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Make a Meatier Meat Sauce Without Extra Meat

Mushrooms “beef” up the savory flavor of this weeknight-friendly meat sauce the whole family will love.
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Published Jan. 25, 2023.

Bowls of hearty, comforting pasta with meat sauce can be on your family’s dinner table in about an hour, thanks to two clever (and affordable) shortcuts.

The first? Mushrooms. Even plain old white (aka button) mushrooms are chock full of savory, “meaty,” umami taste. 

We start our sauce by sautéing finely chopped mushrooms and onions until they’re well browned and develop lots of flavor-packed fond on the bottom of the pot. Scraping up that fond and stirring it into the sauce adds loads of umami to our finished product, without adding any extra meat.

Sautéing finely chopped mushrooms and onions until they’re well browned creates lots of savory fond that will get stirred into this sauce.

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Speaking of meat, most meat sauce recipes start by browning large chunks of beef, which can take upwards of twenty minutes. Introducing our second weeknight meat sauce shortcut: quick-cooking ground beef.

Since those friendly fungi are creating the savory, flavorful fond and adding an umami boost, we don’t have to worry about browning our beef. (And good thing—ground beef will turn dry and pebbly if it’s cooked long enough to create fond.)

Instead, we mix it with a bit of baking soda, which raises the meat’s pH and prevents it from turning tough. We also wait to add the beef until right before we set the sauce to simmer so that it has time to imbue its meaty flavor but won’t dry out. 

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Tossed with pasta and showered with some grated Parmesan cheese, this is a weeknight dinner that grown-ups and kids alike will love. 

Plus, you’re getting some veggies (er, fungi) into the meal, too. Though, we must caution against hiding vegetables in your kids' food: It can damage their trust in you (and in food). It also teaches that veggies are something “bad” that need to be “hidden.”

Instead, involve kids in the cooking process. There’s evidence that if kids help prepare a meal, they’re more likely to try it. They can prep and measure out ingredients, pulse the mushrooms and onion in the food processor, stir the sauce, and more. 

Involving kids in the kitchen is a proven way to get them to try new foods. Let them grate the Parmesan cheese, use the food processor, stir the sauce, and more!

Want more creative ideas for dinner that can please the whole family? Check out episode 7 of America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation, which is all about cooking for kids. In the final challenge each contestant must come up with a family dinner that satisfies two kids with different preferences. All I’ll say is that I can’t wait to get my hands on the recipe for the winning dish . . . 

Watch Episode 7 of America's Test Kitchen: The Next Generation for free here!

Pasta with Meat Sauce

A combination of ground beef and savory, umami-packed mushrooms makes this easy-to-make, kid-tested pasta sauce taste extra-meaty.
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