The supermarket is filled with a maddening number of pasta sauce options. Are any worth buying?
Published Feb. 1, 2018. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 12: Italian Comfort Food Classics
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?
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...
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