Jarred Pasta Sauce: A Taste Test

June 25th, 2012 · 50 Comments · Pasta

Sometimes I wonder if I’m channeling my culinary energies in the proper direction. Because when the kids come home from school (or camp, or whatever is ending at 3:00 these days) they sit down at the kitchen table and eat their after-school snack the way Mr. Fox does in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Which is to say, like wild beasts. Phoebe’s order is pretty typical, and simple enough for her to put together on her own: popcorn and fruit, cheese and crackers, apples with peanut butter. Abby, on the other hand, expects more. She expects nothing less than a big bowl of pasta, prepared a very specific way — with a pat of butter, a sprinkling of sea salt, and just a spoonful or two of tomato sauce mixed around until the whole thing looks “pink.”  This little tradition started about two years ago, right after I lost my job and realized that I had a much better shot of getting her to clean her plate at 3:00 than I did at dinnertime. Often Abby stands over me as I stir the sauce into her spaghetti or orrechiette or cavatelli, monitoring the progression in color until it’s just right. I’m not going to go into detail about why I have no problem giving her what calorically ends up being a fourth meal — all I’ll say is that it’s sorta doctor’s orders — but what I do have a problem with is whipping up a homemade pasta sauce for a snack, i.e. the meal that is supposed to merely tie one over until dinner a few hours later. And so this is how we’ve become jarred sauce afficionados — always on the lookout for a new kind to try from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, Stop & Shop or the local Italian Market. Once, at Stew Leonards, Abby spied a jar of marked-down Rao’s marinara, and you would’ve thought she had spotted the Pope himself. “Mom! It’s $3.99 for RAO’s. You can’t NOT buy a jar at that price!”

This is also how we found ourselves coordinating a blind taste test at the kitchen table on Saturday to determine which jarred sauce out there is the best. Or, to put it another way, which jarred pasta sauce is least likely to incur some kind of curse from the grave of my childrens’ two Italian Great Grandmothers. We spent a morning tracking down all the sauces that are readily available to us (including a pizza sauce from Trader Joe’s that Abby insists is the best) then, after dusting off my old Real Simple road test skills, I typed up a questionnaire for Abby, Phoebe, and their father. Each of the 10 sauces (including one quick-and-dirty homemade one I put together in 10 minutes, the time it takes to heat a prepared sauce) was spooned into its own Dixie Cup and served at room temperature. (No one knew which sauce was in which cup except for me.) The three judges were given ten small pieces of bread each, one to dip in each cup, and tested the same sauces at the same time, in between tastes, cleansing their palates with a sip of seltzer made with our brand new seltzer maker.

After each taste, the judges recorded some notes, gave the sauce a grade between 1 and 5, with 5 being the best, and 1 being the worst, then had to decide if the sauce should “go to Vegas” — which is So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance parlance for “go to the next round” and which, in the end, didn’t really mean anything but was still good for a laugh. We did conduct a Vegas round, but ultimately the winner was determined by adding up the point scores.

Above, the judges in action. Amazing how much you can get done on a Saturday afternoon when there are no organized sports to race off to.

The Results

The winner did not shock me — in my experience, Rao’s consistently trumps the competition in these kinds of contests. And amazingly, it can accomplish this without the massive amounts of sugars that helped  the two runners-up (Don Pepino and Newman’s Own) snag their victories. But what really surprised me here were the supposed gourmet brands that ended up being absolute doozies.  Take Whole Food’s Organic Classic Pasta Sauce, for example. Some of the words used by our judges to describe it? “Plasticky” and “artificial.” (Is this what you’d expect from their popular organic 365 line?) But at least that one was on the more affordable end of the spectrum  – the one that really made me mad was Mario Batali’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, which I picked up at a specialty kitchen store for TEN DOLLARS. (Business expense, I told myself.) What did our judges have to say about this one? “Horrible. Spat in garbage” and “As if it was made in a test tube, designed by people who have never tasted actual tomatoes.” Even though the lowest point score one could dispense was 1, Abby decided nothing short of a negative 100 grade would express her disgust sufficiently.

