You don’t need a recipe to make pantry pasta. It’s honestly no different than tossing together a salad—except that instead of lettuce you’re using noodles, and instead of vinaigrette, you’ve got a simmering sauce. But the mix-ins are totally up to you, and only you know what you like and what’s in your cupboard. So your first step is to take stock of what you have and then assemble a pantry pasta game plan.
Your first consideration with a pantry pasta sauce is a main ingredient. You can choose canned tomatoes (crushed or diced or whatever style you have), canned pumpkin, a jar of artichoke hearts, a can of beans. Then you’ll want to figure out what you have that might complement those ingredients: a can of tuna, a jar of olives, some frozen green sauce, a tube of harissa paste. Combining two or three ingredients will help you create a sauce with layers of flavor and texture.
The only really essential ingredient for pantry pasta, is, well, pasta. So let’s start with that.
1. Cook some pasta
Any pasta shape you’ve got on hand will work for this pantry pasta recipe. It could be plain, whole wheat, gluten-free: really whatever.
Fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil (putting a lid on the pot will make it boil faster). Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean. Really—go ahead and taste it just as you would taste soup. Properly seasoned pasta water will make properly seasoned pasta, which could be enjoyed with just a drizzle of olive oil if that’s all you have time to throw together. Adding salt will make the boiling die down a bit, so put the lid back on and bring the water back to to a boil before you do anything else. Meanwhile, you can start your sauce—see Step 2 below.
Toss in the pasta—you’ll need 12 to 16 ounces of pasta for four servings. Or, if you plan adding a lot of mix-ins, you can scale back to 8 ounces of pasta for four people. Cook the pasta for about 2 minutes less than the package specifications. The only real way to know that it’s ready is to fish out a piece of pasta, rinse it under cool water so that you don’t burn your tongue, and take a bite. It should be just a little bit tougher than you like since you’ll finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.
Use a ladle to scoop two cups of water out of the pot and set it aside in a heatproof container (a glass liquid measuring cup works well.) Drain the rest of the pasta, but don’t rinse it. If the sauce is ready, you can go ahead and dump the pasta into the sauce pot, otherwise, let the pasta rest in the colander and move on to the next step.
2. Start the sauce
While the pasta water comes to a boil, sauté 1 large sliced onion and/or a few chopped cloves of garlic (if you have them) in olive oil or butter in a large pan. Cook over medium heat until the onions taken on a bit of color. If you’d like to add rehydrated dried mushrooms, now’s the moment. (Wring them out first, and chop!)
Next, add some spices. Classic Italian pasta seasonings like dried oregano, black pepper, and red chile flakes are great, but feel free to experiment with other types of chile flakes, or with bright coriander or smoky cumin. If you want to give your sauce an Italian sausage flavor (without the sausage, add dried rosemary and crushed fennel seeds (or anise seed, ground star anise, or dried tarragon—these herbs and spices all sport similar flavors). Into more of a chorizo-flavored vibe? Add smoked paprika, dried thyme, and coriander. You can add up to 1/2 teaspoon of any one spice, and up to 2 teaspoons of mixed spices total.
Cook the spices or dried herbs with the onions for about 30 seconds. Want to add in some tomato paste? Anchovy paste (or chopped anchovies)? Harissa paste? Miso paste? Green curry paste? Now’s the time. Add about 2 tablespoons of paste for four servings (if you’re going with a spicy paste, skip adding the dried spices above). These ingredients will add deep flavor to your sauce. Cook them until the paste has darkened in color a shade and the whole thing gets more aromatic.
3. Deglaze the pan
Want to deglaze the pan with wine? Go ahead. Add about 1/4 cup of wine (vermouth, sherry, beer, stock, or some brine from a jar of olives also works) and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Don’t have any of those ingredients? Deglaze with a bit of tap water just to prevent any burning. Keep cooking until the liquid has almost completely evaporated.
4. Add your main ingredient
For tomato sauce, add in a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. They can be diced, crushed, fire-roasted, or already made into marinara. If you’re adding whole tomatoes, crushed them by hand first or use a wooden spoon to chop them into irregular bits.
For pumpkin sauce, add a 15-ounce can of pumpkin purée (not pre-spiced pie filling, please—unless your aim is to make dessert pasta).
For a bean-based sauce, toss in one or two 15-ounce cans of drained, rinsed legumes or pulses (chickpeas, white beans, lentils, lima beans, black beans, whatever beans).
5. Add some mix-ins
Now’s the time to get really creative with your pasta. Add in some chopped olives or jarred tapenade, quartered artichoke hearts, or sun-dried tomatoes in oil, capers, sliced pickled chiles or roasted red peppers, drained canned tuna or other tinned seafood. Have some shrimp in the freezer? Poach ’em right in the sauce, making sure there’s ample liquid in your pan (feel free to add a little extra wine here). Got cured salmon in the fridge? It’s an excellent match with beans. Leftover roasted vegetables? Let them warm in the sauce and it’s like they’re new again.
Don’t forget fruity things: golden raisins are great in some pastas—same with chopped dried apricots and preserved lemons. You could also add fresh lemon zest and juice to brighten things up, or some brine from those olives or pickled chiles.
If you have some frozen greens (kale, spinach, collards) feel free to toss those in—or, if you have some arugula or herbs that are on their way out, stir those in just before serving.
There are some classic combinations to turn to. You can’t go wrong adding anchovies, olives, and capers to a tomato sauce for a puttanesca vibe. I love chickpeas in pasta with smoked salmon, artichokes, and lemon. Or how about starting that pumpkin sauce off with smoky Urfa chile and then finishing it with some nuts?
6. Bring it all together
Once you have your toppings assembled, add them to the sauce and simmer for a few minutes before adding the pasta and tossing the whole lot together. Does it look a little dry? Add some of the reserved pasta water and continue to stir and simmer. If you’ve used canned tomatoes, you may not need much pasta water, but you’ll need a little bit more for canned pumpkin, and the most for the bean situation.
7. Add a topping
Toppings are strictly optional for these freeform pasta recipes, but a finishing flourish can be nice. If you have some cheese in the fridge (Parmesan, pecorino, feta), grate or crumble some into and over the pasta.
How about nuts or seeds? Chop them up and toss them on top. If you’d like just a whisper of nutty flavor—or you’re trying to ration your nut supply—use a rasp grater to grate a bit of walnut or almond over the top of each serving.
We also love a carb-on-carb breadcrumb pasta moment. Pulse bread in a food processor or spice grinder (or tear it into large chunks for more of a crouton experience) and then toast the bread in a pan with butter or olive oil, seasoning with salt. Keep tossing it around until the bread crumbs or cubes are golden and crisp. Sprinkle on top of each serving to add texture contrast to every bite.