As much as I’m a fan of home made rather than store bought for a lot of things, the one thing I rarely (if ever) make from scratch is marinara sauce. My brother is screaming as I write this. He never buys sauce in a jar – it is sacrilege for him, as I’m sure it is for many others. However, I always have a pot of sauce on hand. The thing is, I am not loyal to any particular pot of marinara sauce. Normally I collect the pot on sale during the week if I make a pasta dish and call it a day. I will prepare it with parmesan, basil, additional spices and carry on with life. But it gets me thinking: what’s the best grocery store pasta sauce?
So, of course, it looked like the perfect next edition in my Taste-Off series. Of best pumpkin bread recipe to the best brand of dark chocolate, I like to put my taste buds and those of our team to the test. I have no biases or preferences, so I could go into this tasting with a completely open mind with no idea which pot my taste buds should be looking for.
We entered this tea party with a few things in mind. While we planned to taste each marinara sauce on its own to dissect flavors and texture, we also know that marinara sauce isn’t eaten directly with a spoon, at least not all the time. So we tasted each sauce on its own and also on spaghetti for a complete experience.
Here’s how we ranked each pot.
- Flavor: Here, everything revolves around the tomato but we wanted the tomato to be balanced by the spices. The sauce should balance the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes without leaning too much one way or the other. We also didn’t want the spices to be overwhelming, but rather some of the sauce to complement the flavors of the tomato.
- Texture: As for the marinara sauce, we were all looking for something with good chunks of tomatoes, but that also felt consistent with a thick sauce. We wanted a sauce that sticks to our pasta with richness and also adds a bit of texture to our bowls.
- Would I eat this with a spoon? It seems like a pretty straightforward explanation.
I was very skeptical about the possibility of categorizing them, I mean, it’s a pot sauce. But when we compared them back to back, it was mind-boggling how different each tasted and how we were all into certain flavors and textures compared to others. In the end, these were two sauces that divided our group of taste testers, one ahead of the competition by a nail. Keep scrolling to find the winner of our marinara sauce tasting.
7) Trader Joe’s Organic Marinara Sauce: I was so disappointed that this sauce was ranked so low because, like everyone else, I love TJs. The texture of the sauce itself was slightly less than fine, but what really caught our eye was that it had that weird aftertaste and was almost a little sour. To quote one of our testers: “I don’t like this one”.
6) Newman’s Own Marinara Sauce: This sauce had a mild flavor that leaned towards the sweeter side but was also slightly sour. We didn’t necessarily taste like tomatoes either. It tasted almost artificial even though there was nothing artificial in it. The texture was good, but it wasn’t a sauce that we had to eat without touching it up too much.
5) Whole Foods 365 Organic Marinara Sauce: It was another disappointment because I practically live in Whole Foods – I’m definitely a frequent shopper – and I think most of their branded items are great. While the flavor was good on this sauce it was a bit of oregano and the texture really let us down. This sauce was the most runny of the bunch and almost slipped out of our pasta, leaving only chunks of tomatoes and a hint of sauce on the noodles. I think this one would be fine if it was adulterated a bit or reduced in a saucepan to make it thicker and richer.
4) Old Fashioned Ragu Marinara Sauce: So I’m going to swallow my humble slice of pie here because I remember loathing Ragu sauce for a long time. What kept this one in the middle of our group was its sweet tomato flavor which was exactly that, tomato. It looked like the purest tomato flavor, which some people loved and wanted, would be puffed up with an extra herbal flavor and flavor that we love in a pasta sauce. What kept it from making it into the top three was the texture. It’s smooth. Very soft. And our group really wanted chunks of tomatoes to add textural interest. Overall we felt like this would be a good basic marinara sauce that we could whip up as we liked.
3) Prego marinara sauce: It was the sauce that I grew up eating, so I was excited that it still resists. It also had a mild flavor and a lighter texture than our top two. Some tasters said it looked like the Ragu Raised. It was a bit richer, a bit more tomato, and packed with a bit more flavor. All in all, we would eat it again with a little doctor.
2) Barilla Vero Gusto: All of you, the difference between one and two was so close. What the testers really liked about this sauce was its sweetness with a slightly flavorful finish. The tomato flavor was straightforward without being sour and tasted really good. The texture was so good, really rich and a cut above the rest on our list. Several of us said we would eat this one unchanged and found it delicious on pasta and by the spoonful. Would buy this sauce again.
1) Rao marinara sauce: Before we started our tasting and polling, most friends and people said their favorite pot sauce was Rao’s. A friend even said that when Rao’s is on sale at the store, she buys at least five jars to stock up. I fully understand why. This sauce lives up to the hype. The flavor is exceptional, striking the perfect balance between sweet tomato and herb savory, it has a perfect finish, and we all ate this one straight from the spoon with gusto. The texture is almost perfect, with both chunks of tomatoes, but also a nice, almost buttery finish. We would all eat this sauce without any modification. This is a 10/10 recommendation and you know I will refuel the next time I am at the store.