As for my homemade sauce, which came in sixth — behind Ragu for chrissakes! — I’m just going to tell myself it’s a relief: Unless I have time to make it the real way, it’s not going to be good, so what’s the point?  Anyway, here are the full results of the test, in order from best to worst.

WINNER: Rao’s Homemade Tomato Basil
Overall Point Score: 12 1/2
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 340 mg
“Best sauce ever. Fresh not too sweet — great flavor.”
“Tastes fairly real, nice texture.”

RUNNER-UP: Don Pepino Spaghetti Sauce
Overall Point Score: 12
Sugars: 5 grams sugar
Sodium: 530 sodium
“Real tomato taste. Not chemically.”
“I liked how light it was. Not too thick.”

THIRD: Newman’s Own Marinara
Overall Point Score: 11 1/2
Sugars: 8 grams
Sodium: 460 mg
“Sweet, nice deep red color, flavor is pretty good, but still too much sugar. Lots of oregano.”
“Freshly sweet.”

4. Trader Joe’s Pizza Sauce
Overall Point Score: 10
Sugars: 6 grams
Sodium: 700 mg
“Sweet. Yummy. Half & Half.”
“Weird aftertaste, slightly burned flavor. Deep color. Very subtle heat.”

5. Ragu Old World Style Traditional
Overall Point Score: 10
Sugars: 7 grams
Sodium: 480 mg
“Smooth. Almost too smooth.”
“Very sweet. No herbs. Like ketchup.”

6. Quick Homemade (Made with Tuttorossa Tomato Puree, Onions, Garlic, Oregano, Basil)
Overall Point Score: 9
Sugars: 1 teaspoon sugar
Sodium: 1 teaspoon salt
“Bit fresh. Too sweet.”
“Texture a little liquidy and smooth. Tons of sugar.”

7. Trader Joe’s Organic Marinara Sauce
Overall Point Score: 7
Sugar: 3 grams
Sodium: 490 mg
“Not enough herbs. Not enough Tomato-y flavor.”
“Not enough freshness.”
“Like ketchup. With garlic. Not good.”

8. 365 Organic Pasta Sauce Classic (Whole Foods)
Overall Point Score: 3
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 500 mg
“Weird artificial taste, plasticky, makes me want to hurl.”
“So unnatural! Horrible! No Way Anything!”

9. Trader Giotto’s (Trader Joe’s) Rustico Pommodoro Pasta Sauce
Overall Point Score: 3
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 360 mg
“Too busy running to garbage to take notes.”
“Throw-uppy. Disgusting. Nothing good.”

10. Mario Batali Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce
Overall Point Score: -98 (that’s a negative 98 owing to Abby’s grade of negative 100)
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 180 mg
“As if it had been made in a test tube, with fake tomatoes, designed by people who have never tasted actual tomatoes.”
“Horrible. Doesn’t take like tomatos. Spat it in garbage.”

All nutritional information is based on 1/2 cup serving.

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50 responses so far ↓

  • 1 naomi // Jun 25, 2012 at 8:43 am

    love this! we have the same issue in our house, except that our pasta lover wants hers with just freshly grated parmesan and butter, so it’s fairly simple.

    how fun to do the taste test! I’ve never heard of Rao’s so I’ll look for it. I often use a jarred pasta sauce to get my own “homemade” started …

  • 2 jmbh // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Try Deb Perelman’s Three Ingredient Pasta sauce http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/01/tomato-sauce-with-butter-and-onions/
    Delicious and super fast!

  • 3 Jenny // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:21 am

    JMBH: I’ve made that one via Marcella, but not quick enough for after-school unfortunately. But yes: DELICIOUS and definitely quick enough for a weeknight dinner.

  • 4 Tara // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:47 am

    We make a pasta sauce that’s very simple: olive oil, garlic, 1 can of Muir Glen crushed tomatoes, and basil, either fresh or dried. A quick spin of the emersion blender smooths it out for those who don’t like it chunky. We freeze it in little containers which thaw very quickly so that it’s always available for our Small Past Tyrant, a.k.a. 7 year-old daughter. With the addition of a little oregano, it also makes a good quick pizza sauce.

