17 easy ways to make simple pasta dishes better using pantry and kitchen staples

  • Many pantry staples can take your next pasta dinner to the next level.

  • From olives and capers to frozen vegetables, these ingredients can transform a simple pasta dish.

  • Cookbook author Francesca Montillo said not to be intimidated or afraid to experiment with pasta.

You've probably heard of "pantry pasta" — a meal made only with shelf-stable items.

However, when it comes to spicing up your usual spaghetti and tomato sauce, you don't have to limit yourself to just pantry items. There are plenty of common grocery-list items you probably already have in your kitchen that can elevate simple pasta dishes.

"The important thing to remember is not to be intimidated or afraid to experiment, because pasta is so cheap," Francesca Montillo, an Italian culinary tour leader, cooking class teacher, and author of the cookbook "Pasta in a Pinch: Classic and Creative Recipes Made with Everyday Pantry Ingredients," told Insider.

"You're not working with an expensive roast beef," she continued. "People often cook the same pasta dishes over and over again, but folks shouldn't be anxious to experiment, whether it's with meats, vegetables, or anything else they have on hand."

Here are 17 easy ways to make simple pasta dishes even better using things you have in your kitchen.

Crushed tomatoes and canned tomato sauce could beat out any store-bought jarred pasta sauce you have lying around.

crushed tomatoes
Crushed tomatoes.Juanan Barros Moreno/Shutterstock

Montillo told Insider that while store-bought sauces may seem like the easiest option for home cooks, a can of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce will work even better — and may even be cheaper to buy.

"I'm not a fan of the store-bought jar you open up and heat up," she said. Instead, "I do use canned tomatoes beefed up with meats, vegetables, all kinds of ingredients. In my opinion, that's no more work than opening up a jar of pasta sauce," she said.

Montillo added that you don't need to spend hours making your sauce.

"By the time the pasta water boils, which takes 10 minutes, and another 10 minutes for the pasta to cook, in that 20 minutes you have the plain pasta sauce ready," she said.

A can or tube of tomato paste can also go a long way in deepening the flavor of your sauce.

tomato paste
Tomato paste.Karpenkov Denis/Shutterstock

In 2020, supermodel Gigi Hadid revealed her own recipe for spicy vodka pasta that uses tomato paste and a few other ingredients.

Olive oil makes a delicious addition to practically any pasta dish.

olive oil
Olive oil.dulezidar/iStock

You can drizzle olive oil over your freshly cooked pasta or add it to any homemade or store-bought sauce.

"I use olive oil in practically every one of my recipes," Montillo said.

Breadcrumbs can transform plain macaroni and cheese into a tasty pasta bake.

baked mac and cheese breadcrumbs
Baked mac and cheese with breadcrumbs.Rimma Bondarenko/Shutterstock

If you've got some spare breadcrumbs, they can transform a regular pasta dish or macaroni-and-cheese meal into a delicious baked pasta. Or, go a little wild and food process any loaf to make some homemade breadcrumbs.

Montillo recommends toasting breadcrumbs slightly in a pan so they can really soak up whichever sauce you're using.

Canned tuna or anchovies are two affordable pantry options that can add extra flavor to pasta dishes.

Canned anchovies.Shutterstock

Two of Montillo's favorite ingredients for pantry pasta are also extremely easy to come by and affordable.

"Canned anchovies offer a lot of pungent flavor for not a lot expense and not a lot of calories," she said.

However, she does recommend that instead of buying canned tuna or anchovies packed in water, opt for a higher quality brand packed in oil to maximize the flavor.

Meats like pancetta, kielbasa, and bacon add a lot of flavor to pasta dishes, too.

spaghetti carbonara
Carbonara pasta.Al62/Getty Images

Cured meats like pancetta or bacon last longer in your fridge than fresh meats and make a great addition to most pasta dishes, from classic spaghetti to carbonara, penne alla vodka, and even seafood-based dishes.

