Tips for Mastering Weeknight Pasta from 10 Pro Home Cooks
Pasta is the answer to almost any weeknight dinner dilemma. It’s the nearly effortless solution to feeding the whole table, and can be a delicious way to use up all the bits and bobs lingering in the fridge.
To get some inspiration we asked 10 seasoned home cooks to share their best secrets for easy, delicious, and totally satisfying weeknight pasta dinners. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Olive oil, garlic & cheese is the holy pasta trinity.
I always think simple is best when it comes to pasta (and life in general). Sauté whatever vegetable you have in plenty of olive oil and garlic and toss with cooked pasta and some grated cheese. Done and done.
2. Anchovies & capers are small but mighty.
I almost always have a jar of oil-packed anchovies in my pantry, and a jar of capers in my fridge. Both go a long way in punching up store-bought sauce. I just sauté a couple of anchovies along with plenty of garlic and olive oil, throw in about a tablespoon of drained capers, and then pour in the jarred stuff. The anchovies lend salt and umami without the kids even knowing they’re in the sauce, while the capers add bursts of briny saltiness that the kids hunt for in each bite.
3. Toasted breadcrumbs are like sprinkles for your pasta.
When it comes to giving weeknight pasta an instant upgrade, breadcrumbs are probably the simplest for me. I take a couple slices of whatever bread I have in the freezer; break them into chunks; and throw them in the food processor with a clove of garlic, some fresh herbs like parsley and oregano, and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. I process that until it’s fine, toast it on a sheet pan, and throw it over a finished plate of pasta. It’s crunchy and flavorful and folds well into any type of noodle!
4. Tomato paste is a saucing secret weapon.
I would say the secret to making pasta that can be equally adored by grown-ups and my sometimes-picky kids is sauce. Not just tomato sauce, either! I love pesto, tomato paste, hummus, olive tapenade, and even harissa for finishing pasta, because I can put sauce on the side for kids and toss grown-up servings in something extra tasty.
Tomato paste is one of my secret weapons because it has a concentrated flavor but can give pasta that “just barely sauced” look that my kids tend to prefer.
5. Angel hair is a true angel on busy weeknights.
When pressed for time, pick a thin pasta shape (the length doesn’t matter). Angel hair is a weeknight cook’s best friend. Want smaller pieces? Break it up. I avoid thick pasta like fusilli, macaroni, or even orzo — they are small but it’s all about the thickness.
In a pinch, ignore the cardinal rule of using a giant pot of boiling water. It takes quite a while to come to a boil. Use a flatter, wider saucepan to heat the water. The surface area is increased so it comes to a boil much faster. I prefer a wide pot that is at least 4 inches tall, and make sure to fill with at least 3 inches of salted water.
6. Pasta cooking water is liquid gold.
Using a bit of the cooking water to help form a sauce is a trick that you will rely on forever. The little bit of starch in the cooking water helps the sauce thicken, and also helps bind the sauce to the pasta.
With this tip in mind, you can forage in your fridge, find all of those bits and pieces that won’t really stand on their own as a side dish, and use them all up. Fresh vegetables and herbs, a leftover cup of roasted squash or Broccolini, bits of cheese that need a purpose, a splash from that open bottle of wine, a spoonful or two of that pesto or tapenade, and then a little broth, maybe, and a half cup (or more) of that beautiful pasta cooking liquid. Weeknight pasta dinner, done.
The best way to upgrade basic buttered noodles is to upgrade your butter. One way to do this is with compound butter. If you’re tossing noodles in butter, or finishing noodles with some just before serving, using butter that is already mingled with other ingredients will catapult you to a new zone of flavor. Another way is to use better-quality butter. Whether that means a high-end buffalo butter from Italy or standard cow’s-milk butter from your farmers market, you will be doing your pasta a huge favor.”
8. Saffron is the tomato sauce whisperer.
You can never go wrong with a simple, comforting tomato-based sauce for pasta. But when I’m in need of an extra dash of nuanced flavor, fragrance, love, and poetry, I like to reach for the saffron jar in my Persian-inspired spice drawer. The sunset-hued saffron brings the tomato sauce to life. Crumble about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads and steep in 2 tablespoons just-boiled water for about five minutes. Add the saffron water to your tomato sauce and simmer as usual. You can also spruce up jarred tomato sauce in the same manner.
9. Baked pasta is the answer to everything.
Baked pasta has been a huge hit for us. It can be made ahead, which is key since our after-school schedule often needs to be a well-organized military operation. It’s also a win for packing school lunches because I always make more than we need for dinner so that I can fill people’s thermoses the night before and feel a little more relaxed in the mornings. We have a trying-to-reform picky eater in our midst who loves pasta but isn’t so excited about vegetables, and pasta is a great way to get some greens into his life while he eats something familiar.
10. Leftover lentils are meatless marvels.
I love to add lentils to marinara sauce (either canned or freshly cooked). The flavors work great together, and they’re an easy way to bulk up pasta with more protein, fiber, and nutrients.