Life

The Best Grocery Store Pasta Sauces, Ranked By An Absolute Pasta Snob

When it comes to jars of pre-made pasta sauce, I’m basically a blank slate. I may have eaten it once or twice in college; I don’t remember. For the most part, I look at pasta sauce in a jar the same way I look at soup in a can: more emergency ration than everyday food. Fit more for a bomb shelter than a pantry. Incidentally, I do remember eating Phyllis Diller-brand chili out of a can growing up, so it’s not as if I was raised by ascotted gourmands in a French boulangerie or anything.

To be clear, it’s not that I thought that you’d burst into flames or explode in cellulite if you ate pasta sauce from a jar. I just thought… why? It doesn’t seem like that much of a time saver. For a really simple pasta sauce, you could put some olive oil in a pan, brown some garlic, throw in a chopped tomato or two, maybe some cream and parsley if you nasty, and you’ve got yourself a sauce. That takes maaaaybe five minutes longer than it would take to heat up sauce from a jar, and that’s being generous. In either case, less time than it takes water to boil, so it’s moot anyway.

Jarred pasta sauce seems to exist on the premise that pasta needs an elaborate sauce, which it doesn’t. Most times, a little cheese and pepper works just fine.

That being said, these are simply my personal biases as an Italian-American kid inculcated with the standard prejudices. It doesn’t mean they’re right. A few weeks back, I learned to make fancy Top Ramen with Chef Melissa King, and I wondered if perhaps Italians could take a lesson from the way Asian-Americans have learned to live with and remix the instant versions of their traditional foods, rather than fighting against them. It’s possible, just maybe, that Italians are a smidge pedantic and over-precious. That’s not to say I’ve become a full jarred-sauce convert, I’m just saying I went in trying to keep an open mind.

The Method

My God, I had no idea there were so many different jarred pasta sauces. Clearly, this is a growth sector. Prego and Ragu have at least five different varieties each, plus every celebrity chef, brand, and restaurant seems to have one. This list could’ve been 50 sauces long, but I imagine nobody wants to read all that and I sure don’t want to eat all that. I ended up choosing 10 sauces, mostly from brands that I’d heard of and tried to limit my sample to marinara or the closest variant thereof.

To serve, I used a sous vide bath to heat them all up to 110 degrees inside their jars. I then sampled each, both as a dunking sauce for some store-bought garlic bread, as well as mixed with spaghetti. I used Barilla brand spaghetti. I didn’t test them with fresh noodles because if you’re taking the trouble to make fresh pasta (try my recipe) and you put sauce from a jar on it you are clearly insane.

Generally Speaking

Virtually all of these sauces were pretty passable as a dunking sauce for garlic bread. If I were ever to actually use them, it’d probably be for that purpose, or as a pizza sauce. If you’re doing the work for home-made pizza, I can definitely see the validity in just having a jarred sauce on hand. Also, and not that it would’ve mattered, but I tasted these blind, thanks to my spouse (*Borat Voice* MAH SPOUSE), who was kind enough to plate and number them.

Vince Mancini

The Competitors

Vince Mancini

Also, Truff’s super fancy Black Truffle Pomodo, which arrived after I took this photo.

The Rankings

10. LITTLE ITALY IN THE BRONX MARINARA. Price: $8.99

Notes: Porridgey texture. Few visible tomato seeds. Darker in color. Tastes very processed, like canned tomato soup or Chef Boyardee. I grade this one a D.

Thoughts: The jar said all the right things — “crafted from Imported Italian Tomatoes, Fresh Garlic & Sea Salt” — plus the charming, Godfather-esque picture of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx on the label. Yet this one, more than any of the others I tasted, had that “canned” flavor I associate with tomato soup or canned pasta. It definitely needed… something.

Oddly, it was the second most expensive of the bunch.

9. BERTOLLI VINEYARD MARINARA (with Merlot Wine). Price: $3.69

Notes: Chunkier, but no tomato seeds. Darker red color. Not great on bread, surprisingly. Tastes fresh and vegetal but somehow… not really in a good way? It’s kind of like mushy, underseasoned veg and the spice balance is baby food bland.

Thoughts: This one didn’t necessarily taste bad so much as unfinished. If you simmered it for 10 minutes and added a little salt and pepper I could see it being decent. But that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

8. RAGU OLD WORLD STYLE SAUCE (TRADITIONAL). Price: $1.91

Notes: This one just looks sad and processed. It’s dark in color and with a ketchupy consistency. Taste test confirms. Similar canned, Chef Boyardee-type flavor, though maybe not as bad as number two [The Little Italy].

Thoughts: I actually didn’t look at individual prices at all until the end, but it’s funny that the second most expensive sauce and the cheapest ($1.91! How about that!) tasted the most similar to me.

7. LIDIA’S TOMATO BASIL SAUCE. Price: Normally $8.99, but on sale for $5.99.

Notes: Bread test: good texture, visible tomato seeds, which makes me think it’s fresher for whatever reason. Taste is sweet and tomato-y. Full bite with the noodles gives more pepper flavor. It has a mildly spicy finish. Maybe an uncooked bell pepper flavor? Solid “meh.”

