding the tomato sauce and simmer while the pasta cooks.

16. Use the water from your pasta. We will never sing the praises of pasta with water. Salted, starchy water is a natural thickener, which will improve the texture of the pasta sauce in a jar. You won’t want to add a bucket of water to the bowl, but a generous splash of that starchy water will help the sauce stick to the noodles (but you already knew that).


How to dress store-bought tomato sauce? Let us know in the comments.


This article was updated in May 2022 by our editors, who are always looking for ways to improve their pasta game.

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