Food

We Did a Taste Test: Jarred Pasta Sauce

pasta sauce taste test

I grew up with a working mom who was not afraid to take shortcuts at dinnertime — there were meals built around Campbell’s soup and Kraft Mac and Cheese, and to this day, a bite of Stouffer’s Chicken Pot Pie is a turbo portal to my childhood mustard-colored linoleum kitchen. The one thing she never cheated on, though, was pasta sauce…

pasta sauce taste test

It was never from a jar, always from scratch. This could be because my mom is 100% Italian; it could be that this was the eighties and the options for good-quality jarred pasta sauce were few and far between. It could also be that she was never in charge of hosting 35 cross-country high school students for a Friday night pasta party.

pasta sauce taste test

Let me be clear that I love my 16-year-old Phoebe’s cross-country team, and I love this ritual, which happens on the nights before big meets, and serves to load the runners with as many carbs as their sinewy, 30-mile-a-week bodies can handle. The menu is always the same: Caesar salad, garlic bread, brownies (“They must be from the box, Mom!”), and tons and tons of spaghetti with marinara sauce. In theory, I guess I could spend a few hours cooking up a cauldron of my mom’s sauce, but 35 kids (half of them boys) is a lot of kids and also: Why? When there are so many fresh, flavorful jarred options on the supermarket shelves these days?

The question is: Which one of those jars is the best?

I decided to hold a taste test to find out, and I invited my family (Phoebe, her sister, Abby, and my husband, Andy) as well as some of Phoebe’s teammates (aka the real experts) to partake in the proceedings.

pasta sauce taste test

But first, the methodology. I could not include every jarred sauce that exists, but I tried to offer a selection of brands that were widely available and that hit a range of price points. To keep things apples to apples (uh, tomatoes to tomatoes), I stuck to the simplest marinaras I could find. In total, we ended up tasting ten brands: Trader Joe’s, Bertolli, Emeril’s, Ragu, Whole Foods 365, Rao’s Homemade, Newman’s Own, San Marzano, Ooma Tesoro’s, and Cucina Antica.

Bowls of sauce were individually numbered — only I knew which number corresponded to which brand — and everyone used baguette slices to scoop their tastes. No double dipping, kids!

pasta sauce taste test

I created a review sheet on Google Forms and had my tasters grade the sauce on a scale from 1 (gross) to 5 (excellent). If there’s anything a high school junior knows how to do well, it’s filling out ovals with Number 2 pencils.

pasta sauce taste test

I told them they were welcome to write notes as they judged, reminding them that taste is personal and, unlike the ACTs, there are no wrong answers.

pasta sauce taste test

They took their assignment very seriously.

pasta sauce taste test

It’s not that I don’t trust you, teenagers, but I wanted to make sure the granddaughter of Mary Camino Catrino (me) and the great grandson of Vitina Turano (Andy) had a similar take on the situation. I switched the bowls around and taped the sauce I.D. on the bottom of each to make it a legitimately blind taste test for us, too.

pasta sauce taste test

The Winner: Rao’s Homemade Marinara
Score: 4.5 out of 5 points
Price: $9 for a 25-ounce jar

I’ve done at least three pasta sauce taste tests in my nearly two decades as a food writer and editor, and Rao’s has won all three of them, as decisively as a marathoner breaking the tape. It was my favorite, it was Andy’s and my daughters’ favorite, and it garnered the highest score from my junior testing team (4.5 out of 5). Rao’s, with its vibrant orange-red hue, wins you over almost before you even taste it. The flavors are fresh and distinct. and the hint of basil and oregano do just enough to enhance rather than overwhelm. “Oregano-homey flavor,” wrote Phoebe; “well-seasoned,” noted reviewer Emmy. And perhaps the highest praise: “Reminds me of pasta and meatballs,” said Matt. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also ranks among the most expensive, averaging $9 for a 25-ounce jar. (Note: Prices vary from store to store and, as always, you can get better deals on all of these when you buy in bulk online.)

I personally found Ooma Tesoro’s ($11/26-oz jar) and Cucina Antica ($6/25-oz jar) to be close seconds, but the runner-up among the younger testers was Whole Foods 365 brand with, coincidentally, 3.65 points, and a considerably lower price tag ($3/25-oz jar).

pasta sauce taste test

Of course, the kids saved the best comments for the worst sauces. “Tastes like bad licorice,” one wrote about Newman’s Own, which I presume was heavy-handed on the fennel. “Tastes like how hand sanitizer smells,” another said about San Marzano. Emeril’s got the dreaded ketchup comparison a few times, as well as a straight-up “Just isn’t good.”

pasta sauce taste test

Rao’s also distributes beautifully on spaghetti, especially when you toss the spaghetti with a pat of butter first. (Pro tip: No matter what sauce you are using, butter helps the sauce stick to the pasta better.)

pasta sauce taste test

pasta sauce taste test

After we declared the winner, I read a few of the ingredient lists out loud, noting that all our favorites began with “Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes” (not Tomato Puree) and contained nothing artificial or un-pronounceable. When I was done, one of them said, “Look at us being all smart.”

