20 Different Types of Pasta Sauces Explained
Pasta is undoubtedly one of the most beloved foods of all time. Of course, no pasta dish would be complete without a sauce of some sort.
From indulgent, creamy options to simple sauces with two or three ingredients, the type of pasta sauce you choose can make or break your dining experience.
A handful of pasta sauces have stood the test of time and are beloved globally. These are the sauces we’ll be breaking down today.
Keep reading to find out the stories and ingredients behind the most popular pasta sauces and what types of pasta pair best with each.
1. Aglio e Olio
Aglio e Olio translates to “garlic and oil” in Italian, and that’s exactly what this sauce is made with.
It’s an easy, quick sauce whose beauty lies in its simplicity.
The ingredients that make up this pasta sauce are, of course, garlic and olive oil, in addition to red pepper flakes and parsley.
The garlic is cooked in olive oil until golden brown and fragrant, the red pepper provides a slight kick, and the parsley adds freshness.
Garlic is the main player here, taking center stage with its toasty, pungent flavor.
Since the sauce is so simple, you can easily taste each ingredient inside.
Spaghetti is the most popular pasta to serve with Aglio e Olio sauce.
Olive oil-based sauces pair well with long, thin strands of pasta that can be evenly coated for maximum flavor.
2. Alfredo Sauce
Alfredo is a rich, creamy sauce that is said to have originated in Rome, Italy, in 1908.
It’s named after Alfredo di Lelio, an Italian restaurateur who created the sauce to restore his wife’s appetite after giving birth.
Traditionally, Alfredo sauce is made with butter, parmesan cheese, garlic, and heavy cream.
This mix of rich ingredients makes for a velvety texture and creamy, cheesy, and slightly nutty flavor.
Depending on the recipe, add-ins like nutmeg, fresh parsley, and white wine are brought into the mix to bring out the beloved flavors of the sauce.
By far, Alfredo sauce’s most common companion is fettuccine.
Fettuccine is a long, flat pasta shape that is easily and evenly coated.
Other long pasta shapes, such as linguine and tagliatelle, make for a great pairing with Alfredo sauce.
Amatriciana is a traditional Italian pasta sauce that originated in Amatrice, Italy (hence its name).
The three main ingredients in this sauce are tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino romano cheese.
Guanciale is salty cured pork jowl. Some recipes call for pancetta, as it’s much easier to find in-store than guanciale.
The sauce also features onions, red pepper flakes, and occasionally white wine.
Amatriciana sauce is beloved for its hearty, savory flavor profile.
The guanciale and pecorino cheese add some salty umami, bringing out the bright, zesty flavor of the tomato.
Amatriciana is traditionally served with bucatini, which is essentially spaghetti with a hole through the center.
The hollow center is perfect for trapping extra sauce, and this chunky sauce is also great with other hollowed-out shapes like penne or rigatoni.
4. Arrabbiata Sauce
Arrabbiata is a fiery, spicy sauce whose name translates to “angry” in Italian.
The spice here comes from fresh chili peppers or red pepper flakes.
The sauce also contains olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and usually onion or shallots.
The most prevalent flavors in arrabbiata are garlic and spice.
It’s fairly similar to a marinara sauce because of all the overlapping ingredients, but it’s less sweet and packs much more of a punch in the spice department.
Arrabbiata pairs excellently with penne because its ridges allow the sauce to stick to the pasta and evenly coat each piece.
All pasta shapes go well with arrabbiata sauce, but something with nooks and crannies is ideal.
5. Bechamel Sauce
Bechamel is a velvety, creamy French sauce that’s a key part of dishes from scalloped potatoes to casseroles to pasta.
Bechamel’s main ingredients are butter and flour, but other ingredients like milk, salt, and nutmeg are usually added to achieve desired flavor and texture.
Bechamel sauce serves as a mild, delicate base for any pasta dish, allowing other ingredients to be added in and be the main flavor of the sauce.
Plenty of mac and cheese recipes use bechamel as a base and many lasagna dishes layer bechamel with tomato and sheets of lasagne.
6. Bolognese Sauce
Before we get into the nitty gritty of bolognese, let’s discuss the difference between this sauce and ragù, which are sometimes discussed interchangeably but have a notable difference.
Essentially, ragù is a broad term for various meat-based sauces, and bolognese is a specific type of ragù.
Bolognese is a type of ragù, but not all ragùs are bolognese.
Okay, now let’s get into specifics. Bolognese is a type of ragù from the city of Bologna in Italy.
It’s a slow-cooked meat sauce that usually features both ground beef and pork.
The veggies are a mix of carrots, onion, and celery. It also contains milk, stock, tomato paste, and wine.
While most ragùs are tomato-heavy, bolognese uses milk and white wine for a mellow, creamier sauce.
The most popular partner for bolognese is spaghetti. In fact, spaghetti bolognese is one of the most famous pasta dishes of all time.
