Let’s hear it for jarred tomato sauce! This pantry stable has helped my family get through rationing and bare grocery shelves while we settle in for the quarantine. And while most jarred tomato sauces are not known for their sophisticated flavor profiles, I’ve learned that there are some really easy ways to improve a jarred marinara sauce and make it a lot more delicious.
Just know I’ve skipped over classic trips like browning ground beef or turkey, or slicing up some pancetta or bacon to toss in because really, I want to keep things easy. (Though those are good tricks too, especially if you’re using up leftovers.)
But no matter what you add, I still recommend you start with the best jarred tomato you can find — better ingredients always lead to better flavor. However even if you’re left shopping the most basic store brand that’s all that’s left the shelf, I promise you have the base for what could be a truly delicious marinara.
If you can manage even one or two of these tricks, it can save you a lot of money on the gourmet sauces, while still making your spaghetti, lasagna, or even homemade pizzas taste extra fresh and extra delicious.
1. Sauté some garlic.
Your jar of tomato sauce probably already has some garlic in it (oh please have some garlic in it!), but dicing up a fresh clove at home makes such a difference. Plus, you get to enjoy the smell while it turns aromatic and golden brown. Heat a splash of olive oil and toss some diced garlic in before adding your jarred tomato sauce to heat. You can add some onions as well if you’d like, but not every kid is big on onions.
Pro tip: Use the good olive oil. Remember, all dishes are as good as the ingredients that go into them and you will definitely taste the difference!
2. Add red pepper flakes (if your kids tolerate spice!)
One of my issues with jarred tomato sauce is that many brands include lots of added sugar, but if that’s all you’ve got, it’s okay. Adding a bit of crushed red pepper can really balance the flavor. (I know, I know…my kids won’t eat spicy foods either, but even a pinch of pepper flakes can help boost flavor without adding too much heat.)
3. Toss in some fresh veggies.
Some of the best jarred tomato sauces include veggies already., but if you’ve got a basic marinara on hand, I highly recommend adding your own fresh veggies to your sauce to pack in some extra nutrients and flavor. And as a woman who just ordered curbside donuts for breakfast (#coronaliving), I know I could personally use a little more produce in my diet anyway.
So take this opportunity to add some sliced mushrooms, chopped green peppers (add in right after your garlic to sauté), or spinach (add in at the very end and stir until wilted). Even a fresh diced tomato can punch things up.
Just steer clear of veggies that sweeten as you cook them, like carrots, because jarred sauces are already sweet enough.
And while you’re at it, try our associate editor Kate’s tips for making the most of your veggies because there are plenty more ideas here.
4. Clip some fresh basil…or dried herbs work too.
If you have a sprig of basil from a garden or windowsill herb pot, you’ve got another terrific jarred-sauce flavor booster to add in while everything simmers. As with the parmesan rind, you want to remove it before you serve.
If you’re limited to the dried herbs on your spice rack, no worries! You probably have so many options already, like oregano (a staple in marinara!), tarragon, thyme, even dried basil flakes.
Bonus: if you have extra fresh basil, julienne some and sprinkle it on top of each dish when you’re read to serve. Check out these tips for how to store all your herbs so they’ll last longer and you’re more likely to have some when you need it.
5. Add a parmesan rind while simmering the sauce.
That parmesan heel you normally toss in the trash? Save it! You can add it to the pan while your sauce simmers to add a little umami. It makes jarred tomato sauce taste so fresh and amazing! Just remember to fish it out before serving.
6. Add in a little cream or butter.
We all know fats make the cooking world go round. (If you don’t, check out Samin Nosrat’s “Fat” episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on Netflix, and watch as she cries tears of joy after sampling parmesan. Been there, Sam!). So add a little to your sauce in the form of good, unsalted butter, or milk or cream once you take the saucepan off the heat. It will impart a richness that definitely doesn’t taste like your tomato sauce came from a jar.
7. Splash in a bit of red wine.
Just a tablespoon or two of whatever is open should work. There are two ways to do this: you can just pour in a tiny bit while stirring; or it’s a step you can take while sautéing garlic — you add a splash of that Pinot and let it deglaze the plan before stirring in the sauce.
Oh, and don’t worry about the kids any more than you’d worry about adding some vanilla extract. No one is gong to get drunk.