I was on my way home for lunch, already tasting the leftover risotto I’d made the night before, when my Uproxx Life editor, Steve Bramucci called me. “Hey, we need another pasta sauce ranking,” he said, not even bothering with hellos. “But more uniform this time. All the sauces. Only marinaras.”
Son of a bitch. So much for my lunch plans.
I reluctantly agreed. Reluctant because, as you might’ve already inferred from the name, I don’t generally eat jarred pasta sauce. I tend to think Italians and Italian-Americans are overly pedantic about food (pineapples on pizza? they’re fine! prosciutto and melon is basically the same damn thing as pineapples and ham!), but I do agree with the conventional wisdom on this particular point: that getting pasta sauce from a jar is tantamount to pissing in my grandmother’s coffin. (Don’t tell me that was her favorite hobby in life, I already thought of that joke). It’s not 1962. We have fresh ingredients now.
But, you know, lots of people buy jarred marinara. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many different versions of it. People are busy these days and blah blah blah (I’m sorry I don’t have the energy to justify this for you). Not everyone has the fortitude that I do, to live life as this much of an annoying snob. Besides, with so many different brands, there has to be one that’s halfway edible, right? …Right?
There are lots of potential uses for jarred marinara — dunking bread, lubricating an eggplant parm, fake gore for your backyard horror film — but the obvious use indicated on the packaging is for pasta, so it only followed that I should test it that way.
I was all set to test them at room temp, fresh out of the jars, but my wife thought that was gross (“Grosser than eating jarred sauce in the first place?” I asked before she rolled her eyes at me rightfully/disdainfully). So she helpfully warmed each sample for 30 seconds in the microwave before I tasted. I don’t know how much microwaving affects the flavor of a sauce, but I do know that if you have enough time to warm your sauce on a stove top you should probably just make your own sauce. Seriously, it’s like four ingredients. Anyway, we chose the microwave method because it seemed the most relevant to the real-world conditions of jarred sauce consumption.
I tasted each sample blind, fresh from the microwave, using it as a dunking dish for some freshly cooked, DeCecco brand spaghetti. I started the evaluation with looks (“you eat with your eyes first!” -every cooking show ever), moved on to the aroma, and finished with texture and taste.
Newman’s Own Marinara, Prego Traditional, Ragu Old World Style Sauce Traditional, Francesco Rinaldi Original Recipe, Victoria Marinara, Yo Mama’s Marinara, Bertolli Traditional Marinara, Michael’s Of Brooklyn Marinara Sauce, Boticelli Marinara, Mezzetta Marinara Sauce, Classico Cabernet Marinara, Hunt’s Traditional Pasta Sauce, and Rao’s Homemade Marinara, Whole Foods Marinara, 365 Organic Marinara, Cucina Antica Marinara, Lucini Tuscan Marinara, Organico Bello Marinara, Pepe’s Little Napoli Bistro Italian Marinara, Trader Giotto’s Organic Marinara Sauce, Trader Giotto’s Recipe 99 Traditional Marinara Sauce, Dave’s Gourmet Organic Hearty Marinara.
Phew. Dat’s a lotta sowse. This was every marinara sauce available at my local supermarket, plus all those available at both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Personally, I feel like making a separate trip to a specialty store for a premium brand of jarred pasta sauce is counter to the spirit of this entire endeavor. I mean if you have that kind of time you should just — fine, fine, I’ll stop beating this horse.
It was interesting how easily these sauces naturally separated into three distinct categories: sauces I might eat on purpose, sauces that were fine, and sauces that were bad. The top category was head and shoulders above the rest, actually approaching products I might buy/eat. Not to put on my own pasta, but maybe for some very specific situation in which I absolutely needed to save five minutes. I’m sure that scenario it exists, I’ll have to think on it.
Here we go, then — the best marinara pasta sauces on grocery store shelves:
STRICTLY FOR EMERGENCY RATIONS
I won’t mince words here, these ones truly sucked. I expected that from the Hunt’s — which came in a can, cost $1.09, and was generally packaged more like an ingredient than a finished sauce — but a couple of these had the look and feel (and price tag) of a specialty premium item and still tasted distinctly bad. My big takeaway is that you absolutely can’t judge based on the label.
22. Yo Mama’s Original Marinara, $7.99 on sale, regularly $9.99.
I had been choosing these based on packaging alone, Yo Mama’s would’ve been my top three. But this was really bad. To be fair, this one has about a third of the sodium that Rao’s does, so maybe it was a BYO seasonings kind of a sitch. I don’t know. All I know is that tasted blind fresh from the micro it was awful.
Looks: Pretty red color with chunks and herb flecks.
Nose: Tomato soup.
Taste: Watery, underseasoned, with undercooked vegetable flavor. Awful.
21. Michael’s Of Brooklyn Marinara, $7.99 on sale, regularly $9.99
Everything about the price and packaging of this seems to suggest a very good product. And yet…
Look: Rich puree, slightly darker red in color.
Nose: Pepper and oregano.
