Buying jarred tomato sauce is an affront to everything I was raised to be. I was raised in one of those big Italian families you’ve seen caricatured in pop culture: Our furniture was covered in plastic. Our conversations were conducted at maximum volume. Our Sunday dinners were epic. Commercially prepared tomato sauce is a concept completely foreign to me, which makes me the best person to conduct a blind taste test of eight brands that can be found in just about any supermarket.
I am, however, a person who understands her latent biases. Not everyone has the sort of high expectations that I do, which is why I recruited three other people to participate in this blind taste test:
- Matt, who is both my husband and a well respected chef,
- My 11-year-old son, who is the world’s pickiest eater,
- My 12-year-old son, who is in the throes of puberty and would probably eat Styrofoam it was covered in enough tomato sauce.
Each sauce was served anonymously in a numbered mug, tasted on a thin baguette slice, and scored on a rubric that factored in texture, flavor, and overall likability. I also provided a section for comments, so I could get a clearer picture of what flavors worked, and why. As you can see in the photo below, our thoughts were more or less consistent with each other, with one judge being a teensy bit more passionate than others.
Once the scores were tabulated, there were very clearcut winners and losers. Here they are, in ranked order, from lowest to highest:
Pioneer Woman Marinara
This is a new, affordably priced entry in the Sauce Wars. In the words of the 11 year old when we revealed the rankings: “I feel bad for the Pioneer Woman, because she seems nice but her sauce was disgusting.” This is coming from a child who, if it wasn’t for macaroni with either cheese or tomato sauce, would have starved to death several years ago.
Being a responsible journalist, after the blind taste testing, I returned to each sauce to do an in depth flavor analysis, pinpointing each sauce’s specific notes and offering a balanced, professional critique. My notes on this read: “This tastes like licking the rose-shaped soaps my grandmother had in her bathroom that I wasn’t allowed to touch, but not in a good way.” The best I can say is that it tasted like bad tomatoes and chemical preservatives. Sorry, Ree.
This sauce tastes like it contains a hefty pinch of everything green in the spice cabinet, and the spice cabinet is in a house that’s been abandoned since the 1960s. Another one where, even when I try as hard as I possibly can, I cannot find a single positive thing to say about it. Everything about it—the texture, the flavor, the spice, the acid—was terrible. I refused to give this and the sauce above a score on my card at all. My dignity wouldn’t even let me participate.
Newman’s Own Marinara
We’re now in the portion of the list where I can deem everything, at the absolute very least, acceptable on a dinner table. I was sad to learn this jar was from Newman’s Own, because historically I’ve always enjoyed those products. My notes for this read: “It has all the bad flavors at the same time. They’re not even flavors that I recognize; they’re perhaps from a parallel dimension, or are otherwise alien to earth.” So on the plus side, it’s not just a sauce...it’s an experience. An experience that—in spite the fact that it’s a 100% all natural product—tastes like chemicals. Magic!
Ragu Old World Style
This was definitely a tomato product, but more akin to canned tomato soup than a good sauce. Matt thought it was far too acidic, the kids thought it was okay at best. My notes said the texture was like “grainy ooze,” which is never good. Attempting an “old world style” marinara, I can sense they added a generous amount of extra dark caramel to replicate the taste of a sauce that’s been slowly simmered for hours. Alas, it ended up tasting like tomato sauce that was simmered for hours but never once stirred, causing it to burn until it became unpalatable. But I was able to enjoy it enough to write notes that were, for the most part, PG-rated.
This sauce was far too sweet, far too salty, far too acidic, and contained far too much dried basil. It’s almost as if they tasted the sauce, thought “this is good, but it needs a little something,” and then proceeded to ruin what they had by tinkering with it too much. It was also so thin it could probably pass as a thick beverage. While I don’t think it’s ideal with pasta on its own, it could work in a baked casserole where it’s paired with with a lot of other ingredients, or it could be thinned out for a very good soup to go with some grilled cheese.
Bertoli Traditional Marinara
Here’s where the getting starts to get good. I felt the Bertoli sauce was a bit too acidic for my own tastes, but it’s not a quality that would be off-putting to everyone. It tasted like the tomato sauce they use when you order spaghetti at a diner: It’s not the best one you’ll ever eat, but there’s a certain something very enjoyable about it.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad Barilla product, and this was no exception. This is the first sauce I tasted that tasted like real, honest-to-goodness tomatoes, and had near perfect marks across the board for its texture. Alone it came across as just a touch too sweet, but when tossed with some pasta it created a dish that was perfectly balanced. It also has brilliant background notes of oregano, and that oregano didn’t taste like the cheap stuff. If our superlative number one pick wasn’t available, I would be happy with grabbing a jar of this and pretending I made it myself.
Emeril’s Home Style Marinara
Though a few dollars more than the other entries on this list—it retails at my supermarket for $5.29—I decided to pick up a jar of Emeril’s so that the Pioneer Woman wouldn’t have the only sauce with a face (Newman’s Own doesn’t count because Paul Newman is dead, hashtag-RIP). As with many celebrity chef sauces, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations for this one. Reader, it completely blew me away.
I would gladly pay $5.29 for this sauce. Hell, I’d pay double. I scooped and savored this sauce at least a dozen times, deeply focusing on its complex flavors, trying to pinpoint all the many, many things that had gone right with it. It does not have a simple, clean tomato flavor—the type my sauce has when I make it on a weeknight. This has deep, natural notes of amber caramel, earthy Mediterranean olive oil, and the finest of all tomatoes. It tastes like the sauce I make on the weekends, when I have the time to put hours of attention into one slowly simmering pot, gladly giving up an entire Sunday in pursuit of a perfect bowl of pasta. Now I can have that flavor any day of the week, and I can have my Sundays back.