Whether they call it sauce, gravy or ragú, people are passionate about what tops their pasta. Friendships have been created and destroyed over whether sauce should be sweet or savory, which secret ingredient produces the most robust flavor and, especially, when—if ever—it’s acceptable to use store-bought sauce.
Considering the innovation that’s happening in commercially available sauces, even pasta purists are rethinking their position. Shelf-stable pasta sauce sales have increased 7 percent, to $16.2 million within natural supermarkets, in the 12 months that ended May 15, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS.
Pouches are no slouches
One objection some consumers have had to jarred sauces is that they’re too big, and can go bad before they’re used up. “Even if you store it in the fridge, it never looks appealing—you never want to use it again,” says Meagan Parrado, a spokeswoman for Miami-based Lucini, which in April launched a line of 13.5-ounce pouches of all-natural, small-batch gourmet sauces. “You can use the whole thing, it takes up less storage space, and it’s lighter weight.” A growing number of pasta sauce manufacturers are opting for pouches for a variety of reasons. Consumers can heat the sauce right in the pouch, either on the stove or in the microwave, making it office- and camping-friendly. Plus pouches use less material than glass jars, not only conserving resources but also creating shipping efficiencies.
For years, the jarred pasta sauce aisle has been a blur of red—probably because Americans have no idea that anything else is possible, says chef Maria Stranieri, author of Knack Italian Cooking (Knack, 2010) and a lecturer at venues ranging from Boston University to natural foods markets. “People are of a notion in the United States that Italian sauces are made with tomato base, which is not true. It’s a stereotype. Most sauces in Italy are without tomatoes.” She rattles off half a dozen types—using olives, mushrooms, butter and other kitchen staples—that the average Italian home cook makes.
In the States, anything other than red sauce stands out like a throbbing red thumb. “If you really look at the pasta sauce category, every brand, almost without exception, has the same six or seven sauces—they have slightly different names or formulations, but they’re basically the same. There’s the marinara one, the basil one, the spicy one, some have an olive or eggplant flavor—there’s not a lot of variation,” says Dave Hirschkop, owner of San Francisco-based Dave’s Gourmet, which makes Insanity hot sauces.
So consumers could be forgiven for staring at Dave’s jars of butternut squash and mushroom-based sauces with astonishment.
“If you threw out the rules that it has to be tomato and just thought, ‘What would taste good with pasta?’—that’s the starting point for the way we make sauces,” Hirschkop says. With the butternut squash sauce, for example, it was clear that the flavors would combine well. “You have butternut inside of ravioli, so it obviously tastes good with pasta, but no one had put it on pasta.” Now, he says, “It’s our single best-selling product.”
This year, the company experimented a little more with the launch of its masala marinara, a fusion of Southeast Asian and traditional Italian flavors. “It’s sort of within the realm of what a consumer would try and not find too unusual,” Hirschkop says. “There are lots of flavors we can think of that would taste good on pasta, but we don’t want to freak out consumers too much.”
Dawn Jackson Blatner wants to make sure consumers don’t forget something else: nutrition. The Chicago-based dietitian—a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2009)—says, “It’s important that you never, never, never totally diss your tomato sauce.” It’s the primary source in American diets for cancer-fighting lycopene. “For every three times you make pasta, maybe two times use tomato, and one time use a new fun variety,” she suggests.
Blatner is also concerned that some of the alternative sauces are higher in saturated fats and calories, thanks to added cream and butter. She advises people to think of sauce as a condiment, and use it sparingly.
That said, some of the alternative sauces have nutritional benefits of their own. Walnut sauce, like A.G. Ferrari’s Salsa di Noci, can be a good source of omega-3s. Dave’s butternut squash sauce “is an absolute powerhouse,” Blatner says, thanks to high levels of beta-carotene, and the mushroom-based sauce has a nice hit of selenium.
Hmm, flavor and nutrition: that’s just gravy—er, sauce.
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based writer who ignites debate by twirling her spaghetti on a spoon.
Want your noodles to canoodle with the right sauce? Use these guidelines from chef Maria Stranieri, author of Knack Italian Cooking. (Knack, 2010)
First, use the right form. For anything sturdy and tubular, like penne, ziti or rigatoni, use a dry pasta, she says. Use egg-based fresh pasta when serving a finer shape, such as fettuccine or angel hair.
Because the eggs give it a more delicate flavor, fresh pasta—and not the sauce—should be the star. “Never serve the fresh pasta with strong sauces, or the taste of the pasta will disappear completely,” Stranieri says.
“Dried pasta goes with any type of sauce that is robust, like tomato or meat-based or even fish,” she says. And anything that gets stuffed—think tortellini, ravioli—is a perfect foil for a light but flavorful sauce like squash or mushroom.