7 Simple Hacks to Upgrade Your Spaghetti Sauce

A few minor changes can make a major difference in flavor.

Sunday sauce, spaghetti sauce, gravy—whatever you call it, Italian-style tomato-based pasta sauce is a beautiful thing. And whether you're using a favorite recipe from a cookbook or one that's been passed down to you from nonna, you probably have a tradition of making this sauce from scratch a certain way (which means you're probably hesitant to change your method). That's OK—there's no need to make sweeping changes. A small tweak or two can yield surprising results. Next time you simmer Sunday sauce, try incorporating one of these methods if you don't already.

01 of 07

Upgrade Your Tomatoes

The cardinal rule of making spaghetti sauce is to start from good tomatoes. No matter how good you and your recipe are, great sauce can't be made from average tomatoes. This step is one of the most overlooked, and yet one of the easiest to remedy.

Whether using fresh tomatoes or canned, crushed tomatoes or a blend of whole and crushed, you want to start with top-notch tomatoes. When using canned, the long-entrenched wisdom is to look to San Marzano tomatoes from Campania, Italy. But many tomato wonks now believe that the best California tomatoes have surpassed Italy's finest. If you live beyond the reach of excellent smaller-batch California canned tomato brands, like Bianco DiNapoli, you can order them online. (That said, sticking with big-name San Marzano brands is still a great starting point.)

02 of 07

Upgrade Your Oil, Garlic, and Onion

Our tomato logic can extend to all other ingredients. At the heart of Italian cooking lies the tenet that you should use high-quality ingredients and treat them simply. Thinking in this vein, you should start with good olive oil that hasn't been sitting in your pantry for a year. And like olive oil, garlic and onion aren't shelf-stable products. A sauce made with new garlic will taste better than the same one made with cloves slumbering in your pantry for a few weeks.

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03 of 07

Don't Let Your Garlic Get Too Brown

If you use both garlic and onion in your sauce, be sure to start the onion in the olive oil first. Onion takes much longer to cook than garlic, even if you're using whole cloves or big chunks of garlic. Accounting for this, you should add garlic a good bit later; not long before adding the tomato. The key is to prevent garlic from browning too much. When you sizzle garlic, it will quickly turn a nutty-brown, bittering the garlic—and brown garlic can impart an acrid bite. Cook your garlic until it becomes a deep golden color, with the earliest brown beginnings. Then, add your tomatoes.

04 of 07

Time Is a Valuable Ingredient

The minimum time you should simmer sauce is 30 minutes. This is about how long the oils take to disappear into the sauce (rather than pooling on top). But you should consider simmering for three or more hours, letting it lazily cook away, no more than a few straggling bubbles surfacing at a time. Time plus low heat and fresh ingredients makes for a great sauce.

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05 of 07

Account for Meat's Changes

If you add meat like sausage or meatballs to your sauce, the sauce will take longer. This is because, as they cook, these meats leak juices. These juices thin the sauce, meaning that you'll need extra time to reduce it down from its runnier consistency.

06 of 07

Use a Good Pasta Brand

Your sauce is ready. Congrats! But you aren't done making it better.

You'll want to use a pasta brand that will let the soulfulness of your sauce shine. If you're using dry pasta, be sure you buy noodles extruded through bronze dies. This creates a rough surface that catches the sauce, letting it more tightly cling to the pasta slopes and hollows. If you want the very best boxed noodles, look for pasta from Gragnano, Italy. Like great canned tomatoes, they are worth the cost, especially when you consider the affordability of a large pasta meal to begin with.

07 of 07

Treat Your Finished Sauce and Pasta Right

Once your pasta has cooked, be sure you toss the sauce and pasta in a deep skillet or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. A short but hearty tossing will almost glue sauce to pasta, permeating flavor deep into the hot noodles.

And now, the final steps. If you've made an oil-based tomato sauce, finish your individually portioned pasta with a glug of olive oil. If you've made a butter-based sauce, try mixing in a sliver or two of butter. And finally, be sure you eat your pasta hot, shortly out of the pan. Hot pasta—plus the rest of these minor tweaks—will give you the best chance at a direct flight to Sunday sauce heaven.

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