Instant Coffee Is The Secret Ingredient That Wakes Up Spaghetti Sauce

In 2015, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury's started putting up flyers across its stores suggesting little twists that shoppers could add to their everyday meals. Of the many bold claims that the campaign made, one in particular left shoppers perplexed: Add instant coffee to your spaghetti bolognese, the supermarket said. While some took to the internet to express their bafflement, others saw some sense to this claim — coffee does have prowess in the world of cooking and can be used to make more than just caffeinated drinks, after all. Take the case of chocolate desserts for example; it's a well-known fact at this point that coffee can balance flavors of chocolate treats and add rich complexity to revamp a classic chocolate cake.

Similarly, instant coffee can also do wonders to upgrade an everyday bowl of spaghetti bolognese. Explaining the trick to Buzzfeed, Sainsbury's head of consumer PR for food, Cath Wilkins, said that they can personally vouch for the hack after having tasted the coffee-spiked spaghetti themselves. "The coffee adds an underlying depth of flavor that helps to balance the sweetness of the tomato-based ragu," Wilkins explained, adding that it's not very different from adding, say, chocolate to a pot of spicy chili con carne.

How to add coffee to spaghetti sauce

The reason why instant coffee can wake up savory dishes — such as spaghetti sauce — is because of its inherently bitter and acidic nature. While its acidity makes instant coffee an excellent addition in marinades to help tenderize meats — or in meat-based sauces, such as a bolognese — its bitterness can add a contrasting flavor, giving spaghetti sauce a delicious complexity.

But for coffee to add a savory richness to your spaghetti sauce without overpowering other flavors in it, the key is to not be too loose-handed with its quantity. For example, Sainsbury's spaghetti bolognese recipe uses only a tiny teaspoon of instant coffee. Rather than sprinkling the coffee straight into the sauce, the recipe recommends dissolving it in hot stock and then pouring the coffee-infused liquid into the ground beef, tomato, and aromatics bubbling away on the stove.

Alternatively, you could also experiment with adding freshly brewed coffee to your spaghetti sauce instead. Brewed coffee's bold flavor adds a tinge of bitterness to the sauce, which may be more effective at bringing out the sweetness of veggies and aromatics such as carrots and onions in return. The important thing here too is to use coffee only in small quantities — a mere quarter cup of brewed coffee should do the job!

More ways to upgrade spaghetti sauce

Instant coffee may be one way to brighten a plain ol' spaghetti sauce, but there are several other ingredients that can equally upgrade your pasta dinners. Just as the bitterness of coffee balances the flavors in a tomato-based spaghetti sauce and makes them richer, half a teaspoon or so of cocoa powder too can do a similar job but by adding depth instead. Plus, cocoa powder's chocolate flavor pairs fabulously with beef, which is why it can be an excellent addition to beef-based sauces such as bolognese.

For those still unconvinced about adding instant coffee and cocoa powder to their pasta, fret not; there are plenty more ingredients that can upgrade your spaghetti sauce. A bit of sugar can balance the acidity of tomato in a tangy spaghetti sauce, but if you're worried about the sauce turning too sweet, even a pinch or two of baking soda will do an excellent job of bringing balance.

Butter can add a creamy richness to the sauce, a splash of red wine will add layers of flavor, and a small rind of parmesan cheese will bring an umami factor to the mix. But if you were to ask Giada De Laurentiis — who has a certain expertise in Italian cooking — for her secret ingredient, she'd recommend adding carrots to the sauce. The alkaline compounds present in carrots can balance the acidic pH level of tomatoes and counterbalance it with sweetness — upgrading spaghetti sauce can be simple as that!