Five Perfect Pasta Sauces

Certain recipes are worth perfecting. We think these five pasta sauces are at the top of the list.

If you’re looking for delicious Italian fare, you can’t beat the simple pleasure of a well-prepared traditional sauce, like the five we’re sharing. “Each features a unique flavor profile,” says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®. “If you can master these five sauces, you can build on them simply by adding a few key ingredients for variety.”

Marinara

Traditionally made with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and a hint of garlic, marinara sauce depends on the flavor of good-quality seasonal tomatoes to make an impact. “This is a great sauce to make in warm-weather months,” says Dan, “because the tomatoes are the flavor star. They carry the dish.” Another reason to love marinara sauce: it cooks quickly. Just heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil and some garlic to taste in a saucepan; add fresh chopped Roma tomatoes, fresh chopped basil, and salt; simmer for about 20 minutes; and serve. “Once you get the hang of preparing a basic marinara, try adding roasted eggplant to the sauce,” suggests Dan. “It’s delicious!”

Meat Sauce

Simmered meat sauces and ragùs are heartier fare, and none is quite as flavorful as a rich Bolognese. “This sauce relies on the flavor of the meat—pork, beef, veal, or a combination—to stand out,” says Dan. “It’s quite honestly my favorite sauce.” Start by sautéing vegetables—onion, carrot, pepper, celery, in whatever combination you like—until soft. Then crumble in your meat; add crushed tomatoes or tomato paste, salt, pepper, spices like basil and chili powder, and maybe a touch of dry red wine; and simmer. Traditional Bolognese is finished with a swirl of cream (you can also use milk) and a handful of Parmesan cheese. Allow the sauce to simmer until thick and richly flavored, about 10 to 15 minutes. To experiment with flavor, try adding mushrooms or bacon.

Pesto

Fresh basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil—it’s really that easy. “This is another sauce that is dependent on the freshness and seasonal availability of its ingredients,” says Dan. Pulse two handfuls of basil and 1/3 cup of pine nuts in a food processor. Add minced garlic and about ½ cup of olive oil. Blend well. Finish with ½ cup of grated Parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cream sauce

“There is a time and a place for cream,” says Dan. “Don’t skimp on the ingredients—if I’m going to make an Alfredo sauce, I don’t hold back on cream.” Traditionally made with cream, butter, and Parmesan cheese, Alfredo is often paired with fettuccini or tortellini. For variety, add steamed asparagus, peas, or broccoli to Alfredo sauce before serving.

Garlic and oil

“This simple, flavorful sauce can stand alone or easily serve as a foundation for other ingredients,” says Dan. Start with 6 minced garlic cloves sautéed in ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil until soft. Dan often completes the ingredients with a splash of white wine and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Sautéed vegetables, Italian sausage and broccoli rabe, fresh seafood, or white beans and spinach are delicious additions.