Shopping for Pasta Sauce

There are many varieties of pre-made sauces available in food stores and specialty shops that can be used with all varieties of pasta. Experimenting with the pre-made sauces will be the best way to determine what fits your personal preference. There are also sauces and pastes that can be used to add to your own sauce to enrich the flavor. Some of the flavorings you will find in these products are tomato, garlic, pesto, mushroom, and olive. These products add convenience to the sauce making process. Although there are many pre-made products available, many people prefer making their own sauce.

When pairing pasta and sauce, there are some general guidelines that will help you make a good match. Generally the thinner, more delicate varieties are served with a light sauce and the larger, more bulky pastas can be served with the heavier, chunky sauces. See Pasta Types - Pasta Sauces for information on what type of sauce is best matched with different varieties of pasta. Some of the basic types of sauce are oil or butter sauce, tomato sauce, cream sauce, cheese sauce, meat sauce, pesto, and broth. It requires many different ingredients to prepare the various sauces. Check the recipe before going to shop for the ingredients so you are aware of everything necessary to prepare the sauce. Shown below are some of the standard ingredients required by the basic sauce recipes and what to be aware of when purchasing these ingredients. Ingredient quantities are based on sauce for one pound of pasta.

Olive Oil

When using olive oil as the base for your sauce you will want to use good quality oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is the best quality olive oil and is generally used for dressings and sauces. Other grades of olive oil, such as virgin olive oil, pure olive oil, or regular olive oil are generally used for cooking. The extra-virgin olive oil will bring out the flavor of other ingredients in the sauce, such as garlic, herbs, meats and vegetables. It requires approximately 1/3 cup of oil to sufficiently coat one pound of pasta. You want enough oil to coat every piece of pasta without ending up with a puddle of oil at the bottom of the dish when it is finished. If you feel the pasta is too dry once the sauce is tossed with it, you can add a little fresh olive oil to help spread the sauce further.

Garlic

Choose a head of garlic to produce four or five cloves to be finely crushed or minced. Choose a firm, fresh head of garlic that does not contain any green sprouts. The head should be free of spots and the skin should be attached. Other forms of garlic are available, such as flakes, powder and paste, can be used but fresh garlic will offer the best flavor. If purchasing fresh garlic, store in a cool dry place away from sunlight but do not refrigerate fresh garlic.

Herbs

There are many herbs that can be used when making pasta sauce. Herbs can be found fresh and dried. Generally fresh herbs will give you the best flavor but they may not always be available. Fresh herbs should be crisp and have good coloring. Avoid herbs that are damaged or blemished.

Cheese

Choosing the right cheese for a cream sauce or cheese sauce is very important to making a good sauce. Some sauces may include only one cheese whereas others may require a combination of several different varieties. The quality of cheese will determine the quality of the sauce it is added to. Some cheese shops will let you taste test a sample of cheese before buying so you can be sure it is the quality you are looking for. Some of the best quality cheeses are expensive, so you may only want to purchase the amount you need.

If adding cheese to a creamy cheese sauce, you will need to add approximately 1 cup of grated cheese. If it is going to be added to another type of sauce, such as a tomato sauce or a chunky vegetable sauce, you will need approximately ½ cup of grated cheese. There are an endless variety of cheeses available, which are suitable to be used in pasta sauce. You can purchase the variety called for in your recipe or you can experiment with different varieties. Listed below are some varieties that work well in pasta sauces.


 
Cheeses for Pasta Sauce

Asiago

A type of Italian cheese made from cow's milk that has a mild nutty flavor with a hint of sharpness. As an aged cheese it makes a good grating cheese. Asiago fresco is a variety of Asiago that is only slightly aged and it is softer in texture. Asiago fresco has a slightly milder flavor and makes a good melting cheese.

Bel Paese

An Italian cheese with a pale yellow color, soft texture, and mild flavor. It makes a good melting cheese that can be substituted for mozzarella. It is not as sweet and tasteful as mozzarella but adds a mild flavor when added to pasta dishes.
Caciotta An Italian semi-hard cheese that has a creamy texture and a flavor that ranges from mild to tangy as it ages. It is produced from sheep's milk or occasionally it is produced with a blend of sheep and cow's milk. It goes well with mild vegetable sauces.

