As a child of the 80s with two working parents, we ate a lot of pasta on weeknights. And today, much like my mom, I always have at least one jar of pasta sauce in the pantry for quick throw-together meals.
But all weeknight meals aren't created equal and in the case of many jarred sauces, the ingredients, flavor, or consistency can disappoint. Some sauces are loaded with sugar while others are pureed within an inch of their lives.
So our team set out to find that diamond in the ruff: the sauce with a robust, well-balanced tomato flavor and a great texture that -- dare we say it -- is just as good as homemade. Does it exist? Let's find out!
How We Chose the Brands
We've known for a long time that we wanted to test jarred pasta sauce because, let's be real, it's the ultimate weeknight dinner hack. And we're all about a good dinner hack.
But with such a wide range in quality and price, we struggled with how to narrow the field.
- First, we chose the most basic marinara or tomato / basil flavor each particular brand offered to keep the playing field fair.
- Next, we opted for sauces without added sugar
- Then, we made sure the brands were accessible (you should be able to stroll into a mainstream grocery store or hop online to purchase them all).
- And of course we took price into consideration, ruling out brands with more exclusive, premium-priced sauces.
- Rao’s Homemade Marinara: The darling of the food world, it seems, Rao's is well known for using high quality tomatoes and achieving a from-scratch flavor and texture.
- Cucina Antica Tomato Basil Classico Tomato and Basil: This light marinara sauce doesn't contain any garlic (only onions) and has a super simple ingredient list.
- Newmans Own Tomato and Basil: With 100% of the proceeds going to charity, we couldn't help but include Newman's Own in our line up!
- Whole Foods 365 Brand Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce: This organic, dairy-free sauce is affordable and said to be great on pasta, but is also thick enough to use as a pizza sauce.
- Ragu Simply Traditional Pasta Sauce: Made with real olive oil and no sugar added, Ragu is widely available and we were curious to try the "Simply" offshoot of their traditional sauce thanks to its pared down ingredient list.
- Classico Tomato Basil Sauce: What many of us grew up on, we couldn't not include Classico for its affordability, accessibility, and well, we all remember it tasting pretty good.
How We Judged 'Em
With our last Pantry Power post, we tasted each peanut butter straight from the spoon, but we knew that this test had to be a bit different. Yes, we wanted to taste the sauces straight-up, but we also wanted to taste them as they'd genuinely be used in real life: on pasta!
So we did a blind taste test of warm sauce on a spoon, and then stirred each into a bowl of pasta (tough work, but someone's gotta do it!)
Our team is scattered remotely so we tasted them at home on our own, then hopped on a call (ahhh, the modern world) to discuss. Here’s the criteria we used:
- Flavor: We looked for a classic, clean, robust tomato flavor that was well balanced without any distracting aftertaste. A sauce that tastes homemade!
- Consistency & Texture: Does it truly exist? A sauce that's not watery but also not too chunky? That has a consistency truly reminiscent of the homemade sauce we remember from childhood?
- Coatability on Noodles: Oh, pasta how we love you. And oh how we hate when the sauce is too thin to coat our noodles or too thick to incorporate.
The Winner: Rao's!
To be honest, we didn't want Rao's to win. We feel like Rao's ALWAYS wins, so we were secretly hoping for a real upset here and a chance to root for the underdog. But it turns out: Rao's deserves to win ten-fold.
What makes Rao's stand out? The first thing you'll notice is the flavor. I found myself actually taking multiple bites straight from the jar (and I wasn't alone— much of our team did as well). Our Editor in Chief, Emma, notes that it feels like the grown-up one for sure: "If I was having a dinner party and wanted to impress my friends but didn't have time for a homemade sauce, Rao's is the one."
The flavor comes largely from the high quality tomatoes they use as well as the healthy glug of olive oil (this is where I think the notable difference lies). It tastes as good or better than homemade, and coats noodles beautifully. Senior Editor, Summer, says she's never craved a pasta sauce before until trying Rao's (and I have to agree).
She went on to describe the awesome coatability of Rao's" it's the only one that actually changed the color of the noodles and really soaked into the pasta versus just sitting on top." Suffice it to say, it's safe to add our names to the list of recent converts.
First Runner up: Newman's
Our first runner up was a bit divisive: some of us really loved it while others took a hard pass. But the takeaway was that Newman's is a solid middle of the road sauce. It's not the one we'd grab when our boss is coming over, but if you don't want to spend $8 on a jar of sauce, it'll certainly do. Emma and Summer both had a great point that they liked it much better on noodles, whereas our Art Director, Andy, LOVED it on everything (actually preferring it to Rao's - gasp).
It has a pretty strong basil flavor which Andy loved and many of us found too assertive. If you love basil, this sauce is for you!
The texture is definitely on the thicker side -- it'd be a great choice if you're making a casserole, pizza or using a heartier noodle.
Second Runner up: Classico
Many of us on the team grew up with Classico, so it felt familiar and homey. The flavor doesn't knock it out of the park -- you likely won't be taking secret spoonfuls straight from the jar like we were with Rao's. But it has a comforting flavor, and is a solid choice to keep on hand in the pantry for quick, versatile meals.
While we all felt it was a good enough weeknight contender, Carrie found it a bit too sweet and Summer found the flavor unbalanced. Claudia had qualms with the texture, finding it a little soupy with very little coatability.
Emma, on the other hand, loved the chunky texture, as did I -- it straddles that tough to achieve texture zone of perfectly chunky but still uniform enough to incorporate into your noodles. Emma put it best: This was my backup favorite to Rao’s, my Tuesday night 'need a meal' sauce." And I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that many of us have had Tuesday night 'need a meal' situations.
Did we miss your favorite sauce? Disagree with our choices? Ready to cook a pot of pasta tonight (we're with you on that one)?
Thanks for reading another installment of Pantry Power—we look forward to seeing you next time with yet another pantry staple!