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6 Quick Pasta Sauces Every Cook Should Know

By Elizabeth Bomze Published

We retooled a week's worth of classic sauces to cook on busy nights.

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.")

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.