Fontina

An Italian cheese made from unpasteurized cow's milk. Fontina has a pale straw color, a semi-firm, creamy texture, and a slightly nutty and buttery flavor. The best fontina is produced in the Val d'Aosta region of northwestern Italy. To be assured that you are purchasing true fontina, look for a light brown rind stamped with "Fontina dalla Val'Aosta." It is a very good melting cheese and works well in cheese sauces, vegetable sauces and lasagne.

Gorgonzola

A creamy, pale yellow Italian cheese with streaks of blue veining, which is made from cow's milk. It is named for the town in Italy where it originated. This creamy blue cheese is sold both young and aged, and they both make an excellent melting cheese. They add great flavor to tomato sauces, creamy vegetable sauces, and make a cheese sauce that goes well with fresh egg pasta.

Mascarpone

An Italian cheese that is basically solidified cream, which has been coagulated and whipped into a silky smooth consistency. It is used to enhance the richness of sauces. It can be used as a substitute for cream but must be added at the end of the cooking process and heated slowly or it may separate. It is a fresh cheese so it is very perishable and needs to be used one or two days within the date of purchase.

Mozzarella


A rindless white creamy Italian cheese, which has a mild taste and is available in varying degrees of firmness. Historically, the cheese was made from water buffalo's milk, but now it is more common to be commercially produced with whole milk or a mix of goat and cow's milk. Mozzarella cheese is not aged, instead it is sold fresh, however, "fresh" may be interpreted differently depending on what market it is produced for. Mozzarella produced as a food store brand, is firmer and less moist than mozzarella produced for specialty stores and cheese sellers. Fresh cheese produced for food stores is available in several common forms, which vary in firmness and flavor. Despite its somewhat bland taste, mozzarella is favored as a melting cheese that forms an elastic, chewy texture. When heated it develops a flavor that is delicate and slightly sour, with a milk-like freshness. For the best quality cream or cheese sauces, use fresh mozzarella, rather than the food store brands.

Parmesan

A hard Italian cheese that is thick-crusted and made from cow's milk. It is aged up to two years, resulting in a sharp, salty, full flavored cheese. It can be purchased already grated or in block form to allow fresh grated cheese when needed. Buy in block form and grate as needed to ensure best flavor since grated cheese will lose some flavor after it sits for a period of time. Parmesan cheese melts easily but does not become rubbery. Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered to be the best of the Parmesan cheeses.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

Considered to be the best of the Parmesan cheeses. Generally used in a grated form and provides the most flavor when freshly grated. It is a mellow tannish yellow color and has a tough, yellow to gold colored rind, which will have its name stamped on it if it is a true Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese has a rich, strong, fruity flavor with a texture that is grainy and brittle when aged. Parmigiano-Reggiano makes a good cheese for delicate pasta dishes or in light cream sauces because it does not become runny or rubbery when melted.

Pecorino

An Italian cheese made from sheep's milk, which is available fresh or aged. The fresh Pecorino cheese is a soft, white cheese with a mild flavor called Ricotto Pecorino. The most popular of the aged Pecorino is the Pecorino Romano, which has a hard yellow rind with a yellowish white interior. Two other popular aged Pecorino cheeses are Pecorino Sardo and Pecorino Toscano. Aged Pecorino has a salty, tangier flavor than fresh. Pecorino cheese is a good grating cheese and melts nicely in sauces and on pasta.

Provolone


Fresh


Aged

An Italian cheese made from whole cow's milk, having a semi-firm texture and a slightly smoky sweet flavor. The cheese is generally aged for two to three months but in some cases is aged up to six months. It is pale in color but deepens in color and flavor, and increases in firmness the longer it is aged. Young (aged two to three months) Provolone is a good melting cheese and the longer aged cheese is easier to grate.

Ricotta

A fresh, unripened Italian cheese, made from whole or skim milk, which is white in color with a soft texture and mildly sweet flavor. Avoid food store brands, which lack in sweetness. Ricotta cheese works well layered in lasagne and used as filling in ravioli and cannelloni. It is best to purchase only the amount you need and use within a couple of days because it does not keep well.

Ricotta Salata

An Italian cheese that has been salted and dried. It has a sharp tangy flavor and a crumbly texture. When heated it does not melt well but softens into salty, tangy pieces. It adds a unique flavor and texture when tossed with hot pasta. When refrigerated properly, it will keep for approximately a month.

