Lemon Juice Is Your Ticket To Upgrading Jarred Spaghetti Sauce

For those busy days when you don't have much time to spend in the kitchen, all you need is a box of dried pasta and a jar of spaghetti sauce for a quick, easy, and delicious dinner. But if you want to take this classic combination from average to amazing, there's one more ingredient you should grab: a lemon. While this sour, fresh fruit may seem out of place here, it's actually the key to bringing the whole dish together. 

Tomatoes are a powerhouse of complex flavors that are both sweet and savory, but when they are cooked down into a shelf-stable sauce, they can become bland. Adding the juice or zest of a lemon can have a brightening and balancing effect. Each element of this particular citrus has unique characteristics that can be used to improve jarred sauce in different ways. Lemon juice will enhance acidity, adding a pop of tartness for a more well-rounded taste. The essential oils found in lemon zest, on the other hand, will lend a freshness and light aromatic quality to the pasta. 

Just a small amount of either ingredient can have a big impact. For two servings, try adding one tablespoon of lemon juice or a quarter teaspoon of lemon zest. Be sure to incorporate this citrusy element just before plating  — too much heat will diminish its delicate flavors and fragrances.

Tips for making the most of jarred sauce

When you're at the grocery store stocking up for future dinners, don't forget Giada De Laurentiis' pro tip for buying store-bought pasta sauce: look over the ingredients printed on the packaging and opt for one that lists tomatoes first, not sugar. Using overly sweet sauce will result in a pasta dish that lacks complexity and may need a lot of tinkering. De Laurentiis advocates for sauces made with just a few flavorful ingredients like tomato pulp, onion, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.

When you have limited options, you can also liven up bland spaghetti sauce with one briny ingredient: capers. These tiny round flower buds bring a burst of savory, salty flavor into every bite. As with lemons, they also add acidity, which enhances the flavors of other ingredients by creating a kind of sensory equilibrium between sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami tasting notes. Together, capers and lemons offer a little extra Mediterranean flair to a meal made from simple pantry staples.

If you find yourself with leftovers and are wondering how long an open jar of spaghetti sauce lasts in the fridge, keep in mind that you have about five days to finish it off, so long as you store the sauce properly in an airtight container.