    The Muir Glen tomatoes make all the difference. They’re so much better than anything else we’ve tried.

  • 5 Shannon // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

    This is awesome! American’s Test Kitchen should absolutely start a series with kids (or you could beat them to it!) Is the RAO sauce easy to find at grocery stores or is it a specialty store brand?

  • 6 Andrea // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    So glad I read this. Was going to make spaghetti & meatballs tonight, I always toil away making homemade sauce. Now I am off the hook and will be picking up Rao’s this afternoon. Whew!

  • 7 Carla // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:07 am

    My favorite part about this post was trying to guess which comments were from the kiddos and which were from Andy. I bet that “Throw-uppy” is not in his vocabulary, but I could be wrong!

  • 8 Flora // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Have to agree, Rao’s is very tasty. Their whole canned tomatoes are also amazing…I can’t figure out what it is, but it surprises me how good it is every single time. We only buy (well, hoard) it when it’s on sale, though.

  • 9 Bea // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

    So fun! Thank you for sharing. Ever since a friend introduced me to Rao’s, I have never bought any other sauce. Amazingly delicious! Worth every penny and finding it on sale makes my day!

  • 10 Kari // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I will have to try Rao’s.

    I also find the “Classico” brand sauces to be pretty good and not too sugary.

  • 11 Claire // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I like Dave’s Gourmet Red Heirloom which I find at Home Goods/TJMaxx for a reasonable price of about $5.99 or so a jar (retail on Dave’s website is $8.99). It has 4 grams of sugar and only 280 grams of sodium per serving and no additives of any kind. I love the taste but it also lends itself to doctoring up with grated carrots, onions, capers, etc. Anything I’ve ever tasted from the line is terrific. A lover of anything tomato, I was also happy to find a new Heinz ketchup with 75% LESS sugar! It’s deliciously unsweet and not cloying like regular versions.

  • 12 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I agree, I think Rao’s IS the best of the jarred!

    But a close runner up for me (not sure if they have it on the East Coast) is Muir Glen Organic tomato sauces. REALLY GOOD!

    What a fun post!

  • 13 Liz // Jun 25, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Totally agree that Rao’s sauce wins hands down. I hoard it when it goes on sale. I will eat it from the jar when I’m prepping dinner because it is delicious. My current favorite quick homemade one is the recent Bon Appetit Pasta Al Pomodoro (from April 2011).

  • 14 Jan @ Family Bites // Jun 25, 2012 at 11:08 am

    What a fun post!

    I’m not familiar with Rao’s, and not even sure I can buy it here in Canada, but I’m certainly going to try and find it.

  • 15 sadie // Jun 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I was also going to recommend Classico sauces. Inexpensive, minimal sugar, good-tasting.

  • 16 Nancy // Jun 25, 2012 at 11:56 am

    So disappointed in Mario Batali. Have fond memories of eating amazing food at Po before he became famous.

  • 17 Anne // Jun 25, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much regarding your sauce. I have had issues with the flavor of Tuttorosso canned tomatoes particularly the ones with the green label. If you’re making sauce, try a different brand of canned tomatoes like Muir Glen or even Hunt’s.

  • 18 Shannon // Jun 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I think Rao’s is an east coast product. I had never heard of it before moving to NJ. People swear its the best sauce (and if anyone is wondering, you can order it online). I prefer Victoria’s brand to Rao’s though.

  • 19 Claire // Jun 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Try Pomi which I think is the best virgin tomato product and sauce base on the market. Fresh Italian tomatoes in a puree or chopped version that haven’t been fiddled with. Just tomatoes. I always use the chopped variety because I like the texture; I’m going to try and somehow concoct a cocktail with the puree, vodka and spices. Another good thing is that Pomi comes in a tetrapak and not a can so not only is there no salt or sugar there is no BPH.

