You might notice how the tomato sauce clings beautifully to pasta when you go to a nice Italian restaurant. Instead of all sitting at the bottom of your plate or bowl, the sauce stays with the spaghetti, penne or whatever pasta you prefer.
If you’re anything like me, the sauce and pasta never seem to stick together when you cook at home. Even when I make a from-scratch tomato sauce, I struggle to make a sauce that thickens enough to stand up to my pasta dishes.
Several cooking experts say there’s one sure-fire method to solve that watered-down sauce problem. And you can even transform a jarred sauce into something much better than a last-resort ingredient.
When you mix butter with your pasta sauce, you’ll make an emulsion that can easily elevate your pasta dish.
In culinary circles, an emulsion is a mixture of two ingredients, usually liquids, that ordinarily do not blend together. The most common example is oil and water. When blending two normally incompatible ingredients, a thickening reaction happens.
Allrecipes shared an easy-to-follow process for creating an emulsion that will make you feel like a gourmet cook with just a little time and patience. After you cook your pasta (al dente — we’ll get to that below) and reserving some of the cooking water, use the same pan to bring just a half cup of your sauce to a simmer, then add a dab of very cold butter. Keep an eye out for beads of fat forming in your sauce, and add another half a tablespoon of butter if it isn’t thickening. Ultimately, you want to be able to scrape your spoon along the bottom of the pot and see the bottom for a moment before it fills back in with sauce. Then you mix the pasta into your emulsified sauce, adding some of the starchy reserved water back in as needed.
The instructions stress the importance of keeping the butter cold until it goes into the sauce. The temperature difference between the butter and lightly simmering tomato sauce will allow the butter to melt slowly and let it blend with the water-based sauce more easily.
Honestly, what doesn’t butter make better? But when it comes to pasta sauce, it’s not about the taste as much as the texture.
It’s also essential to have the pasta slightly undercooked, or al dente, to promote that lovely clinging quality you want your sauce to have.
Many pastas have instructions for cooking al dente on the packaging, but if yours doesn’t, you can also lower the cooking time on any package directions by up to three minutes to get the texture needed. The pasta should have a little bite to it when you taste-test it from the pot. This is important because the pasta will continue to cook in the sauce when you stir it into the sauce pot.
The combination of perfectly cooked pasta and an emulsified tomato sauce will produce an Italian meal worth staying home to make and eat. Enjoy!