5 Key Tips for Making Weeknight Pasta Without Opening a Jar of Sauce

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Pasta is the fall-back dinner I keep in my meal plan. Beyond the obvious selling points of being quick, simple, and inexpensive, it’s one more way to get more veggies on the table and clean out the fridge.

But I don’t just open a jar of sauce and call it a night. With a few basic guiding steps and smart tips, I know I can transform an assortment of bits and bobs into a simple and delicious restaurant-style weeknight pasta — no jar of pasta sauce in sight.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

5 Key Tips for Better Weeknight Pasta

1. Start by using less water.

Stop adding water to that big pot with reckless abandon and stop following the cooking instructions on the box of spaghetti. Hear me out!

Starchy pasta water is a boon to any sauce. It’s the finishing touch that pulls sauce together, giving it body, lushness, and velvety texture that helps it cling to the pasta. People often cook their pasta in too much water, which dilutes the starchiness. Cooking pasta in less water means more starch, and more starch means really good things for your sauce.

As a rule of thumb, choose a four-quart Dutch oven or stockpot for eight ounces of pasta and fill it about halfway full with water. This size pot is large enough so that there’s no overcrowding and wide enough to allow long-strand pastas like spaghetti and linguine to slip under the water once they soften.

Also, put less time on the clock and do not follow the instructions on the box. The key to perfectly cooked pasta is to cook it for two minutes less than the package instructions. This is how to avoid mushy, overcooked pasta since it will finish cooking in the skillet when it gets swirled with the sauce.

Add eight ounces of dried pasta to the boiling water and cook for two minutes less than the package instructions. Before draining, reserve one cup of the starchy water to be used for the sauce. Salt the pot of water generously — and don’t worry too much about it needing to taste like the ocean.

2. Then, grab a wide, high-sided skillet for better pan sauces.

Here’s a tip that’s going to instantly change the way you make your pasta: Ditch the compact saucepan. Borrowing from the way restaurants do their pasta, you’re gonna want to get out your widest skillet (preferably with high sides, so the pasta doesn’t spill over when you toss it with the sauce — but more on that in a minute!) to make the sauce and finish the pasta. The wide surface area of a skillet outranks what you’ll get from a pot.

The gold standard: All-Clad 3 Quart Sauté Pan

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

3. Follow this basic formula for a quick pan sauce.

It is a common misconception that homemade pasta sauce is a fussy process that involves a lot of time and ingredients. In reality, it’s not that much more work than heating jarred sauce, and it can be so much more satisfying. The basic template for any pasta sauce includes the following: aromatics, something acidic, fat, pasta water, and something salty.

A basic template for any sauce
aromatics + acid + fat + pasta water + salty things

  • 1 to 2 aromatic ingredients: 1 diced onion or 2 shallots, plus a couple cloves of minced garlic. These are sautéed until soft with a tablespoon of olive oil.
  • 1/2 cup something acidic: White wine, white wine vinegar, crushed tomatoes, or lemon juice. The tang lends a pop of flavor and gives the sauce some depth.
  • 2 tablespoons something fatty: Unsalted butter or ghee give the sauce body and a touch of richness.
  • 1/2 cup pasta water: Pasta water is the key ingredient that helps thicken the sauce and cling to the pasta.
  • 1 to 2 salty thing: 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or a couple tablespoons of capers. Toss these into the sauce at the end of cooking, or spoon over the finished pasta.

As the pasta cooks, get the sauce started in the skillet. Sauté the aromatics with a glug of olive oil until they soften. Pour in the acidic ingredient, and cook until the sauce is reduced by about half, before stirring in the fatty ingredient and pasta water. Once it’s combined, the sauce is ready for the pasta to be mixed in. Save adding the salty ingredients for the very end of cooking.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

4. Always use tongs to toss pasta like you mean it.

No matter the shape or the type of sauce, the best way to marry the pasta with sauce is by adding it to the skillet, and tossing it all together with a pair of tongs. Tongs allow you to lift and toss, making sure every inch of pasta is swathed with a coating of sauce.

And remember how you trimmed the cook time off the pasta? This is why. It will finish cooking in the skillet as you mix it with the sauce.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

5. And finally, be strategic & generous about vegetables.

Pasta dinners are basically an open invitation to get more vegetables on the table, and any and all vegetables are fair game. I often pair a mix of sturdy and delicate vegetables for some different textures and flavors.

Sturdy fresh vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots add a contrasting crunch and toothsome texture, while choices like mushrooms, eggplant, and peas lend a meaty quality that makes pasta feel more substantial. Leafy greens are wonderful for adding a pop of freshness.

For Pasta That Serves 2 to 4 People

For a simple balanced pasta, try six ounces of sliced mushrooms and five ounces of leafy greens, like spinach, chard, or kale.

  • Six ounces sturdy fresh vegetables (sliced mushrooms, diced eggplant, small broccoli or cauliflower florets, zucchini chunks): Sauté along with the aromatics when starting the sauce. As a rule of thumb, add any firm or sturdy vegetables to the skillet at the same time you sauté the aromatics for the sauce. This way they’ll have plenty of time to soften and mellow their bite.
  • Five ounces delicate fresh vegetables (leafy greens, peas): Stir into the sauce and pasta in the last minute of cooking. When adding delicate vegetables or leafy greens, stir them into the skillet with the pasta and sauce in the last minute of cooking.

A note on frozen vegetables: You can always use them in place of fresh — just add them to the pot of boiling pasta in the last minute or two of cooking.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

For years, spaghetti and a jar of sauce was what I reached for when I didn’t think I had it in me to cook. But what I’ve learned from experience is that this method doesn’t ask for a whole lot more effort and the reward is a meal that is infinitely more delicious. Even on the nights you don’t have the energy to cook, this is quick and simple enough to pull off.

Ready to leave that jar of sauce in the pantry and give it a try? How do you make a no-recipe pan sauce for pasta? Tell us in the comments!