Spaghetti with canned clams and fresh tomato sauce is a real weeknight standout. All it takes are a couple pantry items and some fresh tomatoes. In less than 30 minutes, you’ll have a delicious, briny, and bright pasta dish that will make you want to pack your bags and travel to southern Italy after the first forkful.
I’m a big believer in a good pantry. It’s not about the size, it’s about having the right ingredients on hand, so you’ll never have that 5:30 pm what-should-I-make-for-dinner feeling again. Canned seafood is one of my key pantry items. I always have some canned tuna, salmon, chopped clams, and - why not crab - locked and loaded in the pantry for a quick, tasty, weeknight dinner.
The best thing about canned seafood is: It’s not only reasonably healthy, but also doesn’t expire for a very long time and isn’t too hard on the budget. When it’s on sale, picking up a few extra cans will allow you to save a couple of bucks for that trip to southern Italy you’ve been dreaming about for so long. 😉
- Pasta pot
- Large skillet
- Chopping board
- Okay, you’re right, and a can opener.
- Clams - Yes, purists are right: fresh clams are the way to go. But not everyone has access to fresh clams when the weeknight “let’s start making dinner” chime sounds. Canned clams are just fine. It’s no fuss. It’s convenient. I prefer chopped over minced clams and the reason for this is texture. Chopped clams give a “clammier” (that should be a word) mouthfeel than minced clams. You can also use canned whole clams, of course.
⭐ Pro tip: Besides using the clam juice from the canned clams, I highly recommend having a bottle of pure clam juice in your pantry as well (they’re sold right next to the canned clams). Adding some pure clam juice toward the end will give this dish that extra briny and bright flavor that you want to achieve.
- Tomatoes - I like cherry tomatoes for this dish. Cutting them in half and sautéing in olive oil for about 5 minutes, and then crushing them with a wooden spoon before adding the other ingredients makes a nice combo of sauce and juice.
⭐ Pro Tip: Add an anchovy or two when you add the tomatoes to the olive oil. Try it - even if you wouldn’t eat anchovies out of the jar, they add great depth and umami. It’s one of those little things that will make all your tomato-based sauces just a little bit better than anybody else’s.
- Pasta - We could write a book about which pasta is right for which sauce. The philosophy is simple: Use the one that you have on hand and/or like the most.
We prefer spaghetti, fettucini, and linguine for light, olive oil, and pasta-water-based sauces (like in this recipe). When mixing the pasta with the sauce before serving, these shapes will get an even coating of the sauce to achieve maximum flavor.
Tubular pasta like penne or rigatoni is best with chunky meat sauces that don’t require a delicate coating of sauce before serving.
🔪 Prepping ingredients
Before we start cooking, let's make sure we have all the ingredients measured and ready. It takes away the pressure of looking for that bottle of clam juice in the back of the pantry when you’re just about ready to serve.
Separate the clams from their juice by straining over a bowl and set both aside. Thinly slice the garlic. Roughly chop the flat-leaf parsley. Cut cherry tomatoes in half (or if using larger tomatoes, cut them in ¼-inch chunks). Have the olive oil, salt, black pepper, anchovies, and red pepper flakes (if used) standing by. Squeeze half a lemon to get about 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Have a measuring cup ready for the pasta water.
⭐ Pro Tip: This is me talking from experience: I’m working on a dish and, as always, I'm planning to add some starchy pasta water to my sauce at the end. The sauce is ready, I’m getting ready to put the dish together. I’m draining the pasta and, oops, there goes the pasta water down the drain…again. There’s one simple trick to forever avoid this mistake: when you place the colander in the sink, put a bowl underneath the colander. When you drain the pasta, the colander will “magically” catch more than enough pasta water to finish your sauce. Next, dip your measuring cup into the bowl and grab as much as you need.
Start with the pasta water. Cook the pasta in a pot of well-salted boiling water until it’s just al dente, no more. The pasta may still get a little softer when mixed with the sauce before serving. Drain the pasta and reserve about ½ cup of the pasta water.
⭐ Pro Tip: How much salt should you use to cook your pasta? According to Marcella Hazan’s classic cookbook, “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”, she recommends: "For every pound of pasta, put in no less than 1-½ tablespoons of salt, more if the sauce is very mild and under-salted.” I don’t measure. I add salt, stir, and taste. I want to taste the salt in the water without the feeling of swallowing seawater.
