Whether it’s all covered in cheese or tossed with a deliciously simple sauce, spaghetti is a weeknight staple for good reason. Top those long, thin noodles with a bright tomato sauce and you’ve got homemade comfort in half an hour. Taste of Home Test Cook Lauren Knoelke shares her tips and tricks for making simply perfect spaghetti, every time.
1. Choose your ingredients.
You’ll want about 2 pounds of tomatoes for the sauce. Lauren says plum tomatoes (also known as Roma tomatoes) are ideal for sauces because they are meatier and less watery, and they don’t have as many seeds inside. You’ll get more flavor from them and you can just chop and go—no deseeding needed! When it comes to choosing an onion for the sauce, go for something sweeter, like Vidalia, for a more subtle flavor. Sweeter onions really let the taste of fresh tomato shine through!
2. Chop away.
Dice the tomatoes and onion. If you have a large food processor, make it easy on yourself: Quarter the tomatoes and give them a quick pulse in the food processor instead of chopping by hand. If you like a smoother sauce, process the tomatoes longer. And if you don’t have a food processor, chopping by hand is a good excuse to practice your knife skills!
As for the onion, check out this handy video that shows you how to get evenly chopped onions every time:
3. Slice the basil.
Use the chiffonade method (it sounds fancy but is so simple): Just stack 1/4 cup of fresh basil leaves from largest to smallest, roll up the stack with the biggest leaf on the outside, then slice the bundle into thin ribbons. You can’t get more efficient than that!
4. Cook your spaghetti noodles.
Use a large pot when boiling noodles—pasta expands while cooking, and you want to be sure it will all fit in the pot by the time it’s done. Add a little salt to the water to boost the pasta’s flavor—2 teaspoons per quart should be enough. Let the water come to a full boil before adding the spaghetti. As it’s boiling in the pot, give it a couple of stirs. This will prevent the pasta from sticking or cooking unevenly.
Follow the directions on the pasta packaging for cook time, but once it’s drained, don’t rinse it! The starch on the outside helps the sauce cling to the noodles. If the sauce isn’t ready yet but the pasta is, pour a cup of the starchy cooking water in with the noodles to prevent them from sticking too much.
5. Saute and simmer.
Grab a stockpot, add olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Stir in the diced tomatoes, salt and pepper, and bring it all to a boil. After it’s boiling, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce has thickened up nicely. To make it even thicker, add a splash of pasta water and stir through. The shorter cook time for this sauce means a fresher tomato flavor! You can always keep simmering away for another hour or so, but the result will temper the brightness of those lovely fresh tomatoes.
6. Toss and top.
When the sauce is ready, stir in the basil and—if you like it on the sweeter side—a little sugar to taste. Lightly toss the sauce with the drained spaghetti. When it’s time to eat, top with Romano cheese and extra basil.
Pump Up Your Pasta Sauce
This tomato sauce is super simple and fresh, but it also makes a great base sauce if you want to build the flavor to your own taste. Get creative, or try any of the following add-ins to make this sauce your own:
- Red pepper flakes
- Heavy cream
- Black olives
- Chopped anchovies
- Flavored olive oil
- Fresh oregano
- Lemon zest
- A splash of red or white wine
- Cooked Italian sausage
How to Grate, Shred and Shave Cheese
We love Romano cheese on top of our pasta, but pecorino, Parmesan or other hard cheeses taste awesome on spaghetti, too. For the freshest flavor and an aromatic boost, it’s always best to buy a big hunk of cheese and grate, shred or shave your own (and maybe snack on a slice while waiting on the sauce to simmer). Whether you like it extra fine or in large shaves on top, here’s how to do it yourself:
Grating: Use a Microplane or rotary grater (like the ones toted around by waiters in Italian restaurants) to grate the cheese into very fine pieces atop the spaghetti.
Shredding: A box grater has larger holes than a Microplane or rotary grater, and will shred the cheese into larger pieces. Typically, softer cheeses like mozzarella or Havarti shred well with a box grater. If you have a food processor with a shredding disk, this is a super easy and quick way to shred larger quantities of cheese.
Shaving: Use the large oblong holes of a box grater to make cheese shavings. Or use Lauren’s trick: Lightly run a vegetable peeler over the hunk of cheese to make thin, impressive-looking cheese shaves.