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How do you make pasta and red sauce taste better?

Making delicious pasta and red sauce at home may seem daunting, but with a few simple tricks you can elevate this classic dish to restaurant quality. The keys are using high quality ingredients, properly seasoning, and allowing time for flavors to meld. Follow these tips and you’ll be serving up scrumptious pasta in no time.

What ingredients do you need for pasta and red sauce?

The base of any great red sauce starts with tomatoes. Choose canned whole or diced tomatoes, or use fresh ripe tomatoes when in season. Canned tomatoes are consistently good year-round. For pasta, opt for a high quality dried pasta like spaghetti, rigatoni or penne. Other essential aromatics and spices include:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Fresh basil
  • Oregano
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

What is the best technique for cooking pasta?

Properly cooking the pasta is key to ensuring your dish is perfect. Here are some tips:

  • Use abundant water – To prevent sticking, pasta should have plenty of room to move freely as it cooks. Use at least 4 quarts of water for every pound of pasta.
  • Salt the water – Heavily salt your pasta cooking water, it should taste almost like seawater. Salt flavors the pasta from the inside out.
  • Use a large pot – Choose a pot large enough to allow the pasta to move around. The pasta should not be crammed in.
  • Stir at start – Give the pasta a couple stirs at the beginning once added to the boiling water so it doesn’t stick together.
  • Don’t add oil – Contrary to popular belief, adding oil to the pasta pot does not prevent sticking. It’s unnecessary and can prevent sauce from adhering later.
  • Reserve starchy water – Before draining, scoop out about a cup of the starchy pasta cooking water. It can be added to the sauce for extra flavor and texture.
  • Don’t overcook – Taste a minute or two before the suggested cooking time to avoid overcooked, mushy pasta. It should be al dente (slightly firm).

What are the steps for making a basic red sauce?

Making a simple, delicious red sauce involves just a few steps:

  1. Sauté aromatics: Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add tomatoes: Pour in canned diced tomatoes including all juices. Or add chopped fresh tomatoes if using.
  3. Simmer: Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer. Partially cover and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Season: Add herbs, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
  5. Finish with basil: Remove from heat. Roughly chop fresh basil leaves and stir in just before serving.

Tips for the best red sauce flavor:

  • Cook low and slow – A slow simmer allows the flavors to develop fully.
  • Use quality olive oil – The flavor will come through. Extra virgin is best.
  • Add fresh herbs at the end – Delicate basil and parsley burn if cooked too long.
  • Season correctly – Under seasoning is a common mistake. Add enough salt, pepper, herbs and spices for robust flavor.

What extras can elevate pasta and red sauce?

Once you’ve nailed the basics, try mixing up your pasta night with creative additions. Here are some tasty ideas:

Addition How to Prepare
Meatballs Pan fry frozen meatballs before adding to sauce, or make your own baked Italian-seasoned meatballs.
Sausage Cook crumbled Italian sausage in the sauce while simmering.
Chicken Sauté chopped chicken breast or thighs in garlic and olive oil, then add to sauce.
Shrimp Sauté shrimp in the sauce at the end until opaque and cooked through.
Mushrooms Sauté sliced mushrooms in olive oil before adding to sauce.
Olives Chop olives and stir into finished sauce just before serving.
Spinach Stir chopped spinach into sauce at the end until wilted.
Fresh mozzarella Top pasta with sliced fresh mozzarella just before serving so it melts slightly.

What are quick recipe ideas for easy weeknight pasta?

For busy home cooks, try these fast and simple pasta recipes made with pantry staples:

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

  • Sauté garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil
  • Toss with cooked spaghetti, parsley, lemon zest, Parmesan

Penne with Canned Tomatoes

  • Simmer canned diced tomatoes, olive oil, garlic
  • Toss with penne, fresh mozzarella, basil

Rotini with Creamy Tomato Sauce

  • Purée canned tomatoes, stir in cream cheese, seasonings
  • Toss with rotini, top with Parmesan

What are the best pasta and sauce pairings?

Matching pasta shapes to sauces can maximize the flavor and texture of your dish. Consider these perfect pairings:

Pasta Shape Best Sauces
Penne, rigatoni Chunky meat sauces, olive oil or cream-based
Spaghetti, linguine Smooth, thin tomato or olive oil-based
Fusilli, farfalle Pestos, vegetable sauces, cheese sauces
Lasagna, manicotti Meat sauces, creamy cheese sauces

General pairing guidelines:

  • Smooth sauces for long pasta
  • Chunkier sauces for shorter cuts and tubes
  • Thick and heavy sauces for thick pasta
  • Delicate sauces for thin strands


With high quality ingredients and a few easy preparation tips, pasta and red sauce can become a go-to dinner you look forward to. Spend time simmering the sauce to build deep flavor. Cook the pasta correctly for perfect texture. And feel free to customize with mix-ins to match your tastes. With practice, you’ll be able to whip up a restaurant-worthy pasta dinner at home any night of the week.