Doctored Up Spaghetti Sauce

By Ann Fulton

Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!
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Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!





First and foremost, how is everyone doing? If you’re feeling sad, scared or lonely and just want to tell someone about it, please feel free to message me. And I really mean that. These are not easy times.

The daily news has been disheartening and the near term outlook seems rather bleak, so to ease the feeling of isolation and being unable to follow the usual routine, I’ve been looking for little ways to make each day a little brighter.

Family Jeopardy is a highlight of the day, as is playing a mindless but addictive game that requires only a cork. (More on that to come.) My younger son actually made a very cool cork board with a big bucket of corks he collected when he was younger. (Not from drinking the wine himself, rest assured!) Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and, for my own part, trying (with mild success) to engage others in the cooking process.

Because it’s important to stay active, I found an app that provides an excellent alternative to my gym workouts. For those who may be interested, I’ll include details below the recipe. Combined with an occasional walk outside to enjoy the fresh air, it does a lot for mental health. (This is not an ad, by the way. It’s just hard to find true quality amidst the sea of options, so I wanted to share.)

But beyond all the silly games and efforts to keep moving, I’ve noticed that the moments I truly feel the best are when I do a little something nice for someone else. It’s a good kind of contagious. If you make someone smile, you end up smiling, too. Think about it. It’s true!

With that in mind, this weekend I am preparing the following recipe for several neighbors and family members who are all alone. It’s a comforting family favorite with a convenient shortcut, and the recipe can easily be multiplied. I plan on delivering it with a box of pasta and fresh bread that they can warm in the oven.

Because it’s critical to keep things sterile, I enlisted the advice of a trusted friend and pediatrician, who kindly spelled out the proper protocol to follow. I have included those details below for anyone who would like to help in a similar way but is fearful of spreading germs.

I’ve also enlisted a local market to make dinner bags including this sauce, a box of pasta, and some freshly baked bread-and maybe even an alternate hearty soup dinner in the near future-that people could pick up curbside for themselves or to leave at someone’s door. I’ll keep you posted on that effort as business requirements are changing on a daily basis.

Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!

Now for some specifics on the sauce

When I was little, my mom used to make spaghetti sauce this way, so it reminds me of my childhood. It’s comfort food at its best! I have several other “fancier” or from scratch sauces (which can be found on this blog), but this one, which uses a jar of your favorite marinara as a starting point, rivals the best of them.

And I’ve found it’s quite versatile!


Repurposing leftover sauce into creative meals and an easy veggie idea

I’ve been using some of the leftover sauce to make quick pizzas for a lunch my family loves. I started with some frozen pizza crusts I had in the freezer. When they were gone my younger son requested doing the same with English muffins.

Whichever base you use, simply top with sauce, some shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese-or whatever you have on hand. Since I add a small amount of pepperoni to the sauce, I add a few slices of that to the pizza. Bake until hot and the cheese is melted, or according to specific crust instructions. If using English muffins (or plain old bread if that’s what you have to work with), toast them first.

As another idea, I had a few baking potatoes on hand, so I baked them (microwave if you’re in a hurry) and then spread them out and mash before topping generously with warmed sauce and some cheese. Since I had some pepperoni left, I topped with a few of those (which I zapped briefly to render out some of the fat). Somehow, just a few slices of pepperoni elicit smiles. I served that with a side of roasted broccolini, which was one of the few fresh vegetables I was able to score on a recent grocery trip.

As a side note, everyone raved about the broccolini and said I should buy it more often. I keep it quite simple, tossing it lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper and then roasted at 425℉ until the stems were just tender, about 15 minutes or so. As I do with broccoli, I started it on the top rack and moved to the middle rack once the tips were lightly crisped, about two-thirds of the way through. It’s a little trick that adds caramelized flavor in the relatively short time it takes for the stems to cook through. Also, if the stems are thick, I slice the spears in half so everything cooks more quickly and evenly.

Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!

I shared this on my Instagram page last week, wondering if readers would be interested in the shortcut sauce. Only one person said “no thank you” so here it is!