✨ Note: Don’t use oil in your pasta water. It’ll just sit on the surface of the water and won’t do anything (remember from school: water and oil don’t mix). Okay, it helps to prevent the pasta water from rising and boiling over. But this problem can easily be solved by adjusting the heat. Pasta is sticky at first when it starts releasing starch. Once the water starts to boil again after adding the pasta, the starch will settle and won’t stick any longer, but will start mingling with the salt water to create the base for your sauce. Just make sure to stir your pasta a couple times in the first few minutes. That’s all.
Oh, and I heard a guy say the other day that he adds some oil to the colander after rinsing the pasta to keep it from clumping up. Nope, please don’t. You just gave your pasta a non-stick surface and when trying to coat it with the sauce, it will act accordingly… 😅
While the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the tomatoes (and anchovies, if using) and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and crushing the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Then add the garlic, salt, and pepper, and cook for another minute (be careful not to burn the garlic).
Add the reserved clam juice from the can and ½ cup of the pasta water. Increase the heat if needed and stir frequently to emulsify the pasta water with the clam juice, for about 3 minutes.
Reduce heat or remove from heat and add red pepper flakes (if using), cooked pasta, clams, and parsley. Mix very well to make sure the pasta is evenly coated. Add 2 tablespoons of pure clam juice and 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Mix one more time and serve with a slice of crusty bread and a glass of your favorite light red or white wine.
Tasting while cooking is the holy grail of achieving a great result. It’s especially important when creating a subtly flavored sauce like this one. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out the right amount of salt to add. A wonderful trick I learned from the wonderful book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat, works like magic:
⭐ Pro Tip: Put a little bit of the sauce on a spoon and taste it. Then again, put a little bit of sauce on the spoon. But this time, add a tiny sprinkle of salt. Is it tastier this time? No? Serve without adding any more salt. Yes? Add some salt to the pan and try again. Repeat as necessary. From now on, your soups, stews, and sauces will always be perfectly salted. Thank you, Samin!
Be creative, make it your own.
Do you like capers? Add them.
Do you want to make the sauce a little more substantial? Add a tablespoon of butter when adding the pasta water.
Can’t eat pasta without cheese? No problem, add some finely grated cheese (like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano) when adding the pasta water and stir until the cheese has melted and become part of the sauce.
⭐ One last tip: If you don’t want to use anchovies or feel like making the tomato sauce “dirty and umami,” here’s the secret sauce that will elevate your sauce-making to the next level: add a splash of fish sauce. Don’t smell the bottle when opening it. This is strong stuff. But once added, it’ll mingle with the other liquids and add some real magic.
Looking for more delicious dinner recipes? Check out a few of our favorites now!
- Creamy Garlic Shrimp Pasta
- Spanish Sardines Pasta
- Penne with Cream and Smoked Salmon
- Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo
- Seafood Newburg
- Shrimp Tacos with Avocado, Grapefruit, and Creamy Cilantro Sauce
- Linguine with Clams (Linguine alle vongole)
- No-Knead Herb Infused Ciabatta Bread
- Italian Almond Cake
- St. Joseph Pastries
Did you make this Spaghetti with Canned Clams and Fresh Tomato Sauce? Let us know in the comments below!
Spaghetti with Canned Clams and Fresh Tomato Sauce
- 8 ounces spaghetti
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (about 1 Tablespoon)
- 6 ounce can of chopped clams
- ½ cup clam juice, reserved from can
- 2 Tablespoons pure clam juice (bottled)
- 1-2 anchovies (optional)
- ¼ cup reserved pasta water
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- ½ cup roughly chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt (plus more for cooking pasta)
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Cook the pasta in a pot of well-salted boiling water until it’s just al dente, no more. The pasta may still get a little softer when mixed with the sauce before serving.
- Drain the pasta and reserve about ½ cup of the pasta water.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil over medium heat.
- Add the tomatoes (and anchovies, if using) and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and crushing the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
- Then add the garlic, salt, and pepper, and cook for another minute (be careful not to burn the garlic).
- Add the reserved clam juice from the can and ½ cup of the pasta water.
- Increase the heat if needed and stir frequently to emulsify the pasta water with the clam juice, for about 3 minutes.
- Reduce heat or remove from heat and add red pepper flakes (if using), cooked pasta, clams, and parsley. Mix very well to make sure the pasta is evenly coated.
- Add 2 tablespoons of pure clam juice and 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
- Mix one more time and serve with a slice of crusty bread and a glass of your favorite light red or white wine.