10 Ways to Spice Up Your Pasta

Tired of boring pasta? Mix it up! See more pictures of easy weeknight meals.
Nick M. Do/Photodisc/Getty Images

Pasta is a great base to use for a main dinner dish or for a light lunchtime salad. One of the great things about pasta is that it comes in so many varieties. From the ultra thin angel hair pasta nest to the fun bow-tie farfalle, you can bet there's a pasta just right for any dish. Noodle type pastas are great for Italian dinner recipes. Shorter shaped pastas like farfalle, fusilli, rotini and shells are good to use cold in vegetable-based summer salads. When it comes to choosing your pasta, mix it up. Try out different varieties with a range of ingredients to find out which pasta you like best in a given scenario. You can mix and match until you find a winning combination, and here are some techniques and recipes to try along the way.


10. Marinara

Nothing beats a pasta dish made with a classic Italian marinara sauce. There are literally millions of marinara recipes, because each self-proclaimed master of the sauce has his or her own secret ingredients and techniques. The classic marinara consists of tomatoes, oregano, basil and garlic as the base. From there you can add onions, peppers and a range of meats, just to name a few extra ingredients. Every recipe has its own technique, too, like browning the meat with the spices before adding the sauce, or cooking the sauce on low heat with a covered lid for hours. Some chefs like the lid off for a thicker sauce. Some cooks will only eat the sauce the next day after it's had a full 24 hours to blend together. Whatever your technique or recipe, a great marinara sauce is guaranteed to get you kudos at dinnertime.


9. Pesto

Pesto is certainly pleasing to the palate.
Hisayoshi Osawa/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Pesto sauce is ranked right alongside marinara as a classic Italian favorite. The combination of fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese just can't be beat. And like marinara, the way you prepare your pesto depends on your own take on the recipe. One thing is certain: Pesto must start with olive oil, basil and garlic. You can also add lemon, capers or cilantro for a citrus kick, or crushed red pepper to give it some heat. Some pesto sauces are more like a gravy with lighter amounts of olive oil mixed into the sauce, while others are swimming in the oil. Grilled shrimp or chicken is a good addition to your pesto dish, and linguine works well as your pasta.


8. Cream Sauce

The final classic sauce of the Italian triumvirate is the cream sauce. There are many types, but alfredo (white) and vodka cream (pink) sauces are the mainstay. Neither one is very light on the calories because copious amounts of butter, heavy cream and cheese are involved. Like with marinara and pesto, you can add plenty of fresh oregano and basil to your alfredo sauce. Spinach is another addition that can spice up the classic white sauce. Onion, tomato and, yes, vodka are added to butter and cream for the pink sauce. Vodka cream sauces are more likely to have some hot spice added than the alfredo sauce. Alfredo sauce goes great with fettuccini and some grilled chicken, and the tubular penne pasta is most commonly served with vodka sauce. Serving salmon with vodka cream sauce is another favorite.


7. Asian Fusion

pad thai
Head half way around the world for some Asian inspiration.
Roy Hsu/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

When many people think pasta, they think of Italian dishes. Pasta noodles are also a key ingredient of many Asian recipes as well. For a quick and easy summer pasta recipe you can eat cold, you may want to try one of these. Pick a small shaped pasta like farfalle or fusilli, and then make the pasta and chill it overnight in the fridge. The next day, combine the pasta with some sesame oil, broccoli florets, soybeans, sesame seeds and a dash of soy sauce. This is just one variation of an Asian pasta salad. You can also add chopped peanuts, peppers, snow peas, diced red onion or fresh ginger, just to name a few other ingredients. Try out some different combinations to get it just right. You can also impress your friends by serving the dish with chopsticks and a fortune cookie.


6. Fruit and Pasta

Fruit is pretty underrated as a good ingredient to spice up your pasta. Like most of the cold pasta salads, you'll want to avoid the noodles and go with shaped pasta varieties. Macaroni is a good place to start, or if you're into the twist, maybe try corkscrew pasta on for size. All kinds of fruits can be added to these pastas, depending on what kind of flavor you're after. Grapes, pineapples and mandarin oranges are all good and go well with nuts like sliced almonds or pecans. Cheese is another thing you can add to a cold pasta salad featuring fruit and nuts. Feta and blue cheeses are ideal candidates because the tangy taste goes well with fruit.


5. Mediterranean Pasta

greek pasta
Take your pasta on a trip to the Green Isles.
Robin Macdougall/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Since Italy and Asia are covered, we can move on to the Greek Isles. Mediterranean ingredients and spices are the perfect way to spice up your pasta. Noodles are good to use for hot dishes, and shaped pastas are best for cold salads. Mediterranean pasta dishes can have a host of ingredients, but start with olives, olive oil and tomatoes. Adding capers, lemon juice, feta cheese and artichoke hearts will give you a classic Mediterranean pasta dinner dish. Grilled chicken is a good addition for both hot and cold Mediterranean pasta dishes. If you want to up the vegetable content, add some cucumber, onion, bell peppers and zucchini.


4. Grilled Vegetables

If you want to add some extra flavor to what might be a bland veggie pasta dish, try grilling your vegetables over an open flame. Squash, zucchini, bell peppers, onion and asparagus are just a few vegetables that are great cooked on your barbecue. There are all kinds of methods for preparing your pasta vegetables on the grill. You can skewer the veggies and brush them with a spiced up olive oil mix or marinate the veggies beforehand for maximum flavor. You can also use a grill skillet. It looks like a traditional cooking pan, but the bottom and sides are full of holes. This allows you to use a method you may be more familiar with. Simply chop up your veggies and pan roast. For more kick, add flavored wood chips to your grill flame.