  • 20 Kate // Jun 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    One of the best jarred sauces I’ve found is the Safeway store brand marinara. It’s got a nice kick. I’ve had it so much lately that we’re actually a little sick of it :)

  • 21 Kim // Jun 25, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    If it makes you feel any better we have not used the jarred stuff since trying your homemade marinara. Goodbye Prego!

  • 22 Andrea // Jun 25, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Love this! Try Victoria Marinara next time. They sell in shoprite for about $5 a bottle… next to Rao’s its our favorite!

  • 23 Ashleigh // Jun 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Rao’s used to be our go-to until we discovered… Ooma Tesoro’s! It’s made by a husband and wife team in the Berkshires. Whole Foods has just started carrying it, so it’s worth picking up a jar for your taste-testers next time you go. You could put it head to head with Rao’s!

  • 24 Jennifer Cullen // Jun 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Love this taste test. My kids are always bugging me to buy Rao’s because the one or two times they had it, they LOVED it. Now I know it’s not just because of the price!

  • 25 Juha // Jun 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    I agree Whole Foods pasta sauces are the worst–they taste like ketchup. The best marinara sauce, IMHO, is Trader Joe’s–not the ones listed here, but the one that comes in a can (I believe it’s low fat). It tastes freshly made and is not disgustingly thick like most jarred sauce.

    Rao’s, on the other hand? Overrated.

  • 26 Sharon // Jun 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Cool! Loved this post…had to finally comment and let you know it kind of made my day.

  • 27 Carlinne @ Cook With 2 Chicks // Jun 25, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    The tasting notes are hilarious! I don’t usually buy jarred sauce except for from our favorite local Italian restaurant, (olive oil, black pepper, and parmesan cheese work for snack for my kids.) I was tempted to buy Mario Batali’s because I thought it would be great! Thanks for saving me $10.00! Also, sorry about the Ragu : )

  • 28 Jessica // Jun 25, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    I Laughed OUT LOUD at the photo of the poor ratings – love it. SO glad that my children’s chosen favorite (Newman’s Own) was on your list for an acceptable sauce…But if I ever see Rao’s I’ll give it a taste.

  • 29 kale // Jun 25, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    “Throw-uppy” is now my favorite description.

  • 30 Jess // Jun 25, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I’m the picky pasta eater in my home, so this was wonderful! I am glad I didn’t dish out the big bucks for Mario Batali’s sauce!!!

    Our go-to-favorite has been the Prego brand chunky garden combo mixed together with the fresh mushroom. (except no one but me likes the chunks of veggies, so it all gets smoothed together with the immersion blender)

  • 31 Darrian // Jun 25, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    We love Victoria’s Marinara. Its much cheaper than Rao’s and just as good!

  • 32 Juliet // Jun 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Love this! Jar sauce tends to be too sweet. Rao’s is good but hard to pay that kind of price. It’s definitely a special-occasion treat not an everyday quick dinner thing. My favorite go-to jar sauce is Mama Coco’s. It is in health food stores & specialty stores.

  • 33 Julie // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I am so, so interested to know more about the heavy snacks your kids eat (ate?) in the afternoon to tide them over until family dinner. I am trying desperately to institute family dinner at least a few nights a week, but my husband simply is not able to get home before 6:45, which is easily an hour later than the Under Six crowd likes to eat. What types of things (other than those you listed above) are on that list and how far in advance of dinner do they snack?

    Thanks a million!!

  • 34 Lindsay // Jun 26, 2012 at 12:23 am

    I loved this post!! I agree Mario’s sauce is horrible- I look forward to trying yours!

  • 35 jennifer // Jun 26, 2012 at 1:31 am

    Thanks for this round-up. My family loves San Marzano brand, any flavor. Rao’s is top shelf at our grocery store, and I’m encouraged to try it.

    We bought a SodaStream Penguin a few years ago in an effort to break our habit of buying fizzy water by the case. Simple syrups infused with ginger, herbs (mint, especially), or fruit–possibilities are endless–make great sodas.

