When our last ranking of grocery store marinara sauces ended up doing really well, my editor Steve piped up with another request. “You should do Alfredo sauces next.”
I let out a long, pained groan. If I had been disapproving but mostly agnostic about store-bought marinara (I don’t buy it, but I don’t consider it actively harmful) Alfredo sauce is something approaching an abomination before God. Jarred marinara sauce is a little lazy; jarred alfredo is a product that maybe shouldn’t exist. Whereas pre-made marinara mostly has the same few ingredients you’d use at home, making a shelf-stable jar of dairy and cheese would seem to necessitate a lot of weird bullshit — all manner of thickeners, stabilizers, and various space-age polymers (I can only assume).
And… for what? Alfredo sauce is easy. Like, really easy. Even easier than marinara, which is already super easy. Contrary to the assumptions from certain parts, it’s also pretty good.
When I was growing up, alfredo sauce, in the form of the ubiquitous “fettuccine alfredo,” was one of those orders that instantly marked you as a bumpkin — the Italian food equivalent of going to a fine steak house and ordering your meat well done and slathering it with A1. I have a weirdly enduring memory of my cousin slumming it with some Fettucini Alfredo over the objections of the rest of the family at a nice red sauce joint and then puking it up later that night. I’ve remembered this for almost 30 years.
This stigma, however, is largely unfair. FA’s poor reputation partly stems from the fact that most of us were raised on this cream-heavy, Americanized perversion of the original dish (I call it a “dish” rather than a “sauce,” because ideally, noodle and condiment should be inseparable like that). Zach has already written about the history of fettucini alfredo. Long story short, a better alfredo is out there, and it’s really easy.
Again Zach has the whole recipe here, but even that is sort of the “date night” version. It’s really only a few ingredients, and I’ve made it without using a sieve on the cheese like Zach did and it seemed to work just fine.
- Cooked Pasta
- Pasta Water (about a third-ish cup of the salted water you just used to cook your pasta)
- Softened Butter
- Parmesan Cheese
- Black pepper to garnish.
You just combine your cooked pasta with softened butter, lots of grated parmesan (a younger parmesan melts better and probably works best for this), and add just enough pasta water to create a creamy emulsion. You should end up with noodles individually coated in a creamy, cheesy sauce. Add black pepper and you’re done. There’s your Alfredo sauce. It’s a one-pot meal! And a total crowd-pleaser.
Of course, the “real” alfredo is time-sensitive, and most of these jarred alfredos seem to be attempting to recreate the old, 1980s Italian-American restaurant version of alfredo sauce — with onions and garlic and flour, and enough crap in them to make them shelf-stable and pourable (everything from vegetable stock to dehydrated milk to powdered egg yolks). Their flavor usually lands somewhere in the vicinity of ranch dressing, bechamel sauce, New England clam chowder, and French onion dip. Not great, Bob! Strange aftertastes abound.
So, now that I’ve done my best to debunk the idea that anyone would need jarred alfredo sauce, here is my ranking of every alfredo sauce I could find on the shelves of my local grocery stores for some reason. Let this be a lesson: every popular thing inevitably warrants a sequel, and sequels are never as good as the original. If my marinara ranking is Michael Corleone, Alfredo is… Fredo.
Just as a little slice of my life, I should add that as I was checking out of the grocery aisle with my cart full of gross alfredo sauces that I didn’t want to eat, one of the jars rolled out of its plastic bag and shattered on the floor. I watched, helpless, as a big glop of nasty white sauce flew from the shattered bottle and glorped upon a bagger’s black shoe and pant leg, as if slow motion, as if a giant seagull had gotten loose inside the store. I apologized profusely and scurried out of there like an insect.
Just like I did with marinara, I tasted all of these sauces blind, dunking my cooked pasta in them after a short nuke in the microwave (again, using a separate pot to gently warm jarred sauce felt contrary to the spirit of the endeavor). I rated them on look, smell, and taste.
I tried to limit this just to sauces labeled “alfredo” with as few modifications as possible, but I did throw a few vegan ones in there just for fun. In my head, vegan ones have more of a reason to exist than the non-vegan ones, considering how easy it is to make non-vegan alfredo yourself. I have parmesan lying around, guar gum and cashew cheese not so much.
The lineup (and also the order in which they were tasted):
- Dave’s Gourmet Aged White Cheddar Alfredo
- Classico Four Cheese Alfredo
- Sonoma Gourmet Creamy Alfredo
- 4 Newman’s Own Alfredo
- 5 Rao’s Homemade Alfredo
- 6 Bertolli Alfredo Sauce
- 7 Sonoma Gourmet Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo
- 8 Primal Kitchen No Dairy Alfredo Sauce With Cashew Butter
- 9 Ragu Classic Alfredo
- 10 Whole Foods Alfredo With Roasted Garlic
- 11 Victoria Vegan Alfredo Sauce
- 12 Botticelli Alfredo
12. Whole Foods Alfredo With Roasted Garlic, $8.99
Looks: More like bechamel than queso, clearly a thickener in there, probably flour.
Nose: Not much, just pepper and flour.
Taste: Oh God, what is that? What IS that? This is awful. Reaching for the water.
The Whole Foods marinara was one of my favorites in the marinara competition, and this was clearly another attempt at a premium product. It just had a very strange aftertaste that I found off-putting — like maybe the garlic was over roasted and bitter? Or maybe it was just unexpected after all the non-garlic sauces? I generally like garlic, so I’m scratching my head a little bit over my reaction to this one. Something about it tasted very off though.
11. Victoria Vegan Alfredo Sauce, $5.99
Looks: Greyish and presumably vegan. Has that liquidy pasty texture, like tahini. Microdroplets of oil on the surface.
