Pasta Sauce 101

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I first started cooking in undergrad, with a self-mandated, weekly grocery budget of forty dollars. Yup. Forty whole dollars. And like any other college student, my staple meal was what else? Spaghetti. Spaghetti made with jars upon jars of processed pasta sauce. Looking back on my years of spaghetti consumption, I realize that it didn’t have to be that way.

Homemade sauce is not only easy and customizable, but also much better for us than the canned stuff. A handful of simple ingredients always trumps stumbling over scary, unrecognizable ones on the back of a Preggo can. Although I can't deny that until pretty recently, I have enjoyed  those cans of Preggo. No shade. But we grow!

I work with three basic sauces. A marinara, an alfredo, and lovely mix of the two- a creamy marinara. They’re also all very versatile- ever tried a white lasagna? It’s fabulous. Of course they take a little more time than cracking open a premade jar, but isn’t the extra fifteen minutes worth it? These no fail sauces are the basis of tons of my regular recipes.


Basic Marinara Sauce

8 oz can of tomato sauce
8 oz can of crushed tomatoes (if you’re into a chunkier sauce)
A medium diced onion
Couple of cloves of minced garlic
A dash of red pepper flakes
Dried oregano
Dried basil
About a tablespoon of sugar
Salt & pepper
Couple tablespoons of olive oil

Over medium heat, sauté red pepper flakes, oregano, and basil in olive oil for about a minute to release their flavor. Add onion and garlic, sauté until they soften and your kitchen smells like heaven. Side note: be careful here not to let your garlic burn! Burnt garlic is terribly bitter, and that bitterness can ruin your sauce.

Once the garlic and onion have softened, go ahead and add your can of tomato sauce and give everything a stir. (Add diced tomatoes if you so choose here). Allow the sauce to come to a soft boil (you’ll know when it starts to bubble). Once it does, turn it down to low and allow it to simmer.

At this point, you can give the sauce a taste and determine how you want to proceed. Salt, pepper, and sugar are all a preferential thing. But I always add the tablespoon of sugar to balance the acidity of all the tomato. It doesn’t make the sauce sweet, just rounds everything out.  

Alfredo Sauce

Couple of cloves of minced garlic
Couple tablespoons of flour
A cup of milk (have a little more on hand in case the sauce gets a bit thick toward the end)
½ cup of shredded or shaved parmesan
Dried oregano
Dried basil
Salt & pepper
Couple tablespoons of olive oil or butter
Teaspoon of lemon juice (optional)

Like the marinara recipe, sauté the oregano, and basil in the olive oil or butter for about a minute over medium heat. Add and garlic sauté until it softens, and once again, your kitchen smells like heaven.

Now we’re going to make a rue. Don’t be scared! It’s simple stuff. Lightly sprinkle the flour into the garlicky olive oil, a tablespoon at a time. Whisk the flour into the oil- it will thicken into a paste. Look, you made a rue!

Slowly whisk the milk into the rue, breaking up the paste. Make sure to distribute the rue throughout the milk, and not to leave any weird flour lumps. Turn down the heat to low.

Go ahead and sprinkle the parmesan into the beautifully smooth sauce you’ve created. Sprinkle it bit by bit, giving it a stir. If using lemon juice, you can add that now. I find that it brightens what’s undoubtedly a super rich sauce. Season with salt and pepper. If the sauce gets a bit too thick for your liking, add an additional splash of milk until it reaches your desired consistency. Just make sure to salt and pepper accordingly.

Tomato Cream Sauce

8 oz can of tomato sauce
A medium diced onion
Couple of cloves of minced garlic
A dash of red pepper flakes
Dried oregano
Dried basil
About a tablespoon of sugar
½ cup of heavy cream
Salt & pepper
Couple tablespoons of olive oil

Prepare classic marinara sauce as described above. At the end, add the heavy cream and give it a good stir. Boom, tomato cream sauce.

Remember, these sauces are subjective. If you want a chunky sauce, add the crushed tomatoes. Spicier sauce? Amp it up with more red pepper flakes. Make them your own! You might never stop at the sauce section in your local grocery store again.