Premium Jarred Pasta Sauces
Whether you’re a kid, a college student, or a full-fledged adult, jarred pasta sauce is part of a quick go-to dinner. Boil a pound of pasta, heat the sauce, grate some Parmesan if you’re feeling ambitious, and dinner’s on. Many manufacturers have branched out beyond basic marinara with sauces that feature extras like San Marzano tomatoes, special herb blends, or wine. Some cost the same as regular sauces; others charge upwards of $8 a jar. But marketing and money aside, do they taste better?
We chose seven national supermarket brands, each with a slight twist. Twenty-one editors and test cooks from America’s Test Kitchen tasted each sauce plain and then with pasta. The range of reactions was extreme. Some sauces made us wince, others were fair, and two brands prompted praise for “robust and continuing flavor” that tasters described as “authentic” and like “homemade.” We set out to investigate why some sauces hit the mark while others had us saying “No grazie.”
A good tomato sauce should taste like bright, sweet tomatoes. We like a homemade, chunky texture, with enough body to cling to the pasta, and for obvious reasons we dislike both stodgy tomato paste and watery versions. Garlic, onion, and other seasonings are a plus if employed with balance.
The two sauces that finished last had something in common: Their first ingredient was tomato puree, which is a mixture of tomato paste and water. (By law, ingredients are listed in order of weight, from heaviest to lightest.) Every other sauce in our lineup started with less-processed whole or diced tomatoes. Less processing didn’t guarantee a chunky, homemade-style texture, but it was a necessary starting point. Our winner used fancy-sounding “imported Italian tomatoes,” but so did one sauce that we could not recommend. (The latter featured tomatoes grown in the famed San Marzano region of Italy, no less.) Our conclusion? Beware hype. While “imported tomatoes” may sound as though they’d lend a sauce something special, they’re no guarantee.
For two of the sauces in our lineup, their special twist was also their Achilles’ heel. The sauce we liked least among the seven, for instance, touted Burgundy. The flavor of the wine was so forward that tasters joked that they felt wobbly at the knees-—“I think I could get drunk eating this.” (And what’s a French wine doing in Italian tomato sauce, anyhow?) Another sauce was seasoned with a “Tuscan herb” blend. Is that just another way to say dusty dried oregano? we wondered.
The sauce that came in second to last was way too sweet, prompting one taster to ask if it was “sugar sauce.” Tomatoes are anywhere from 90 to 95 percent water. Of the remaining 5 to 10 percent of solids, half is sugar. But not every tomato that drops off the conveyer belt is a blue ribbon specimen, so adding sugar to tomato sauce is a manufacturer’s shortcut to ripe, pulpy tomato flavor. When used with restraint, the sugar shortcut works. Our second-place sauce includes sugar; it’s the sixth ingredient listed on its nutrition label, with 6 grams of sugars per ¹⁄2-cup serving. The sugar played a supporting role, adding a touch of sweetness. But the second-to-last-place finisher lists added sugar third, behind only tomato puree and diced tomatoes. With 9 grams of sugars per ¹⁄2-cup serving, the “cloying,” “candy-sweet” taste overshadowed any bright tomato flavor.
Our favorite of the group has a short ingredient list that reads like a homemade recipe. It’s made with Italian tomatoes, Italian olive oil, fresh onions, fresh basil, fresh garlic, sea salt, and spices. The sauce clung to the pasta and had a bright acidity that spoke of real tomatoes. At $6.99, it costs twice as much as our winning traditional jarred pasta sauce. We pitted them against each other in a second tasting. While we still liked our traditional pick, we did prefer the premium sauce. Its bright acidity earned comparisons to a quick homemade fresh-tomato sauce, while the supermarket sauce was a little too sweet for some tasters. Neither product can replace homemade, but in a pinch, our winner delivered traditional flavor in a fraction of the time.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
Register for CooksCountry.com
It's FAST and it's FREE.
WHY REGISTER? The taste test you requested is only available to registered users of CooksCountry.com. Register today for FREE access to every recipe, rating, and kitchen discovery from the current season of Cook’s Country TV.