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6 Quick Pasta Sauces Every Cook Should Know

We retooled a week's worth of classic sauces to cook on busy nights.
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Published June 17, 2019.

Pasta sauces are a great way to get dinner on the table in a hurry. Our takes on these classic recipes are designed with the busy cook in mind, but never taste like shortcuts. (For information on how to ensure that the pasta itself is cooked to perfection, see our article on "6 Tips for Better Pasta.")

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Quick Tomato Sauce

What Can Go Wrong: With little time to simmer and meld flavors, quick tomato sauces can taste dull or, worse, like you simply dumped a can of tomatoes on the pasta.

How We Fix It:

  • Minimally processed crushed tomatoes offer bright, fresh flavor—no need to puree whole canned tomatoes.
  • Grating the onion releases a lot of its flavor quickly.
  • Sautéing the onion in butter, versus oil, contributes rich meatiness from the browned milk solids.
  • Garlic; oregano; and a touch of sugar; plus basil and olive oil further ramp up the flavor. 
Recipe

Quick Tomato Sauce

Is it possible to transform canned tomatoes into a bright, fresh-tasting sauce?
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Puttanesca

What Can Go Wrong: Assertive flavors such as anchovies, garlic, olives, capers, and pepper flakes can overwhelm a sauce.

How We Fix It:

  • Gently sautéing the garlic, anchovies, and pepper flakes in oil mellows and blends their flavors.
  • We use diced tomatoes, since they retain their shape better than whole or crushed products.
  • Drizzling olive oil over each portion adds richness. 


Recipe

Spaghetti Puttanesca

In the time it takes to boil spaghetti, you can make this simple, gutsy sauce.
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Classic Basil Pesto

What Can Go Wrong: Sharp raw garlic can overpower delicate, aromatic basil. The basil can also turn a drab, unappealing dark green.

How We Fix It:

  • To mellow the garlic, we toast unpeeled cloves in a dry skillet before processing.
  • Adding parsley (which doesn't discolor as easily as basil) helps keep the pesto green.
  • Pounding the herbs before pureeing them releases their flavorful oils. 


Recipe

Basil Pesto

To balance the flavors, bruise the basil and toast the garlic.
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Garlic and Oil Sauce (Aglio E Olio)

What Can Go Wrong: The garlic tastes harsh, and the oil-based sauce doesn't cling to the pasta.

How We Fix It:

  • Treating the minced garlic two different ways—gently sautéing some of it until pale golden brown and then stirring in the rest raw—yields garlic flavor that is nutty, mellow, and sweet, with a pleasantly sharp finish.
  • We use the pasta cooking water as the sauce's base, not just to adjust its consistency.
  • The starchy liquid helps the sauce cling to the noodles and helps evenly distribute the garlicky oil. 


Recipe

Pasta with Garlic and Oil—Aglio e Olio

The marriage of cooked and raw garlic as well as a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil just before serving make this simple dish shout with flavor.
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Simple Italian-Style Meat Sauce

What Can Go Wrong: The ground meat dries out. The meaty flavor is only superficial.

How We Fix It:

  • We brown mushrooms, onion, and tomato paste to develop meaty flavor without browning (and drying out) the beef.
  • Blending bread and milk into the meat keeps it tender.
  • Crushed and diced tomatoes add body and bright flavor.
Recipe

Simple Italian-Style Meat Sauce

In this country, meat sauce usually means a hastily made dish with rubbery ground beef and no flavor. We wanted something simple—but a lot better.
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Amatriciana

What Can Go Wrong: Guanciale, which is made by salting and drying hog jowls, is hard to find in the States. Stirring grated Pecorino Romano into the hot pasta causes the cheese to clump.

How We Fix It:

  • We swap guanciale for easy-to-find salt pork (salt-cured, unsmoked pork belly).
  • Simmering it first renders its fat, which allows the meat to quickly brown once the water evaporates.
  • Mixing the cheese with rendered pork fat prevents it from clumping (the fat keeps the cheese proteins dispersed so they don't bond to each other in clumps) and adds extra pork flavor to the dish.


Recipe

Pasta All'Amatriciana

To perfect this controversial Italian dish, we looked to a staple of the American larder.
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