Thoughts: I imagine that “uncooked bell pepper” I thought I detected was probably the basil. This one looked and tasted fresh, like real tomatoes, I just found the spice mix slightly off. It was the spiciest, but the other spices were just not quite right.

6. NEWMAN’S OWN MARINARA. Price: Normally $3.19, on sale for $2.79.

Notes: Porridgey in texture. Dark red, with no seeds, which makes me think “less fresh” in my head for whatever reason. On bread: tastes like standard pizza sauce. Is that dried oregano, maybe? Ketchup-like texture. Sweet and tomato-y but otherwise not that well spiced.

I grade this a C. It tastes like canned pizza sauce.

Thoughts: Paul Newman has been dead since 2008. Makes you wonder who’s really been making the sauce over there.

5. MEZZETTA ITALIAN PLUM TOMATO MARINARA. Price: $5.99.

Notes: Lighter red with visible tomato seeds, which at least makes me think it’s going to be fresher. This tastes much different than the others, way less straight canned tomato flavor. Although I think maybe it’s just much oilier. It definitely doesn’t have that tomato soup flavor but I’m not sure I love what it has, either.

Call it a C+.

Thoughts: This is the one I probably would’ve bought first, just based on the jar design and look alone. It also has the kind of name that makes you want to make the Italian hands whenever you say it. Ay, Mezzetta, where-a you puttem-a you-a papa medallione? This one was just such an outlier in terms of flavor and texture that it might’ve just been a weird juxtaposition. It had so much more olive oil than the others, you could see the oil just looking at it (not necessarily a bad thing, I generally have a fair amount of olive oil in my homemade sauce). Which makes a lot of sense, considering I mostly knew Mezzetta as an olive brand before this.

Y’all laundering olive oil over there??? Someone should look into this.

4. PREGO TRADITIONAL. Price: $3.99.

Notes: Medium red in color with green (?) flecks in it. Kind of a puree texture. Good with the bread, though noticeably sweet, even with the bread. Much more visible herbs than the others. On noodles: sugar, sugar, sugar! This one is just straight sugar, it’s practically a jam. That being said, it does mask the canned flavor very well. It’s pretty good in these small bites though I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t want to eat a lot of it.

Thoughts: Yes, this one had the most sugar of any of the brands. Making your pasta sauce this sugary is sort of like putting a super heavy limiter on your audio track. It makes it stand out in a crowd right away, but you lose all the dynamic range in the flavors and you’d end up probably getting sick of it real fast.

It tastes good, but in a way that feels like cheating.

3. CENTO MARINARA. Price: $7.49.

Notes: Nice texture, not too ketchupy. Darker red in color. Some visible seeds. Tastes balanced on the bread. On the noodles it’s a little thin, but the spice balance is right and it tastes like “real” tomatoes. This tastes the most like my homemade marinara to me. Though it doesn’t especially knock my socks off, either.

Has a marinara ever knocked my socks off? Probably not. I give this a solid B+.

Thoughts: I could definitely see using this as a pizza sauce if I got lazy. I think I’d still rather make a bunch of sauce myself and freeze it, but this is certainly passable.

2. TRUFF BLACK TRUFFLE POMODORO. Price: $30 for two, at Neiman Marcus.

Notes: Obvious truffle smell, not hard to guess which sauce this is. Beautiful orange-red color with dark flecks (presumably truffles). Nice purée texture, no visible seeds, oil coats the noodles just right. The lighter reds seem fresher for whatever reason. Tasting… oddly I don’t taste truffles nearly so much as I smell them. Taste-wise it’s much heavier on sweet-tomato, though not artificially sweet-tasting, like a lot of them. It’s also probably the spiciest, both black pepper and something else. Maybe crushed red pepper?

Tomatoes and spice are the dominant flavors.

Thoughts: A late-entry into the contest, Truff sent us their black truffle sauces while I was writing this. For the record, I didn’t ask for it and this is not advertorial. I can’t deny that it’s pretty good. And it has truffles, so it’s sort of cheating. For $30 I could get a gourmet plate of freshly-made pasta at a restaurant. At that price, a jar of truffle sauce should make me feel like a Tuscan piggy with a snout full of fungi — this just doesn’t.

That being said, the quality difference between this and the $3 stuff is pretty obvious, and it’s a pretty solid spicy tomato sauce.

1. PIONEER WOMAN FOUR CHEESE PASTA SAUCE. Price: $4.99.

Notes: Pretty color, nice texture — clearly more “body” in this one. Maybe one of the cheese-based sauces? Good on bread, as they all have been so far (I tasted this one third). With pasta — best so far. Definitely some meat or cheese flavors detected here. This is very clearly not an entirely plant-based sauce. The spice mix is nicely balanced. Oil seems emulsified.

Solid B+.

Thoughts: This was just the first jar I grabbed off the shelf, and I left it in the challenge even though it wasn’t strictly a marinara, just to see what would happen. It would be surprising that a decidedly non-Italian sauce from the cowboy lady with the gingham label (*dismissive wanking motion*) would be my top choice, but then it’s not very surprising in light of the fact that it was the only sauce with cheese.

That being said, it was pretty tasty. The spice balance was on point. I ate all of my tiny little spaghetti bowl of it. I could definitely see putting some of this out for a bread-dunking sauce and it being a hit.

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