5 of the Easiest Pasta Sauces Every Home Cook Should Know

updated Sep 8, 2019
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Go to just about any Italian restaurant and you’ll see a handful of staple pasta dishes like bolognese and alfredo. Those essentials please just about anyone, so it’s wise to get to know them in your own kitchen.

These five basic sauces can dress up any size and shape pasta, be it spaghetti, penne, or ravioli. Add them to your repertoire and you’ll have a solid foundation to lean on when pasta night comes around.

The Basics of Cooking a Better Pot of Pasta

Here’s the main thing we want to pass along: Pasta sauce doesn’t need to be fussy or complicated to be good. Actually, the best ones are tried and true; it’s the sauce you’ve made so many times that you know it like the back of your hand. Pick one or two basic sauces that excite you and then learn them and use them, and you’ll love them every time that you do.

Not only will memorizing a sauce recipe act as a dinner backup plan you’ll always have in your back pocket, but you may also even become known for your sauce.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a serious life goal of mine.

Cook your pasta right!

Pasta noodles are as much of an important player in your pasta dinner as the sauce itself. Treat it as such and you’re automatically headed toward a better pot of pasta.

Read how to do it: How To Cook Dried Pasta

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

5 Classic Sauces Worth Memorizing

1. Marinara

A simple tomato sauce will never go out of style. A can or two of good tomatoes, a lot of garlic, and a bit of fresh herbs, simmered together until your kitchen smells like an Italian restaurant, is effortless comfort food at its very best. While a jar of marinara will do just fine in a pinch, it’s hard to beat homemade sauce. This classic recipes requires just five ingredients and takes only 20 minutes to make.

How to use it: Spaghetti is king when it comes to marinara, but penne or ziti is a close second, since some of the sauce can nestle inside those short shapes so you get plenty of it with each bite.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

2. Ragù

Amp up that marinara sauce with ground meat and you’ve got a hearty ragù on your hands. The best meat sauces are simmered low and slow, so the juices from the meat have plenty of time to flavor the sauce. The result is a deeply flavored sauce that carries meaty richness in every bite. Spend a lazy afternoon watching it on the stove or let it do its thing in the slow cooker.

How to use it: Tagliatelle is the most classic pairing with a traditional ragù like Bolognese. The wide noodles — similar to fettuccine, which you can also use — won’t get weighed down by the ground meat. Although creamy polenta isn’t pasta, it’s also a wonderful bed for ragù.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

3. Pesto

The bright, fresh mix of basil, garlic, olive oil, nuts, and cheese is an easy favorite. Knowing how to make a straightforward basil pesto will not only give you a quick pasta sauce to add to your repertoire, but also have something to dress up pizza, swipe on sandwiches, and even add to chicken salad.

How to use it: Fusilli, orecchiette, and penne catch the rough texture of pesto sauce quite well in their nooks and crannies. Although if all you have is spaghetti, you’ll be just satisfied with your meal.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

4. Brown Butter

Brown butter is the one-ingredient pasta sauce that’s equal parts fast and fancy — it’s nutty, rich, and decadent. It comes together in minutes and makes just about any bowl of noodles feel a little fancy. Simply melt butter in a saucepan and cook it for a few extra minutes until it smells nutty and has a toasted-brown hue.

How to use it: Pretty much any pasta shape will benefit from a bath in luxe brown butter. Ravioli is particularly lovely.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

5. Alfredo

It’s hard to deny the pleasure of this classic cream sauce bolstered with butter and Parmesan. Don’t save decadent Alfredo sauce for a night at your local Italian restaurant — it’s quite simple to make at home and can be enjoyed as is or with a topping of chicken.

How to use it: Fettuccine, no question. Or go rogue and use it as a sauce for pizza.