Taste: Undercooked and underseasoned. Just bad and bland.
20. Hunt’s Traditional Pasta Sauce, $1.09
I didn’t really expect this canned sauce that cost a dollar to compete with nine-dollar jars of premium sauce, and it didn’t. Is it not supposed to? It still says “pasta sauce” on the can…
Looks: Like tomato soup.
Nose: Vegetal, and oregano forward.
Taste: Very spice heavy. Not at all a sugar bomb, but I don’t especially like it.
19. Classico Cabernet Marinara, $3.29 on sale, normally $3.49.
These sauces all had basically the same ingredients list. What made the bad ones bad mostly seems like poor cooking and seasoning.
Looks: Purée with isolated chunks. Kind of what I imagine jarred sauce looks like in my head.
Nose: Campbell’s tomato soup.
Taste: Watery, with uncooked vegetable flavor, not great seasoning. Possibly the worst so far. (I tasted this one early.)
18. Cucina Antica Marinara, $6.99 on sale, regularly $8.39
Look: Medium chunky purée with a few oil droplets. Sort of salsa consistency.Nose: Tomato soup, smells… canned, somehow?
Taste: Mostly like uncooked canned tomatoes, but with an oddly bitter note? Underseasoned… not a fan at all.
EDIBLE IN A PINCH
These make up the “mushy middle” of my rankings — fairly indistinguishable from each other and mostly not very good, but not rinse-your-mouth-out bad either.
17. 365 Organic Marinara, $2.39
It says “no sugar added” on the label and it tastes like they compensated with salt. (At 410 mg of sodium it’s one of the saltier sauces, but still behind Trader Giotto’s Organic’s 500 mg and Trader Giotto’s Traditional’s 590 mg).
Look: A very herby-looking purée, this one not as dark in color, though not bright either.
Nose: Can smell the herbs from a few feet away. Up close it smells intensely of dried Italian seasoning.
Taste: Just tastes like salt and herbs. Bad.
Additional notes: This one actually had a bum jar that we had to jimmy open.
16. Victoria Marinara, $6.99
This turned out to be one of the many sauces that look fancier and classier than your basic Pregos and Ragus but don’t taste any better.
Looks: A little ketchupy.
Nose: Undercooked tomato.
Taste: Sauce barely coats the noodles, which is weird. Watery? Doesn’t taste as bad as I imagined, but just sort of watery and blah.
15. Organico Bello Marinara, $5.99 on sale, regularly $7.99
This was one of the lower sodium options (at 230 mg). But unfortunately, tastes like it.Look: soupy, a little visible oil, nice vibrant red with a few visible herbs.
Nose: Tomato soup
Taste: Thin, dull, slightly underseasoned. Tastes undercooked and blah.
14. Prego Traditional, $3.99
This was definitely the sweetest, but sugar only takes you so far. Maybe they needed all that sugar to hide all those super veggies?
Looks: Healthy color, smooth purée, visible herbs.
Nose: Thick and pizza-y.
Taste: Coats okay. Odd green veg flavor, very sweet. Holy sugar bomb! Tastes cheap. Had to drink water after this one to get the syrupy taste out of my mouth.
13. Francesco Rinaldi Original, $2.19 on sale, regularly $2.99
This one was the only one with pecorino romano on the ingredients list. That seems almost like cheating, but I’m happy to report that I couldn’t taste it at all and it seemed in every other way like a middling entry on this list. It was also the only one in a plastic jar.
Looks: Very smooth purée but color looks healthy/fresh-ish.
Nose: Dried oregano.
Taste: Sweet and ketchup-like. Might be okay for a pizza but… no.
12. Bertolli, $4.99 on sale, regularly $7.99
Again, it’s edible. Not sure why this one is regularly $7.99.
Looks: Looks like straight tomato purée.
Nose: Pizza sauce.
Taste: Goopier texture. Heavy on tomato paste flavor but seasoned okay and no undercooked veg flavor. Not much for herbs.
11. Ragu Traditional Marinara, $1.91 (!!)
I mean it’s not good and is definitely a sugar bomb, but it’s not as bad as you might expect for a buck 90.
Looks: A chunkless puree. I see one seed, maybe a pepper fleck.
Nose: Undercooked tomato paste.
Taste: Goopy and sugary, very paste forward. Edible, but only just.
10. Lucini Tuscan Marinara, $7.99
Lucini’s South American olive oil is my go-to at the supermarket, so I had high hopes for their organic sauce in this handsome jar. It was decidedly meh.
Look: By far the thickest of any of these sauces. Visible tomato seeds here and there — just looks like very thick tomato slurry.
Nose: Tomato soup, maybe a little tomato paste.
Taste: Very tomato-forward, and on the fresher-tasting side, but with just a hint of a canned tomato aftertaste. Sort of undercooked tasting. Not the worst, just… lacking.
9. Pepe’s Little Napoli Bistro Italiano Tomato, Garlic, and Basil Marinara, $7.99
Look: Very thick and red, almost like applesauce. Looks like the sauce you’d get with breadsticks.
