Reviews you can trust.See why.
Jarred Pasta Sauce
The supermarket is filled with a maddening number of pasta sauce options. Are any worth buying?
Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce
What We Learned
Tomato sauce is a staple of Italian American cooking, and though we usually prefer to make our own from canned or fresh tomatoes, some nights call for a quick dinner of pasta and jarred sauce. Though tomato sauce can be fairly simple—consisting of tomatoes, oil, and spices—choosing a jar from the supermarket is not. Brands such as Ragú and Classico offer more than a dozen sauces apiece. How the heck does a home cook figure out what to buy?
We narrowed the options by eliminating anything with cheese, meat, vegetables, cream, or wine, focusing on simple sauces from the 10 best-selling national brands, priced from $1.59 to $9.39 a jar. We heated the sauces until simmering and sampled them plain and tossed with spaghetti.
Simple as tomato sauce can be, we found striking differences in the products. Half the sauces were “borderline inedible.” They were cloying like “bad barbecue sauce,” were inundated with “pine-flavored” herbs reminiscent of “air freshener,” or had a “mealy,” “wet” texture like “baby food.” In the end, we could fully recommend only two sauces. What set these products apart?
Tasters Demand No Added Sugar and Whole Tomatoes
We zeroed in on the first culprit: sugar. Most of the sauces in our lineup contained added sugar or corn syrup, for a total of 5 to 11 grams of sugar (including those naturally occurring in the fruit) per ½ cup of sauce. These saccharine sauces were sickly sweet, more reminiscent of ketchup than tomato sauce. By contrast, our favorite products had no added sugars and only 3 or 4 grams of sugar per ½ cup. We thought these sauces had balanced tang, subtle sweetness, and rich tomato flavor.
But ideal tomato flavor wasn’t just a result of less sugar. Tasters found that sauces seemed to fall into two categories: Some had a very “reheated” flavor that came off as dull, while others tasted fresher and more vibrant. A look at ingredient labels revealed that the lackluster sauces were made primarily from reconstituted tomato paste with some diced tomatoes thrown in for texture. On the other hand, the manufacturers of our favorite sauces confirmed that they started with whole tomatoes. Experts from the tomato product industry explained that the majority of tomatoes grown domestically are processed into paste because paste has a long shelf life and can be reconstituted into an array of products, including juice, sauce, ketchup, and soup. However, the additional heat and processing required strip the fruit of its volatile aromas, which can result in a dull, cooked flavor. Though tomato paste has a place as a supporting character in chilis and stews, we preferred sauces made from whole tomatoes, which p...
Everything We Tested
This sauce had “vibrant tomato flavor,” “bright” acidity, and “gentle aromatic undertones” of garlic and basil. Its hearty dose of olive oil lent a “buttery,” “creamy” richness to pasta. Tasters also loved its “balanced,” “natural” sweetness, which reminded many tasters of “homemade.” The manufacturer confirmed that it uses imported whole tomatoes.
This sauce, which is made with imported whole tomatoes, was “zippy,” with “roasted” notes reminiscent of sauce that’s been “long-simmered.” Added olive oil made for a “savory” sauce that coated pasta nicely. “I would keep this on hand for superquick dinners,” said one taster.
Recommended with reservations
This product had “rich,” “deep tomato flavor” for a sauce made from tomato paste, but some tasters were distracted by its “sweet” and “herby” notes, which could be a bit “cloying.” Still, many liked the simplicity of this “mild” sauce and appreciated its “subtler” garlic flavor.
Another “mild” sauce, this product tasted strongly of “concentrated tomato paste”—unsurprising, since tomato paste is one of its primary ingredients. Tasters thought its “thick” texture “coated pasta well,” but most agreed that this “sweet” sauce was “totally middle of the road in every way.”
This “punchy,” “sweet” sauce was “complex” for some tasters but a little too “funky” for most. Its “thick” texture and “candy” sweetness drew comparisons to “ketchup” and “barbecue sauce.” Though this “familiar” product evoked nostalgia for some, most agreed that this sauce lacked fresh tomato flavor.
“Is this ketchup?” asked one taster about this “suspiciously smooth” and “syrupy” sauce. Its “candied” sweetness was far too sugary and reminded tasters of “cafeteria spaghetti.” Those that could get past the sweetness deemed this sauce “boring” and “bland.”
Because it was made with reconstituted tomato paste, a lack of added sugars actually worked against this product, which was deemed “blindingly acidic” and “sour.” It fell short on fresh tomato flavor and was “overpowered” by “dusty” notes of dried oregano and basil.
“I’m being assaulted by herbs!” wrote one taster about this sauce’s “stale” basil notes, which were compared to the “sickly” smell of a “car air freshener.” Other complaints included “mealy” tomatoes, “cloying” sweetness, and an “overcooked” flavor.
This “candy-sweet” sauce had “barely discernible tomato flavor” and was plagued by “heavy” notes of “vegetal,” “dusty” herbs. Its texture was “grainy” and “thin,” and many tasters picked up on a “chemical,” “soapy” aftertaste.
The wettest sauce of the bunch, this canned product had a “thin,” “watery” texture that was “overprocessed” to a “baby food” consistency. This loose sauce left lasagna a “wet” mess of slippery layers. Worst of all was its flavor, which was dominated by “sour tomatoes” and “stale herbs.”