  • 36 Maria // Jun 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Sounds like a fun family activity! Loved the comments, too. I like Classico (easily found here in the midwest), and have discovered that the roasted garlic version has easily 100-200 mg less sodium per serving than even other Classico flavors. I like to keep it on hand for quick pizza sauce, too.

  • 37 Karen // Jun 26, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Amy’s Family Marinara is our favorite! My kids don’t like big tomato chunks and are not big fans of ” the green things” floating in the sauce. Amy’s has a great tangy tomato flavor without the overpowering sweetness of many of the major brands.

  • 38 Carolyn // Jun 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

    When one of your respondents stated “very subtle heat”, did it make your culinary and mother’s heart swoon?

  • 39 Liz // Jun 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Great post. I don’t consider myself a critic or a connoiseur but I tried a marinara that stood head and shoulders above others I’d tried in the past…Bove’s Basil out of Vermont. Delicious and extremely fresh tasting.

  • 40 karen // Jun 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    I love the comments!! I have to incorporate that into our next taste test so much more fun than just discussing… Do you like your homemade selzter? We drink tons of sparkling water but I never thought to make it. How many bottles do you get before you have to replace the CO2?

  • 41 Laura Miller // Jun 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Don’t feel badly about the middle of the pack placing of your homemade pasta sauce- When I was a surly teenager, my dad was really into cooking and did a taste test with just two pasta sauces- his homemade one and Newman’s. I swear I chose Newman’s just to make him feel bad! Isn’t that an awful story? We were able to laugh about it years later but I can still remember how crestfallen he looked when I chose Paul Newman’s over his. I don’t think your little angels were pulling that one on you (note however: not so many taste tests with surly teenagers!) Great information, as always, thank you!

  • 42 queenoffamilosity // Jun 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    I am such a fan of blind taste tests. It is always fun to uncover the gap between what we believe is the best and what we choose as the best. I have not tried RAO’s but I might give it a go now. I usually bite the bullet and make my own. Thanks for the fun.

  • 43 Appletree // Jun 27, 2012 at 12:41 am

    I heart Rao’s. It is hard to spend the $8 but I do each time because it is that much better.

  • 44 Jennifer P // Jun 27, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Usually I make a “vat of marinara” using the giant comercial size can of San Marzano tomatoes from my local Italian market (if you sute the onions in butter and olive oil the butter really rounds out the sauce) and freeze it in smaller containers. But I always keep a couple of cans of Trader Joe’s Tuscan Marinara on hand for back-up. I think it’s the best pre-made sauce out there.

  • 45 Sarah // Jun 28, 2012 at 7:37 am

    That’s hilarious! I definitely need to try the Rao’s, never heard of it! I have to say once I made a good homemade sauce once, I was ruined for the jarred stuff for life.

  • 46 Kim @Cook with 2 Chicks // Jun 29, 2012 at 8:14 am

    What a fun activity I am defiantly going to try one afternoon! My kids are pretty picking when it comes to pasta sauce. I am to blame for this by serving my homemade sauce weekly. I would love to find a “go to” sauce they will tolerate and possible enjoy.

  • 47 Adriano Marinelli // Aug 18, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    This test should be redone with ‘Marinelli True’ up against Rao’s…I think you will be very surprised at the results. http://www.marinellitrue.com

  • 48 Indypacin69 // Aug 27, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Did you know that Jon Bon Jovi’s Dad has a line of pasta sauces? It’s called Bongiovi Brand and let me tell you it is amazing. I love the slogan, This ain’t your Mom’s sauce…It’s my Dad’s. They are hard to find in stores, I think they’re only on the east coast but worth it if you can find it. Otherwise their website is http://www.BongioviBrand.com you can always order it there.

  • 49 Adriano Marinelli // Aug 28, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Bongiovi sauce? Butter, dried garlic? I dont call that pasta sauce.

  • 50 Melissa // Dec 17, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Loved reading this! Didn’t see my favorite, though — Monte Bene (from New Jersey, but available at Whole Foods) – just the best.

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