3. Peppers

peppers and pasta
If you want a literal spice, peppers will go a long way.
Michael Smith/Contributer/Getty Images News

If you're looking to literally spice up your pasta, look no further than peppers to do the trick. Roasted peppers are a common ingredient in Italian cooking and perfect for a sauce-free pasta. Take some red, yellow and orange bell peppers and place them on your grill. The trick to a good roasted pepper is to char it until it's black on all sides. As soon as you have what looks like a burned pepper, remove it from the grill, place it in a plastic bag or container and seal it shut. Let the pepper sit in there for about 20 minutes, and then take it out. The charred skin should come off very easily at this point, and you'll be left with a soft pepper with all the roasted flavor from your grill. Just add these peppers to your pasta along with some Italian spices and olive oil and you're finished -- no heavy sauces involved and plenty of flavor.


2. South of the Border

Mexican inspired dishes are often overlooked when it comes to pasta, but they're a hit at any summer time party. Mexican pasta salads are versatile, and can be served as a side dish at dinner in place of rice and beans, or as a picnic treat with some homemade corn chips. Start with the basics -- onion, cilantro, roasted red pepper, corn and tomatoes. Then take a can of black bean, drain and rinse them, and add this to the mix along with the small, shaped pasta of your choice. Spice it up with some diced jalapeños and habaneros, and add some powdered cumin and chili powder. If you want a smoky spice, chop up a chipotle pepper. When it comes to all the hot peppers, you may want to remove most of the seeds unless you have a high tolerance for spicy heat. Mix all of these ingredients and chill for a winning dish. You can also add meat, like grilled chicken or spicy chorizo.


1. Comfort Food

mac and cheese
Comfort food will make you feel safe and warm.
Lori Lee Miller/Photodisc/Getty Images

Everyone needs a comfort food fix once and a while. Macaroni and cheese and the chicken noodle casserole perfectly embody good old American comfort food dishes. You can make fancier versions with butter and cream sauces, but for a pasta dish anyone can make, try the following: Get some egg noodles, cream of mushroom soup, boneless chicken breast, parmesan cheese and canned fried onions. Cook your egg noodles, grill or sauté your chicken and open your canned goods. Add the soup, noodles and chicken and spice it up with some sage or poultry seasoning, oregano, salt and pepper. Put it in a glass casserole dish, add the cheese and fried onions on top and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until it looks like crunchy brown baked goodness. If you want to make it a little healthier, go with a low-sodium, low-fat soup and add some broccoli florets.

Spice Up Pasta FAQ

What spices should I add to pasta sauce?
Classic spices to add to a plain tomato sauce include Italian seasoning, garlic (fresh or powder), onion powder, basil, salt and pepper. You can also add a little bit of chili or cayenne powder for some heat.
What meat goes well with pasta?
Ground beef is probably the most popular meat to pair with pasta, especially if you're using a tomato sauce. Grilled chicken or shrimp are also delicious choices if you're planning a white sauce or even a pesto.
How do you make good pasta?
First off, use a decent quality pasta from the grocery store. They're not all equal. Opt for a brand that comes from Italy and follow the cooking instructions on the package. Another part of making tasty pasta is cooking it al dente. Overcooking it will result in mushy noodles that don't hold up well when mixed with a sauce. Finally, add a flavorful sauce and don't be afraid to add extra seasoning to a store-bought version to draw out some of the flavors and make it taste fresher.
What is a good garnish for pasta?
Fresh herbs such as basil or parsley are perhaps the best garnishes for pasta. They add a bit of flavor and a pop of color that makes the dish even more appealing to the senses.
What else can you put on pasta besides sauce?
If you don't have sauce in the house, grilled, stir-fried or baked veggies can add lots of flavor and texture. Butternut or acorn squash, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onion are all great options to add to a pasta dish, along with some minced garlic, olive oil, and herbs. Of course, you can also always make a homemade cheese sauce from milk or cream, grated cheese, flour or cornstarch, and salt and pepper.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Cathy, P. "Asian Pasta Salad." allrecipes.com, 2009. http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Asian-Pasta-Salad/Detail.aspx
  • Cheric. "Roasted Vegetable Pasta Recipe." grouprecipes.com, 2009 http://www.grouprecipes.com/55279/roasted-vegetable-pasta.html
  • "Classic Marinara Sauce Recipe." recipetips.com, 2009. http://www.recipetips.com/recipe-cards/t--2755/classic-marinara-sauce.asp
  • "Classic Pesto with Linguine." howstuffworks.com, 2009. https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/classic-pesto-with-linguine-recipe.htm
  • "Easy Mediterranean Pasta Salad." simplytasty.com, 2009. http://simplytasty.blogspot.com/2009/05/mediterranean-pasta-salad.html
  • "Mediterranean Pasta with Artichokes, Olives, and Tomatoes." wholeliving.com, 2009.
  • http://www.wholeliving.com/recipe/mediterranean-pasta-with-artichokes-olives-and-tomatoes
  • "Pasta Fruit Salad." cooks.com, 2009. http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1843,151168-231194,00.html
  • "Pasta Shapes." foodsubs.com, 2009.
  • http://www.foodsubs.com/PastaShapes.html
  • "Penne with Vodka and Tomato Cream Sauce." cooks.com, 2009. http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1615,156174-237199,00.html
  • Piazza. "Mexican Pasta." allrecipes.com, 2009. http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Mexican-Pasta/Detail.aspx