The Pasta Sauce Conundrum

Two or three times a month, my family enjoys an evening meal that features pasta of some kind. We might enjoy spaghetti or lasagna or something else, depending on the mood.

However, when I go to the store to buy pasta sauce, I absolutely cringe at the prices. The “cheap” sauces are loaded with high fructose corn syrup and taste overly sweet. Some of the other sauces taste great, but you’re paying $7 (or more) for a single jar of the sauce.

Sure, such sauce is convenient, but it really adds up quick. If you buy the cheap stuff at $2 per jar, you’re adding a ton of corn syrup to your diet – even more than soda in some of the sauces.

We try to follow the Mayo Clinic guidelines when it comes to both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup – they recommend limiting all sweeteners to six teaspoons a day for women and nine for men for good health. If a significant part of that is coming in your pasta sauce, it becomes really easy to overshoot things.

On the other hand, if you buy the more expensive stuff, you’re eating better but you’re knocking back $7 per jar. If you do that every week, that’s $30 a month (on average).

Eventually, I got frustrated enough with this that I simply decided to start making it myself. It’s actually quite easy, though you can make it as complex as you want to.

In the easiest mode, you simply buy a large container of Italian seasoning ($3 will get you enough to last for a long time), a bit of salt, and a jar of tomato sauce ($1 or so). Heat up the tomato sauce and add a few teaspoons of seasoning to the sauce, then let it simmer very, very gently for five to ten minutes. The flavors of the seasoning will seep into the sauce. After the first purchase, you won’t need seasoning again for a while, so your cost is about $1.

We often have a herb garden in the summer and fall, so during those seasons, we use fresh spices instead such as basil and oregano. We just finely chop those spices and use them instead of the Italian seasoning, as described above. We just keep adding various things until we like the taste.

Another approach to increase nutrition and flavor variety is to add whatever vegetables you have on hand. Add meat, red wine, garlic, carrots, red peppers, celery, spinach, zucchini, cauliflower – chopped finely, of course. Add the harder vegetables first and allow them to simmer for several minutes before adding softer ones. I generally like to cook them until their texture is consistent in the sauce, but you can certainly leave pieces to provide texture.

If you’re willing to put in a little extra work to make an unbelievably good but also inexpensive pasta sauce, use whole tomatoes. You can get them inexpensively by simply growing your own. Turning tomatoes into sauce is easy – just (gently) drop whole tomatoes into boiling water for a minute, pull them out, remove the skins, and squeeze out the seeds (most come out from a gentle squeezing of the tomato). Then, toss them into a blender and puree them. This provides a much fresher taste than tomato sauce from a can.

One approach I like to take is to make several batches of this at once. I’ll heat up a few quarts of tomato sauce and keep adding spices to taste. Then, I’ll break it down by putting a pint at a time into small freezer containers, giving us several frozen bags or containers of pasta sauce in the freezer. When we need sauce, we just grab a container the day before and put it in the refrigerator to thaw. Of course, you can also can the tomato sauce, which enables you to store the sauce without the need for a freezer.

Making your own sauce in advance (and it doesn’t take long at all) turns the actual use of the sauce into a convenient process, just like buying a jar at the store – and it’s usually quite a bit cheaper and healthier.

In particular, if you plan this when tomato sauce or whole tomatoes are on sale at the store – or you wait until you have a large crop of tomatoes from your garden – you can drop the price of your pasta sauce right through the floor.

Pasta sauce is just another example of how a little bit of extra effort in the kitchen can quickly translate into significant savings. It doesn’t take much longer to actually make pasta sauce yourself than it does to warm up pasta sauce that you’ve purchased – and it’s far cheaper to make it yourself. Plus, when you get familiar with the seasonings, you can make it exactly to your liking, rather than just living with whatever’s on sale at the store.

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