"If you add a few slices of kielbasa to a tomato sauce with onion, you also have a great sauce right there without needing much else," Montillo said.

Capers can also add a briny taste to pasta dishes.

pasta capers
Pasta with capers.Irina Kolosvetova/Shutterstock

However, Montillo explains in her cookbook that one should be wary of capers' salt content. She also says that if you want to use capers, you can rinse them before adding them to pasta dishes to take out unwanted saltiness.

Olives add a Mediterranean flair to an otherwise simple pasta dish.

pasta with olives
Pasta with olives.DronG/Shutterstock

Canned or jarred olives are a pantry staple in many households and make a salty addition to simple pasta dishes.

Fresh or dried herbs will also add flavor to pasta dishes.

parsley herbs

"I use a lot of parsley, either fresh or even dried," Montillo said. "Oregano, garlic powder, onion flakes, black pepper all work well in a variety of sauces."

Eggs can be used to make a delicious carbonara.

eggs cracking egg
Cracking an egg.Shutterstock

Arguably no ingredient is more of a kitchen staple than eggs and, with just a few other ingredients, they can be transformed into a creamy pasta sauce when combined with cheese.

Eggs are one of the main ingredients in spaghetti carbonara. The dish only requires a few ingredients you might find already in your kitchen: eggs, pasta, cheese, pork, and a little bit of pasta water.

Fresh cheese makes a tasty topping for most pasta dishes.

parmesan cheese
Parmesan cheese.Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

While you can of course go for whatever cheese you have around your kitchen, fresh Parmesan or mozzarella cheese can make all the difference in elevating a simple pasta dish.

"Grated Parmesan cheese goes great as a topping," Montillo told Insider, from everything from spaghetti and meatballs to pasta al pomodoro, while fresh slices of mozzarella can transform a simple red sauce pasta into a delicious pasta bake when put in the oven.

If you have lemons hanging around your kitchen, they can instantly add zest and acidity to simple pasta dishes.

lemon squeeze lemonade
Freshly squeezed lemons on a cutting board.Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From pasta al limone to a meat-based dish like chicken picatta, lemons can add freshness and much-needed acidity. For those who really want to up the citrus flavor, you can also zest lemon peel on top of the dish as a garnish.

Onions, a common pantry staple, can easily be added to pasta dishes — in a variety of ways.


Sauteéd, caramelized, or roasted onions can instantly transform a simple pasta dish into one that packs a ton of flavor.

"One of my biggest recommendations is using multipurpose ingredients that aren't a one-off — you're going to use them tomorrow or the next day in another meal," Montillo said. "If you buy a bag of onions, you're going to use them in soups, in stews, in a multitude of things, not just one meal."

Mushrooms can add a meaty flavor to your pasta.

Shiitake mushrooms
Mushrooms.wulingyun/Getty Images

From baby bella mushrooms to shitake and cremini mushrooms, this earthy ingredient adds a whole other element to fettuccine and can even make a great meat substitute in dishes like bolognese.

"I often make a regular tomato sauce with mushrooms and it takes no time," Montillo told Insider.

Bell peppers are another tasty addition to pasta bakes or homemade sauce.

grocery store produce peppers bell peppers supermarket
Bell peppers.Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

Bell peppers are one of Montillo's favorite vegetables to add to pasta dishes.

Frozen vegetables like broccoli, peas, or green beans can also be added.

bowl of broccoli brocoli

Whether you're making a fettuccini or seafood pasta dish, frozen vegetables can be thawed and added to many one-pot pasta recipes to add more flavor — and make you feel just a little bit healthier eating it.

Wine or vodka can transform your sauce as well.

vodka rigatoni
Vodka sauce pasta.EzumeImages/Getty Images

"Vodka can be used to make pasta alla vodka," Montillo said. "If you have red wine and a little ground beef in the freezer, that can also help to make a nice sauce. A lot of these ingredients don't require an extra shopping trip."

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