For the sauce recipe below, I’ve included the amounts I use for every one jar of sauce, but the recipe is easy to scale up as needed. Feel free to adjust the enhancements based on what you like and have on hand. I’ve included a list of choices in the recipe notes. This sauce freezes well, too. 🍅

Doctored Up Spaghetti Sauce
Prep Time: 6 min
Cook Time: 18 min
Total Time: 24 min
Yield: 5½ - 6 cups (without the extras mentioned in the notes)
Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil (or a generous swirl around the pan)
  • ½ a medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef (or Italian sausage, removed from its casings, or a combination)
  • 10-12 slices of pepperoni, quartered (optional but adds exceptional flavor)
  • 1 (24-28 ounce) jar your favorite marinara sauce
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • Optional ingredients: an additional 1-2 cups of canned tomato sauce, pureed or crushed tomatoes to adjust consistency to your liking or to stretch the recipe; ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes; a glug (or 2-3 tablespoon) of red wine or a ½ tablespoon of balsamic vinegar; a pinch of sugar; a leftover Parmesan rind

In a large skillet or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, another 30-60 seconds. Add the beef and cook, breaking it up at you go, until just a hint of pink remains.

Stir in the pepperoni, and then add the spaghetti sauce, oregano, and any of the optional ingredients. Tip: if using red wine, you can pour it into the sauce jar and swish around to get everything out. Otherwise, you can do this with a few tablespoons of water.

Stir well. Bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat to low and cook for at least 10 minutes, but the longer if desired. Remember to stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t scorch. Also, if cooking for an extended period of time, I cover and keep the heat very low to make sure the sauce doesn’t become too thick.

Serve over cooked spaghetti.


Feel free to omit the garlic and/or onion if you are not a fan. If you enjoy the onion flavor but not the pieces, allow half an onion (not chopped) to simmer along with the sauce, and then remove prior to serving.

You may omit the pepperoni, but this small amount adds something extra special to this sauce. For a meat lovers version, you can also sauté some sliced, fully cooked sausage before adding the sauce to the pot. If you go heavy on the meat, you may wish to have extra tomato sauce or puree on hand (basic canned is fine at this point) to achieve the best ratio of meat to sauce. I find that one pound of meat is a good amount for every 4 cups of sauce, but you can absolutely adjust to preference with more or less sauce. After the first jar of quality marinara, I tend to wing it sometimes and even used a 16-ounce jar of pizza sauce I had on hand recently. This sauce is the perfect vehicle for raiding your pantry and freezer for tomato and meat ingredients.

Sliced or diced mushrooms could be added with the onions.

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Protocol for safely delivering meals during the quarantine

  1.  Don’t do it if you have any symptoms of illness.
  2. Wash your hands for 20 seconds before you cook and anytime you touch your face, etc.  Consider wearing surgical gloves as added protection.
  3. Use new containers OR wipe down any containers you are using with a bleach/water mixture and then rinse with warm water. Dry with a paper towel.
  4. If possible, load into the trunk of your car to avoid contact with aerosolized germs while in the car.
  5. Use hand sanitizer and/or wear gloves before handling the containers/bag being delivered.
  6. Bring only food that will be heated up (no salads, fruits) so that the heating process kills anything that may have sneaked through.

This information is complements of Pia Boben Fenimore, MD.



I got to work shortly after this post went live, cooking two big pots of sauce. Tip: save the marinara jars for repackaging, wiping them down as mentioned above for the sake of the current quarantine. You’ll have a little leftover, but you can always keep that as a reward for your hard work!

Comfort food at its best, this meaty sauce starts with a jar of your favorite marinara and can be customized in a variety of ways. Easy to make a big batch and freezes well!

I figured the friends and relatives who were receiving the care packages would appreciate a humorous touch. ⇩⇩ My husband had the brilliant thought to include flowers! 🌷🌷🌷

Sauce that's easy to make and perfect for the gift of dinner!

…and I had the last-minute thought to drop a couple of corks in the bags. (If you missed the cork game reference above, see details below😊)

homemade corkboard

I took this photo of Christian’s corkboard in progress. It turned out great, and he had fun making it!

The cork game

Following is how you play the silly game I mentioned above, but some background first: When the boys were little a waiter in a restaurant showed them as a way to entertain themselves while awaiting their food. That was the start of Christian’s cork collection. Every time we went out to eat, he’d ask our waiter if there were any leftover corks, and there were often many…sometimes a lunchbag-size bagful that they happily gave away. Over the years, Christian ended up with a BIG bucketful!

We sometimes play the cork game at the dinner table. The idea is that you drop the cork straight down (pro tip: it helps not to drop it from more than several inches above the table) and see how many drops it takes to make it land standing up. See, I told you it was silly! But if you try, you’ll quickly see how many laughs it produces and how oddly satisfying it feels to have the cork land the “right” way. Last night Christian got three in a row. Impressive, huh? The game turned into everyone playing with his or her own cork, trying to best Christian. 😂

Hiking in Palm Desert

And one more photo, this one from just before the quarantine when we were fortunate enough to visit my parents in California and do lots of hiking-even my 85-year-old dad, pictured at the far left.

Finally, the fitness app I mentioned above is Kira Stokes Fit. It offers a wide range of workouts (short, medium and long, full body or target areas like abs, glutes, arms, etc., or comprehensive body workouts), and the library of offerings is not overwhelming and is easy to navigate. Kira is easy to follow and provides solid motivation, clear instructions and modifications without being overly peppy. She offers a free one-week trial, after which the app costs $9.99 per month and can be cancelled at any time.

This is not an add, by the way. I figured that many others are without their usual gym routine and wanted to share something, amidst the vast array of online options, that I really like. With tools like this, it occurred to me that I could come out of the quarantine stronger than I went in!

If you have a favorite activity that’s been helping you through the quarantine, please share. Together, we will get through this! ❤️💪

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  1. April

    I love how simple and easy to make this spaghetti sauce recipe is! I’ve tried a few different doctoring-up methods in the past, but this one takes the cake. The addition of the balsamic vinegar really gives it a nice boost of flavor. Will definitely be making this again!

    1. Ann Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed the sauce and appreciate your thoughtful feedback, April. The balsamic is a nice finishing touch!

  2. Sasha

    Love the idea of doctoring up store-bought spaghetti sauce to make it more flavorful! Can’t wait to try this recipe and add some excitement to my weeknight dinners.

  3. Danielle Post author

    Ann – i wanted to let you know that i tried this sauce recipe – instead of ground beef i used italian chicken sausage and pepperoni – it was really good! Def will make again!

    1. Ann Post author

      That’s fabulous, Danielle! Thanks for letting me know. Christian loves it when I make pizzas with that sauce – even on an English muffin – for his lunch. Thought I’d mention in case it helps with another meal!

  4. Missy

    Hi Ann,
    What are your go-to jarred sauces? I think I may have asked you before (for an older recipe) but didn’t write your response down!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Missy, I like Rao’s a lot and there are a few local brands that are quite good. For example, I recently discovered Christina Maser’s sauce. It’s fantastic and is one that’s still sold in a 32-ounce jar!

  5. Gail

    Such a up beat post Ann. I liked your husband’s idea about adding flowers. Shopping at the store yesterday I saw a number of people with flowers in their carts. Do your parents live in California now? You often mentioned that they lived right next door to you. That is a big change for everyone in the family. Thank you for such a cheery post today and a peek inside your family’s life right now.

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Gail and thank you! You are right, fresh flowers are so uplifting, and I was glad he thought of them as I was focusing on food essentials! My parents spend the winters in California now, so we are fortunate to still have them very nearby for most of the year…with an occasional fun spot to visit! We were very lucky to have gotten our visit in just before the quarantine. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and for being a loyal reader.❤️

  6. Mary Lopez

    Ann! Thank you for the food delivery guideline from your pediatrician. My friend asked for my homemade bread and I was concerned about how to safely deliver it to her. Mary in Texas

    1. Ann Post author

      Mary, I’m thrilled the timing was right, and how thoughtful of you to bake bread for your friend. I’m sure it will be much appreciated!

  7. Christine

    Thanks Ann. It’s always nice to know that someone is listening and there for you. Thankfully we are not stir crazy yet.