Nose: There’s a jolt of some perfumy herb that I can’t identify. Spice forward.
Taste: All kinds of lemon and pepper and spices. Weird. Definitely doesn’t make me think “alfredo.”
I’ve had things with cashew butter or cheese that I’ve enjoyed, but this one was just a strange lemon-herb bomb. Too many flavors going on.
10. Sonoma Gourmet Creamy Alfredo, $5.99
Look: Beige, with some visible microdroplets of oil on the surface.
Nose: Again, very ranch-like. What is that smell? Cauliflower?
Taste: Legit gagged on my first bite of this one. Just tastes like straight-up ranch. Really gross. I would use this for wings, maybe, but absolutely not pasta. Nasty.
Oddly, of the two Sonoma Gourmet sauces, the one that reminded me of cauliflower was this regular alfredo, not the vegan one made with actual cauliflower. Anyway, this one was really ranch dressing-y tasting. In retrospect, I think the ranch dressing flavor I detected in some of these might come from dried onions and/or dried garlic. This one’s ingredient list includes vegetable stock and dehydrated vegetable stock which might account for the ranch dressing qualities. In any case… not good.
9. Primal Kitchen No Dairy Alfredo Sauce With Cashew Butter, $7.99
Look: Like grey baby puke. With pepper flakes. I assume this one is the cauliflower one. (Truly the most disgusting looking of all the sauces).
Nose: Herbs, pepper, inorganic matter.
Taste: Oh God, why is it so gelatinous? This one looks like a jellyfish just shit a chia seed smoothie. It tastes quite a bit better than it looks, I’ll say that for it. If it hadn’t I might be getting my stomach pumped right now. More sort of just savory and very herb-forward.
If I was full-on blindfolded and hadn’t been expected something that resembled alfredo, this might not have been so awful. It didn’t taste that bad, it was just hard to overcome that bizarre color and texture.
8. Sonoma Gourmet Creamy Cauliflower, $6.99
Looks: Weird and chunky. Looks a little like New England clam chowder.
Nose: Sort of ranchy again.
Taste: Like lemony and grainy? What even are those chunks? It tastes like lemon juice thickened with drywall paste. I think there’s dried onion in there?
In retrospect, I assume those chunks were the cauliflower, which is much less gross when you know what they are. But as with this brand’s non-vegan sauce, all that veg stock and dried veg made it taste like ranch dressing.
7. Rao’s Homemade Alfredo, $8.99
Look: Pastier, almost tahini-like in appearance. A little more grey than the others, with micro oil droplets on surface.
Nose: Smells like what I imagine alfredo to smell like. Nothing too unnatural smelling.
Taste: Gross. Not the worst one, but not natural in texture or flavor, despite the welcoming smell.
Rao’s was my favorite marinara, but their dominance apparently doesn’t extend to the realm of alfredos. Perhaps that’s to their credit.
6. Newman’s Own Alfredo, $2.99
Look: Whiter, with more pepper flakes. Very uniform texture.
Nose: Not much going on. Just savory plainness.
Taste: Thick, coats my mouth, with a foul, unnatural aftertaste. I actually said “yuck” and had to drink water right afterward.
This one definitely wasn’t good, but the phrase “Newman’s Own Alfredo” makes me giggle. I wish he was gesturing at his crotch on the label.
5. Boticelli Alfredo Sauce, $6.99
Looks: White with whiter specks in it, very gelatinous. Looks like it has some weird thickener like guar gum or tapioca paste. Almost a barbecue sauce texture.
Nose Lemon pepper.
Taste: I taste mostly parmesan, but also some kind of slightly disconcerting herb and/or preservative.
“Tasting mostly parmesan” is a big win for jarred alfredo sauce.
4. Classico Four Cheese Alfredo, $2.50 on sale, regularly $3.49
Look: Whiter and more ranch dressingy.
Nose: Kind of even *smells* ranch-like. Can’t tell if I’m imagining this.
Taste: From my notes: “Guessing this is one of the vegan ones. It doesn’t taste awful, it just has that odd, processed texture.”
Is it bad when a non-vegan alfredo reminds you of vegan alfredo? Probably.
3. Bertolli Alfredo Sauce, $3.15
Looks: Very white, kind of like queso dip. Thick like queso too.
Nose: Cream cheese.
Taste: Comes on sort of normal in a processed cheese way, like Velveeta or Kraft singles. Not bad, though there’s a sort of processed aftertaste.
2. Dave’s Gourmet Aged White Cheddar Alfredo, $7.99
Look: Beige? Three isolated pepper chunks. Some skin on top.
Nose: Mostly cream, with a little flour.
Taste: Very nutmeg forward, with flour aftertaste. Basically like a bechamel with a pepper aftertaste. From my notes: “Much more reminiscent of bechamel sauce than alfredo sauce. Don’t hate it, don’t love it.”
This one doesn’t have nutmeg on the ingredients list, so maybe it was just the black pepper and I’m insane. It didn’t taste too badly of thickeners or stabilizers though, which was nice.
1. Ragu Classic Alfredo, $2.00
Looks: Another one that’s very white with pepper flakes, kind of like queso dip.
Nose: Barely there. Flour?
Taste: Very cream forward, but the least processed tasting so far. No weird aftertaste.
It turns out, not having a weird aftertaste is about the best you can ask of jarred alfredo. Go figure, the two-dollar sauce was the big winner.
“Winner” being somewhat relative in this case. Maybe I’m just not creative enough to have thought of a situation in which these sauces might be useful yet. For now, I’ll just say… make your own alfredo, folks. Hell, buy your parmesan pre-grated if you have to. I think the moral of the story is that cheese you melt yourself is probably always going to taste better than a cheese product that stays liquid at room temperature.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter.