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Review | Who makes the best marinara sauce? We tested 12 supermarket options.


Some people might be lucky enough to spend a Sunday afternoon with a pot of pasta sauce simmering on the stove (or have a nonna to do it for them). But for many of us, the route to red sauce pasta is down the supermarket aisle.

According to research firm NielsenIQ, Americans love marinara — to the tune of $496 million they spent on the stuff last year. And the shelves are overflowing with options, leaving shoppers wondering: Should they stick with childhood staples? (I know people who grew up in Prego Houses and others who considered themselves Ragu people.) Should they splurge on the growing number of luxury offerings?

To solve those aisle conundrums, we first identified the top-selling brands in the United States (we relied on Chicago-based research firm IRI, which collected data from grocery, drug, mass market, convenience store, military, and select club and dollar retailers, and covered the year ending December.) The list included “private label,” or retail brands, so we picked up a few popular picks from that category and pitted them all against each other in a grand blind tasting.

Make a big batch of pantry-friendly tomato sauce all week for a pick-me-up at dinner

Wherever possible, we’ve opted for the brands’ simplest offerings, although you can find jars spiked with vegetables, wine, and hot peppers. Eight tasters were given a dozen samples, a bowl of penne, and a mission: to score each brand from 1 to 10, taking into account taste, texture, and overall appeal. Frightening? Perhaps, especially for those who wear white shirts. But we put on some Dean Martin songs and got to work.

Hundreds of forkfuls later, the results were clear: At the bottom of the heap, there were a few really bad brands, and there was one clear, runaway winner. But in the middle, there were plenty of brands that were… very decent. As someone who usually makes her own red sauce (when I have time – alas, no nonna), I’d gotten into the habit of overlooking the wide variety of jars lined up next to the pasta in the aisles, but this tasting opened my eyes. It turns out that you can instantly get a complex, long-stewed taste. It’s usually just a matter of knowing which ones to avoid – and which ones to seek out.

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Rarely is there such consensus from a group of tasters, but we were all on the same page here. This sauce was the unanimous dud. It was the only one that came from a can, not a jar, and the contents did not detract from the humble packaging. It’s thinner than a 90s runway model – the ingredients only contain tomato paste and no real tomatoes which would have given it some weight – we all agreed. Another consensus? Bland, bland, bland. “This isn’t tomato sauce,” said one taster. “I refuse to involve tomatoes in this tragedy.” (Price: $2.09/ 24 ounces at Giant)

10. (tie) Ragu old world style traditional sauce

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The No. 2 selling sauce in America did not fare well in our tasting. A nice dark red color gave some hope for a robust specimen, but the timid taste and too smooth texture disappointed in equal measure. “No spice to it”, “tasted canned and bland” and “watered down tomato sauce” were some of the underwhelming comments about this one. ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)

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10. (tie) Classico Marinara with plum tomatoes and olive oil

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Some people were shocked by too much pepper and a few others hated the bitter herbs that predominated. “The top fell off the black pepper,” one guessed. “Dried basil in water,” another suggested. A few others found it unpleasantly sour, and one complained of a “sour aftertaste.” ($3.39/24 ounces at Giant)

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Nearly all of our tasters chose America’s best-selling sauce as the sweetest of the bunch. One thought it hit the sweet spot (“I like the level of sweetness”), but most felt it was going way too far. “This tastes like a topping on a dessert,” said one. “This is tomato candy (sauce) and I don’t want it near my pasta,” said another. ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)

8. Newman’s Own Marinara

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We tiptoed to the mushy middle with this guy – literally, with a taster wishing the tomato chunks inside were a bit firmer. But several tasters loved the seasoning, noting discernible basil, garlic, and fennel notes (yes, one super taster among us nailed the latter spice). Overall, it got lukewarm OK’s like “not offensive” and “fine.” ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)

7. Great Value Marinara (Walmart brand)

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You can’t beat the price of this Walmart house brand, and tasters judged it to be a relatively good value. Some thought it was a bit thin and likened it to a soup or pizza sauce, which is more spreadable than a classic marinara, and worried that it doesn’t stick well to noodles. But his “tomato-forward” profile proved affable enough, with one commenting that it had the vibe of a “laid-back red sauce joint.” ($1.59/23 ounces at Walmart)

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I was curious how this brand – a brand I was not familiar with – would perform. The ingredients list was promising, with the first being “Italian plum tomatoes from the Italian region of San Marzano”, and the price was lower than other premium brands. That more exclusive pedigree didn’t convince all our tasters, although many liked the slightly coarser texture. A few were turned off by visible pools of oil (that’s “imported olive oil,” according to the label): It’s “olive oil with a side of tomatoes,” one complained. ($6.49/24.5 ounces at Safeway)

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Brought to you by the folks behind the posh New York restaurant of the same name, this jar was an X factor in our tasting, a high-end brand I threw into the mix for its splashy debut (it featured prominently at the Fancy Food Show I attended in June), wide availability and good reviews online. Our verdict? It may not be worth the hefty price tag.

It received mostly high marks from tasters who thought it had a nice, deep flavor – two even described it as “meaty”. Others liked the “bright tomato flavor” and “restaurant quality”. But low grades from a few – they found it “one note” and reminiscent of a “high school cafeteria” – really brought the overall score down. ($11.99/32 ounces at Giant)

4. 365 Organic Marinara (Whole Foods brand)

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Tasters found detectable amounts of garlic, spices and salt in this blend, which they liked. “My first garlic sighting!” noted one allium enthusiast. “I can actually see the garlic and herbs,” said another. And it had more body than many others we tried (“Chonky!”). Despite the promising visual cues, some still felt it lacked zest. “Chunky salsa texture – but I’d rather put a good chunky salsa on my pasta than this muted tomato juice.” ($2.79/25 ounces at Whole Foods)

3. Bertolli Traditional Marinara

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Sacred herbs, Batman! This pot contained a basil-y, oregano-y punch that tasters liked, though one was initially turned off by fishing a dried stem the size of a tree branch out of its mouth. Several also liked the brick red color. However, one couple thought it was just a little on the sweet side: “a little ketchup-flavored,” as one put it. Still, solid scores all over put this high on our list. “Very solid,” noted one taster. ($3.39/24 ounces at Giant)

2. Trader Joe’s Tomato Basil Marinara Sauce

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The quirky supermarket chain’s offerings often become cult favorites, but the jagged marinara had never entered my radar. It seems I missed something. To tick all the boxes for our tasters: prominent spices, a balance of sour and sweet, and a texture with chunks of tomato, yet smooth enough not to slide off your pasta (and as a bonus, it’s one of the least- expensive brands we tried). One taster felt the herbs weren’t fresh (“basil was dried too much to resuscitate,” he said). A few tasters said they would love to put this on their pizza or lasagna. “Quite good!” an enthusiastic one. ($1.99/24 ounces at Trader Joe’s)

1. Rao’s homemade marinara

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This sauce is often praised by chefs who wouldn’t normally condescend to dump a jar of store-bought sauce on their pasta, including a few of our tasters. It even has the seal of approval from Ina Garten, the queen of “store bought is fine” – as long as it’s the “good” stuff. And so his performance was a big question in this blind test. Would our brand loyalists still love it amid the sea of ​​monsters? The response turned out to be an enthusiastic “Si!”

Rao’s was the only brand to receive a perfect score (it got 10s from three judges!) and rave reviews: “Delicious,” said one. “I would be proud to serve this,” said another. Our panel loved the fresh-tasting herbs and flavorful tomato and onion bits, as well as the brighter hue. “Just thick enough,” said one. ($10.59/24 ounces at Giant)

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