Taleggio

A rich Italian cheese, made from cow's milk. Its flavor varies from slightly sharp to strong or pungent, depending on the age. The young cheese is pale yellow and semi-soft, while the mature cheese is white with a pinkish-gray crust and a soft, smooth texture. Taleggio cheese melts easily making it a good choice for a cream sauce. It should be used fairly quickly after purchasing because it does not keep for a long period of time.

 

Tomatoes

Fresh or canned tomatoes can be used to make a tomato sauce for pasta. Whether fresh or canned, plum tomatoes are the best for making sauce. They are meatier and have fewer seeds. Imported Italian plum tomatoes are considered to be one of the best quality plum tomatoes available.

Good quality canned tomatoes make a great tomato sauce but sun-ripened tomatoes hand picked fresh will make a sauce that is even better. Two pounds of fresh plum tomatoes are generally sufficient to make enough sauce for one pound of pasta. 4 cups of fresh tomatoes is equivalent to approximately one 28 ounce can of plum tomatoes.

If your recipe calls for fresh tomatoes but they are not available, canned tomatoes can be substituted. If the recipe calls for sauce or paste, canned products for these are also available. Some of the canned tomato products available are listed below.


 
Canned Tomato Products

Chopped / Diced


Chopped


Diced

Chopped and diced tomatoes are canned in juice and can be used in place of fresh tomatoes when making sauce. The only difference between chopped and diced tomatoes is that diced tomatoes are cut in slightly smaller pieces. One large can (28 to 35 ounce) of tomatoes is generally enough to lightly coat 1 pound of pasta, providing the tomatoes and juice are both used. If the juice is drained off, you will have to increase the amount of canned tomatoes, unless you are adding other ingredients and thinning the sauce with another liquid. Look for canned plum tomatoes for the best flavor.

Pureed

Fresh tomatoes that have been peeled, seeded, pureed and lightly cooked when canned. The pureed tomatoes are generally used in a sauce where they will be cooked further.

Sauce

Pureed tomatoes that have been cooked to thicken their consistency by simmering for a period of time before it is canned. It is ready to use from the can and requires cooking only long enough to heat to desired temperature. It is available plain and flavored.

Paste

Paste is basically the same as the tomato sauce, only it has been cooked long enough to thicken it into a paste. It is quite strong and adds a lot of flavor to the sauce. The paste is generally diluted with water or other liquids when making pasta sauce.

Stewed

Whole or sliced tomatoes flavored by cooking them with ingredients such as sugar, onions, and peppers. Stewed tomatoes are generally used without being drained.

 

Vegetables

When adding vegetables to a pasta dish or sauce, take into consideration what type of vegetables you are using. Vegetables vary in bulkiness and in the amount that they shrink down in size when cooked. Greens, such as Spinach will shrink down a lot where a vegetable like zucchini will stay bulkier. If you are using two or more different vegetables in one sauce or dish, the more different varieties you use will decrease the amount of each that you need. See the recipe for information on how much of each vegetable should be used. If you are substituting a different variety of vegetable for something that was called for in the recipe, be sure to substitute something with approximately the same bulkiness or adjust the amount used accordingly.

Meats

Meats, such as beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry can be used in a variety of pasta sauces or dishes. Ground beef and Italian sausage are two meats often used. Meat can be used in ground form, made into meatballs, cut in cubes, or sliced in strips. The quantity needed will depend on the type of sauce and the quantity of other ingredients that will be added. Generally if the main ingredient is the meat, 1½ pounds of meat for 1 pound of pasta is sufficient. If other ingredients are added, the amount of meat required would be reduced according to the quantity of other ingredients. If the sauce contains a small quantity of vegetables, 1 pound of meat would generally be sufficient. If bulky vegetables are added, the meat should be cut back to approximately ½ pound. If using a specific recipe, use the quantity called for in the recipe. 1 pound of ground meat equals 2 cups.

Fish

When using fish in a sauce, approximately 1½ pounds of fish fillets should be sufficient in a sauce that does not contain other ingredients. As with meat, the quantity of fish should be reduced according to the amount and bulkiness of other ingredients added to the sauce. If the quantity of fish is not reduced accordingly, there will not be an adequate amount of sauce to coat the pasta and all the ingredients sufficiently.

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