And before I could even say thank you, they all ran out the door.

What’s your favorite jarred marinara? And what other products should be tested by my distinguished panel?

P.S. An ice-cream sandwich taste test, and a deli challenge with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman.

(Photos by Yossy Arefi for Cup of Jo.)

  1. I agree with the #1! I also like the Original Marinara and the Three Cheese from Trader Joe’s!

  2. Kathy says...

    I’ve never been much of a jarred sauce person. However, I’ve come to really rely on Sorriso’s Tomato and Basil sauce. It’s a midwest only option, but it is highly worth a try.

  3. Kristen says...

    Rao’s only and always. The best!

  4. Megan says...

    I hoped that the winner would be Rao’s because I’m completely loyal to that brand! I usually make my own marinara sauce, but for my time-consuming recipes (like stuffed peppers) I ALWAYS use Rao’s. Such a fun test!

  5. Alex says...

    My favorite is Cucina Fresca‘s Smoked Tomato. Difficult to get outside of the PNW, but oh so good.

  6. I just bought jarred sauce for the first time ever so I held my breath reading this. What a relief to hear that Rao’s is good! That’s what I bought.

  7. Alissa says...

    I’ve tried a lot of brands (not Rao’s – now I want to!) but my favorite is Mezzetta – I can eat it straight out of the jar! Usually around $6 but goes on sale frequently.

    • Aleixs says...

      Yes! I was hoping this was on the list to see how it stacked up to others, but it’s the best.

  8. rachel simmons says...

    this is beyond adorable! something those teenagers will remember for such a long time :)

  9. Jennifer says...

    Phoebe insists on brownies from boxes? Me too…. I’ve tried every fancy brownie recipe out there, but what I really want are the variety you mix from a box. (Even though they’re a cinch to make from scratch.) And say what you will about spaghetti-sauce-from-a-jar, if you’re eating it at the beach, it doesn’t matter…. and if my sister has made meatballs, it really doesn’t matter…. and if my sister has made meatballs at the beach, it double really doesn’t matter… Ummm, maybe next taste test could be a brownie mix?

  10. Swathi says...

    I get my Rao’s from Costco, but when I saw Victoria’s onn sale (for half the price), went for it and, I gotta say, it was amazing. Enough oil to coat the pasta and taste comparable to Rao’s. Overall, would purchase over Rao’s bc comparable taste and much better price (considering how much sauce my kids go through).

    • Bethany says...

      Yes!!! We are committed fans of Victoria’s from Costco. Rao may be utterly fabulous, but part of the beauty of pasta, for me, is in being economical. Victoria makes me so happy.

  11. Ali says...

    Rao’s every time.

    In either August or September they tend to have a sale and it’s only $5/jar. I buy a case when that sale happens! My kids won’t eat anything else either!

  12. Heather says...

    We haven’t had Rao’s, but will give it a try. Our favorite right now is Trader Joe’s!

  13. Wendy says...

    Maybe someone already commented on this, but I don’t like Rao’s. I think it’s too thick and too acid.

    The jarred sauce I really liked was the Mario Batali brand, which is of course no longer sold. When the Me Too movement started and some local chefs were identified, I randomly though, “Ugh, I bet Batali is a harasser, he just seems like it. I hope not because sauce.” Two days later, he was named and the sauce was on sale the next day (I had to search my conscience about whether to stock up) and then off the shelf within a week. I haven’t found a good replacement.

  14. melissa says...

    i knew rao’s would win as soon as I read the headline. buy it at costco!

  15. Christina says...

    I totally agree! Rao is the best sauce and I cook ground beef or ground turkey and add the sauce and it tastes amazing!

  16. Julienne says...

    This is so fun. More teenagers on CoJ please :)

  17. Jillian Stephenson says...

    Rao’s all the way!!! Totally worth the price too (although I can get it for about $6.50 where I live) because of how cheap dried pasta is and how far it stretches.

  18. kathy says...

    Maybe just a local SF thing but I got Bianco Dinapoli thru Good Eggs and was stunned at how good it tasted. Literally tasted home made.

  19. Katie says...

    I love Rao’s too, even though it is very expensive! Bonus points: it’s Whole 30-compliant, with no added sugar! That’s how I found out about it in the first place.

  20. Stephanie Nelson says...

    I started buying Raos after Joanne mentioned it here probably 3 years ago. It is so good with pizza crusts as a dip as well.

    Thanks for the butter tip, definitely will try that the next time I make pasta.

  21. mollcoll says...

    Rao’s over every other sauce. I just had my daughter’s friends over last night and had to throw a quick dinner together (3rd graders). Pasta and sauce, ftw. And one girl said the sauce was better than her Italian grandmother’s (I won’t tell). Xx

  22. OMG we found Rao’s years ago and I cannot use any other sauce!!!

  23. Barb says...

    No Victoria? That’s our fave.

    • Rebecca says...

      Thank you! 🤣 I was feeling frantic as I scrolled comments wondering why it wasn’t mentioned!

  24. Buttering the spaghetti before saucing it is such a good tip!