8 Ways to Make Any Pasta Sauce Instantly More Amazing

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Pasta with basic tomato sauce is a weekly — ok, sometimes nightly — occurrence in our house. To keep things interesting, I’ll finish the sauce off with…well, whatever happens to be in the fridge! Here are a few of my favorite finishing touches for a simple bowl of pasta.

I use these add-ins to finish quick stove-top tomato sauces all the time, but they can work well with just about any sauce you’re making, or even become the sauce itself. Cheese and dairy give sauces creaminess while butter and oil give them richness. You also don’t need to use a lot — these are just for finishing and rounding out the flavors in a sauce.

  1. Whole Milk or Heavy Cream: Add a splash and let the sauce simmer for a few minutes to thicken.
  2. Hard Cheeses: A half cup of grated parmesan, pecorino, or other hard cheese adds a deep savory note to the sauce.
  3. Fresh Cheese: Try adding a scoop of ricotta, mascarpone, crème fraîche or even simple cream cheese! I especially love these when I don’t feel like making a tomato sauce — just sauté some greens, toss with pasta, and fold in the cheese until creamy.
  4. Fresh Basil: A handful of basil ribbons sprinkled over each bowls adds a punch of aroma and tastes like being in Italy.
  5. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: Drizzle just a little of your best olive oil over the pasta before serving and you’ll be amazed at how much flavor it adds. Try flavored oils, too!
  6. Butter: This is an old culinary school trick — when in doubt, add a pat of butter. This makes even the most basic sauce taste decadent.
  7. Red or White Wine: A little for the pot, a little for the cook. Wine adds acidity and an instant flavor-boost to a pot of simple sauce.
  8. Pasta Water: Scoop out some of the cooking water just before draining out the pasta. A few tablespoons of this starchy liquid is a low-calorie way of adding creaminess to any sauce.

What other last-minute additions do you put in your pasta sauces?

Originally published April 20, 2010.