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Prepared Pesto

From Two Modern Stews

How we tested

We like basil pesto tossed with pasta or roasted potatoes, spooned over grilled chicken, and as a flavorful spread on pizza and sandwiches. When fresh basil is in season, it’s easy enough to make pesto from scratch. But for a quick weeknight meal, especially in the colder months, store-bought pesto is a tempting option. We scooped up seven traditional basil pestos (also called pesto Genovese), priced from $2.99 to $11.49 per container, including shelf-stable glass jars, a shelf-stable squeezable tube, and a refrigerated tub. We sampled each pesto plain and tossed with hot pasta.

Packaged Pestos Are Generally Disappointing

We’ll cut to the chase: Most samples were subpar. Traditional pesto Genovese is made from just basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, and olive oil. But several products in our lineup had long lists of ingredients that included outliers like yeast extract, potato flakes, and cashews. One brand bulked up the basil with cheaper spinach, a move our tasters emphatically disapproved of. And even if the pestos had the classic ingredients, too much salt or garlic could overwhelm the basil flavor. Worst of all, many of the products also had odd musty, bitter, and sour off-flavors. In fact, just one of the pestos earned our full approval. It didn’t have the same concentrated basil flavor as homemade, but its thick, creamy texture and pronounced cheesy flavor (it contains both Parmesan and Romano) made it the clear favorite in both of our tastings.

Why Do So Many of Them Taste Oddly Sour?

After confirming that none of the products was near its expiration date, we started searching for something to explain those off-flavors. Nuts and olive oil go rancid quickly when exposed to light or air (a process called oxidation), and basil’s flavor starts to fade once its leaves are chopped. Any of these ingredients can go bad before packaging and may develop off-flavors over time in the jar. As a result, many manufacturers rely on preservatives like lactic acid and acetic acid. Although they’re intended to ensure freshness, they have the unfortunate side effect of adding noticeable sourness.

Our Favorite Prepared Pesto Products

The best product was the only refrigerated pesto, one of just two products that lack preservatives. The other, our runner-up, was a cheese-free, shelf-stable pesto sold in a glass jar. They both use primarily olive oil, which is slower to oxidize and go rancid than vegetable oils. But the jarred pesto, although it was our runner-up, was polarizing. Many tasters missed the sharp, creamy bite of Italian cheese; others liked that the “nutty,” buttery flavor of cashews and pine nuts stood out. As a result, we can only recommend it with reservations. The top prepared pesto, Buitoni Pesto with Basil ($6.29 for an 11-oz tub), was our clear favorite.

Editor’s Note: The brands use a variety of serving sizes. We converted all to 60 grams, which equates to roughly ¼ cup.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*