7. Butter Sage Sauce
Butter sage sauce, also known as “burro e salvia” in Italian, is a simple, delicate, and flavorful sauce.
The main ingredients here are sage leaves, salt, and butter, but many recipes also call for parmesan cheese and garlic.
As the butter melts in the pan, it browns and develops a nutty, complex flavor profile.
The sage fries in the hot butter and becomes nice and crispy throughout the cooking process.
Brown butter and sage are naturally autumnal flavors, so butter sage sauce goes well with ingredients like pumpkin, butternut squash, and mushroom.
This makes it an ideal candidate to cover your autumnal stuffed ravioli with.
8. Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe is a traditional Italian sauce from Rome.
It’s a deceivingly simple sauce, only made with a couple of ingredients, but it’s a total flavor bomb.
Cacio e Pepe means “cheese and pepper” in Italian, and that’s exactly what this sauce is.
Made with pecorino romano cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and pasta water, the sauce is smooth and velvety.
Pecorino Romano is a salty, hard cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Once the starchy pasta water is added to the mix, it ensures a cheesy yet smooth texture that evenly coats each strand of pasta.
Fresh black pepper lends a kick of spice to bring it from a regular cheese sauce to something new and unique.
Cacio e Pepe is commonly paired with spaghetti, but any long pasta shape will go equally well.
9. Carbonara Sauce
The next type of pasta sauce we’re covering today is shrouded in mystery.
No one knows exactly who to credit for the invention of carbonara sauce, and we don’t even know the century it was created in.
Some claim it was popularized during the Second World War, while others say it was invented to feed hungry charcoal miners in the 1800s.
No matter the case, carbonara is one of the most beloved pasta sauces today.
Its main ingredients are eggs, pecorino romano cheese, pancetta or guanciale, and freshly ground black pepper.
It’s slightly reminiscent of Cacio e Pepe because of the pepper and cheese but is set apart by adding salty pork and creamy egg yolk.
The fatty guanciale (or pancetta, depending on the recipe) brings a major pork flavor to the sauce and gets crispy as the sauce cooks.
Carbonara sauce is best paired with long, thin pasta shapes.
The most common choice is spaghetti, but other long pasta shapes like linguine or fettuccine are also popular.
10. Cheese Sauce
One of the most popular pasta dishes of all time is a comforting, warm, gooey bowl of macaroni and cheese.
While the pasta part is essential, there’s no denying that cheese is the star of this show.
Cheese sauce comes in all different consistencies, colors, and calorie counts.
All cheese sauces have one very important characteristic in common: their main ingredient is cheese.
Most commonly, the main cheese will be cheddar or gruyere.
Other ingredients like flour, milk, butter, and seasonings are added to achieve desired texture and flavor.
When done correctly, cheese sauce will coat pasta evenly and cling to whatever shape the pasta is.
Most commonly, it’s paired with short, tubular pasta like elbow macaroni, penne, or ziti.
11. Clam Sauce
Clam sauce’s star ingredient is, of course, clam meat.
Some recipes call for canned clams while others feature fresh clams, but either way, this pasta sauce is light, briny, and packed with seafood flavor.
Clam sauce also contains a mix of garlic, olive oil, white wine, parsley, and red pepper flakes.
Clams can be sweet or salty depending on where they come from, but most will lend a delicately sweet flavor to your pasta sauce.
Depending on the amount of red pepper flakes, this sauce can have a little kick to it, while white wine keeps things bright and light.
Due to their light flavor and delicate texture, clams are best paired with long, thin pasta to complement the sauce’s taste and consistency.
Linguine is the most common pairing, but spaghetti is also a popular choice with clam sauce.
12. Garlic Butter Sauce
Garlic butter is a simple butter-based pasta sauce, but it’s intensely aromatic.
The sauce contains garlic and butter but may also feature fresh herbs, seasonings, and bright additions like lemon juice or white wine.
Since the sauce is made largely with melted butter, the consistency is rich and creamy while not becoming too heavy, which can happen with cream-based sauces.
I love pairing garlic butter with seafood pasta because the garlic and butter provide some savory, aromatic flavors without covering up the delicate flavor of crab, lobster, and shrimp.
If anything, it brings their flavors out even more.
13. Lemon Butter Sauce
Lemon butter sauce is a tangy, bright concoction that combines the zest of lemons with the smooth creaminess of butter.
The flavors couldn’t be more different, and yet, when combined, they create one of the most beloved sauces to ever grace a plate.
Fresh lemon juice and butter are the main ingredients in this sauce, but herbs and seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic, and parsley are often thrown in to round out the flavor.
The butter mellows out the lemon juice, so the sauce won’t make you pucker, but it definitely has some zest to it.
Just like the garlic butter sauce, lemon butter sauce has a smooth, creamy texture that feels indulgent without being overly rich.
This sauce pairs well with long, thin pasta, but its texture and consistency allow it to adhere to pretty much any shape.
The bright lemon pairs well with any summer flavor, from zucchini to basil.
14. Marinara Sauce
Marinara is universally considered one of the best pasta sauces.
It’s a simple yet timeless tomato-based sauce that’s been in cookbooks since the mid-16th century.
Though recipes vary, marinara’s most basic ingredient list is tomato, garlic, onion, olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, and basil.
As the sauce simmers away, garlic and onion release their aromas, and the tomatoes become a thick sauce and the main source of flavor.
People love marinara for its unique ability to be sweet, savory, and acidic all at once.
Such a versatile sauce means that marinara pairs well with any pasta shape.
It’s particularly popular with tubular varieties such as penne, as the hollow middle of these pasta shapes allows chunky marinara to be easily transported to your mouth.
15. Pesto Sauce
Pesto is a green, herbaceous sauce that has been around in some form or another since ancient Rome.
Pesto sauce’s main ingredients are fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, grated parmesan, olive oil, and salt.
Traditionally, pesto is made by crushing all these ingredients with a mortar and pestle, but a blend or food processor works pretty much the same.
Pesto sauce is bright and herby thanks to basil, its star ingredient.
Pine nuts give the sauce some nuttiness and its signature texture, while parmesan brings the rich, salty taste we associate with pesto.
Pesto is a delicious sauce with pasta on its own, but it also makes a great sauce for pasta salad.
Its bright, herby flavor enhances the taste of veggies in the salad, from cherry tomatoes to corn to onions.
16. Pomodoro Sauce
Besides marinara, Pomodoro sauce is another tomato-based pasta sauce that reigns supreme in Italy and around the world.
Its ingredients are almost identical to those of marinara – olive oil, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and basil.
Onion and oregano are missing here, though, which is the main flavor difference.
The big difference between Pomodoro and marinara lies in the texture.
Marinara is a runny, more liquidy sauce, while Pomodoro is much thicker.
Pomodoro sauce has chunks of tomato throughout, providing a thick, rich texture.
Just like marinara, Pomodoro sauce works well with any pasta shape, but the more nooks and crannies, the better to capture all those tasty chunks of tomato.
Puttanesca is a tomato-based pasta sauce that bursts with a salty umami flavor.
It’s made with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, olives, capers, and red pepper flakes.
The explanations for this colorful name vary, but one interpretation is that brothels would cook this sauce, and its aroma would lure men inside.
Whatever the case, puttanesca is still loved today for its bold, in-your-face flavor.
The anchovies, olives, and capers bring the sauce a piquant, zesty note.
Red pepper flakes bring a slight kick, and tomato brings freshness, but the overall flavor here is that salty brine from the capers and anchovies.
Spaghetti is the classic pairing for puttanesca sauce, but most other shapes will work just as well.
As I mentioned earlier, ragù is a broad term for various meat-based sauces.
Bolognese is one of the most popular iterations, but there are plenty of other ragùs that can be a perfect partner for your pasta.
While recipes vary, most ragùs are made with different types of meat, from ground pork to ribs to diced bacon.
The sauce also contains herbs and spices like garlic, oregano, basil, and bay leaves.
No matter the meat and veggies included, ragùs are always comforting, warm, and filling.
Traditionally, ragù is paired with a long, flat noodle like tagliatelle or pappardelle because the broad, flat surface allows for optimal space for the sauce and meat.
19. Truffle Cream Sauce
Truffle sauce is creamy, indulgent, and the richest pasta sauce on today’s list.
Truffles are fungi with a distinctly earthy, umami flavor.
Truffle sauce’s main ingredient is truffle, either fresh or in the form of oil or paste.
The other components of the sauce are butter or olive oil, garlic, heavy cream, and parmesan cheese.
The butter or olive oil and heavy cream make for a luxurious, super-rich sauce packed with flavor.
Truffle sauce goes well with any pasta shape, from flat, thin tagliatelle to round, thick gnocchi.
Whichever pasta shape you pair it with, the truffle cream sauce will be the star of the show.
20. Vodka Sauce
The final type of pasta sauce we’re covering today is my personal favorite – vodka sauce.
There are many variations of vodka sauce, but its three base ingredients are tomatoes, vodka, and heavy cream.
Vodka sauce is creamy and rich yet also light and fresh at the same time.
The tomato gives the pasta that classic marinara taste, but the cream makes the dish taste just a touch more special and indulgent.
So, what exactly is the vodka’s part in this sauce?
Well, you’ll not taste it or get drunk as you eat your pasta since the alcohol is cooked out during the cooking process.
However, it does ensure a cohesive texture that melds the cream and tomato into one perfectly smooth and balanced sauce.
There are hundreds of pasta shapes out there, and the types of pasta sauces are just as varied.
From a classic, simple marinara to a bold, savory truffle sauce, there’s a sauce out there for every palate.
Which is your favorite pasta sauce?