Nose: Tomato, plus slightly more herbaceous — dried oregano.
Taste: Sweeter, but not in a fake sugar kind of way. Vaguely sun-dried tomato taste. Okay, but not complex enough. Lacking seasoning or fat or something.
8. Trader Giotto’s Organic Marinara, $2.49
Look: Smooth purée with lots of visible herbs and the occasional shard of visible garlic and onion.
Nose: I didn’t even have to get my nose close to this one to smell the herbs. Mostly oregano, seems like.
Taste: Herbaceous (obviously), and not as cloying sweet — very much on the overseasoned end of the spectrum but not disgustingly so. More oregano than I get down with, but not gross.
7. Boticelli Marinara, $4.99 on sale, normally $7.99
Looks: Italian chopped polpa.
Nose: Stewed tomatoes.
Taste: Sugary, but not awful. Tomato paste texture.
6. Trader Giotto’s Recipe #99 Traditional Marinara, $1.39
Like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s has two different sauces. This one is better and very cheap.
Look: Thinnest one so far, but with chunks. More like taco bar salsa than table salsa. Lots of visible seeds and herbs.
Nose: Canned tomato soup. Vaguely peppery/herby.
Taste: A lot better than it looks or smells, interestingly. Right on the edge of overseasoned and over-herbed, but not quite.
5. Dave’s Gourmet, $8.49
Handsome label. Sauce was just okay.
Look: Smooth purée with black pepper flecks. no visible tomato seeds, slightly darker red.
Taste: Coats the noodles okay, decently seasoned, not bad. Decent though not amazing.
4. Newman’s Own Marinara, $2.99 on sale, regularly $3.19
There was a fairly significant gulf between the top three and this one, but an equally big gulf between this one and the rest.
Looks: Darker red with chunks, sort of a chunky salsa texture, like Pace picante sauce. Not great.
Nose: Barely there.
Taste: Sweeter but actually not bad. The veg tastes cooked, there’s a decent amount of olive oil and it’s properly seasoned. (Tasted this one second)
I would eat these. Even pay for them if some situation demanded that I have bulk sauce and I didn’t have the very little time it takes to make my own.
3. Whole Foods Marinara, $5.69
This is one of two Whole Foods brands, an imported sauce from Italy and the more expensive of the two, though not actually that expensive relative to the rest of the list. Weirdly, this one was miles better than the 365 brand organic marinara. Go figure.
Look: Bright vibrant red with some visible oil. Chunkless purée.
Nose: Tomatoes with some kind of savory note.
Taste: Fresh tasting, well seasoned, sweet enough, decently balanced – right amount of olive oil. Definitely sweet, but not at all a sugar bomb. Not bad. Not bad at all.
2. Mezzetta Marinara Sauce, $7.09
Mezzetta, a company out of Napa Valley in California, had one of two sauces that I would consider putting on food, and it was pretty close between Mezzetta and our winner. Mezzetta had a brighter, almost red peppery/sundried tomato quality to it (even though the ingredient list is virtually identical) that was a bit of an outlier for these.
Looks: Approaching homemade sauce — nice color, thick purée, tomato seeds here and there. Lighter in color, like roasted red pepper.
Nose. Garlic and sun-dried tomato? Different, but not unpleasant.
Taste: Nice and bright, good olive oil balance. Red peppery? Decent sauce.
1. Rao’s Homemade Marinara. $6.99 on sale, regularly $9.19.
For all those of you who bitched the last time I didn’t include Rao’s in my rankings, congratulations! Take your victory lap. This did indeed taste the most like a “homemade” sauce. Just visually it seemed to have more olive oil in it, which tends to coat better and adds a nice roundness to the flavor. Olive oil is relatively expensive (certainly the most expensive ingredient in marinara) though, so it would make sense why brands would try to skimp.
Of course, this is all speculation (though Rao’s has seven times the fat — this is “good fat,” not saturated — of Prego or Ragu, suggesting that I might be onto something). While Rao’s tasted better seasoned than many of the sauces, it was well within the normal standard of sodium for these.
Bottom line: I tasted all the sauces not knowing what they were or anything about how they were made and this one passed the taste test.
Blind tasting notes below:
Looks: More visible olive oil than most other ones. Lighter red, looks more appetizing.
Nose: Roughly what my homemade sauce smells like.
Taste: Nice onion/garlic backbone to this, and well seasoned. Pretty decent, actually. From my notes: “Best so far.” (I tasted this one fourth).
I don’t work for any of these brands so I’m not here to tell you that doing this challenge has given me a greater respect for jarred marinara or that you should feel good about buying them instead of making your own. It hasn’t, and you should feel bad. If I’m being honest though, I have to admit that rather than letting it go to waste, I did use the rest of my Rao’s jar to simmer some sausage I had in the freezer and combined it with my last tomato from the garden and some mozz and parsley to make this nice baked penne.
Not gonna lie, it was pretty good.