6 Ways to Make Jarred Pasta Sauce Taste Homemade

Get dinner on the table quickly and easily using these tips to get the most out of your store-bought sauce.

Close up shot of three jars of tomato sauce as seen from the side
Photo: Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

Let's just put it out there. Even people who love to cook don't always have time or inclination to take on homemade pasta sauce. Especially on a weeknight, after a long workday, when just boiling water for noodles seems taxing. Good quality jarred sauces can be a real game changer for those last-minute dinners, just open, heat, and dump on the pasta shape of your choosing. But jarred sauces just don't have that homemade touch. So, we like to lean into that semi-homemade vibe! There are many things that are simple to do that bring a little fresh perspective to a jarred sauce, and don't overly tax the brain.

How to Make Store-Bought Sauce Taste Homemade

1. Choose the right sauce.

For starters, if you are going to rely on jarred pasta sauce, whether it is tomato-based, creamy Alfredo, or even pesto, be sure to choose a good one. The secret weapon of passionate cooks and pro chefs alike is Rao's, which is frankly terrific right out of the jar. And while a bit pricier than many other brands, really has a great flavor, so when you don't even have time to doctor it up you will still get a delicious result. Keep an eye out for sales at your local grocery, or for two-packs at Costco. With tomato sauce, whichever you choose, we recommend picking a plain old marinara style to give you the most flexibility in adding other ingredients.

2. Start with protein.

One of the things a simple sauce like marinara or Alfredo is missing is protein. Luckily, it is easy to add it in to make a more complete meal. If you have the energy to sauté, you can brown any ground meat, chopped bacon or pancetta, slices of raw Italian sausages, or cubes of salami. Drain off the fat and add your sauce. No time for pan work? Add shredded rotisserie chicken, leftover meat from a previous meal, or cube up some ham. Frozen meatballs that are already cooked can heat up straight from frozen in the sauce. Vegetarian or vegan? Add a drained can of beans, chickpeas, or frozen ground crumble-style plant protein.

3. Stir in some freshness.

Fresh herbs make all the difference in any pasta sauce, so if you have some lying around, they will really perk up a jarred sauce. Obviously, basil is classic, but thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, and oregano are all great in pasta sauce. Fresh parsley also makes anything sing, as do chives.

4. Boost the aromatics.

Adding extra onion, shallot, or garlic to a jarred sauce can really make a world of difference to wake up the flavor. While they will cook in the sauce, they also bring a bit of bite that will have been processed out of the aromatics used in the original sauce.

5. Add richness.

A jarred sauce can sometimes lean a bit acidic, so the way to balance that is with richness. A glug of a good quality extra virgin olive oil, a splash of cream or half and half, a dollop of ricotta or mascarpone, or even a few pats of butter stirred in can smooth those rough edges. If you want to bring in some umami in a sauce without meat, try adding a bouillon cube or a spoonful of bouillon paste.

6. Try a bit of acid.

On the flip side, some sauces are actually a bit on the sweet side, and for those, you might need to add a bit of acid to balance. A few tablespoons of leftover wine, a splash of balsamic vinegar, or even a few drops of lemon juice can really brighten the sauce. This is especially true with jarred Alfredo or pesto which both benefit from a squeeze of lemon.

Jarred pasta sauces can become the base of truly exceptional dishes with minimal fuss and maximum flavor. So much so that you might even zhuzh them up for company!

Updated by Andrea Lobas
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