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.” (more…)

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