Americans love marinara — to the tune of the $496 million they spent last year on the stuff, according to research firm NielsenIQ. And the shelves are overflowing with options, leaving shoppers with questions: 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 proliferating number of upscale offerings?
To help solve those mid-aisle conundrums, we first identified the top-selling brands in the United States (we relied on Chicago-based research firm IRI, which compiled data from grocery, drug, mass-market, convenience, military, and select club and dollar retailers, and covered the year ending in December.) The list included “private label,” or store brands, so we scooped up a few popular choices from that category and pitted them all against one another in a big blind tasting.
Wherever possible, we opted for the brands’ simplest offerings, though 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 assign each brand a score from 1 to 10, factoring in flavor, texture and overall appeal. Daunting? Maybe, especially for those wearing white shirts. But we cranked up some Dean Martin tunes and got to work.
Hundreds of forkfuls later, the results were clear: At the bottom of the heap there were a couple of truly bad brands, and there was one clear, runaway winner. But in the middle, there were plenty of brands that were … pretty decent. As someone who usually makes her own red sauce (when I’ve got the time — alas, no nonna), I’d fallen into the habit of overlooking the vast variety of jars that sit on the aisles alongside the pasta, but this tasting opened my eyes. Turns out, you can get a complex, long-simmered taste on the fly. It’s mostly just a matter of knowing which ones to avoid — and one to seek out.
Rarely is there this much 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 to come from a can, not a jar, and the contents did not belie its humble packaging. It’s thinner than a ’90s runway model — its ingredients list only tomato paste, and no actual tomatoes that would have lent it some heft — we all agreed. Another consensus? Bland, bland, bland. “This is not tomato sauce,” said one taster. “I refuse to implicate tomatoes in this tragedy.” (Price: $2.09/ 24 ounces at Giant)
10. (tie) Ragu Old World Style Traditional Sauce
The No. 2-selling sauce in America didn’t fare well in our tasting. A nice dark-red color made some hope for a robust specimen, but the timid flavor and too-smooth texture disappointed in equal measures. “No seasoning going on,” “tasted canned and bland,” and “watered down tomato sauce” were some of the underwhelming notes on this one. ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)
10. (tie) Classico Marinara with Plum Tomatoes and Olive Oil
Several people were put off by an excess of pepper, and a few others disliked the bitter herbs that dominated. “The top fell off the black pepper,” one guessed. “Dried basil in water,” suggested another. A few others found it unpleasantly acidic, with one bemoaning a “sour aftertaste.” ($3.39/24 ounces at Giant)
Nearly all of our tasters singled out 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 thought it went much too far. “This tastes like a dessert topping,” said one. “This is tomato (sauce) candy, and I don’t want it anywhere near my pasta,” said another. ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)
8. Newman’s Own Marinara
We tiptoed into the mushy middle with this guy — literally, with one taster wishing the chunks of tomatoes in it were a little sturdier. But several tasters liked the seasoning, noting detectable basil, garlic and fennel notes (yep, a supertaster among us nailed the latter herb). Overall, it got tepid okays, like “not offensive” and “fine.” ($2.79/24 ounces at Giant)
7. Great Value Marinara (Walmart brand)
You can’t beat the price on this Wal-Mart house brand, and tasters judged it to be a relatively good value. Some found it a bit thin, likening it to a soup or a pizza sauce, which tends to be more spreadable than a classic marinara, and worried that it didn’t cling to noodles properly. But its “tomato-forward” profile proved affable enough, with one remarking that it had the vibes of a “laid-back red sauce joint.” ($1.59/23 ounces at Walmart)
I was curious to see how this brand — one I wasn’t familiar with — would perform. Its ingredient list was promising, with “Italian plum tomatoes from Italy’s San Marzano region” listed first, and the price point was less than other premium brands. That fancier pedigree didn’t win over all of our tasters, though many liked its slightly chunkier texture. A few were turned off by visible oil pools (that’s “imported olive oil,” per the label): it’s “olive oil with a side of tomatoes,” lamented one. ($6.49/24.5 ounces at Safeway)
This jar, brought to you by the folks behind the swank New York restaurant of the same name, was an X-factor in our tasting, a high-end brand I threw into the mix because of its splashy debut (it was prominently featured at the Fancy Food Show I attended in June), wide availability and good reviews online. Our verdict? It might not be worth the hefty price tag.
It got mostly high marks from tasters who thought it had a nice, deep flavor — two even described it as “meaty.” Others liked its “bright tomato flavor” and “restaurant quality.” But low marks from a couple — they found it “one-note” and reminiscent of a “high school cafeteria” — really brought down its overall score. ($11.99/32 ounces at Giant)
4. 365 Organic Marinara (Whole Foods brand)
Tasters found discernible amounts of garlic, herbs and salt in this blend, which they liked. “My first garlic sighting!” noted one allium-lover. “I can actually see the garlic and herbs,” said another. And it has more body than many others we tried (“Chonky!”). Despite the promising visual cues, some still found that it lacked oomph. “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
Holy herbage, Batman! This jar packed a basil-y, oregano-y punch that tasters liked, although one was initially turned off by having to fish a “tree branch-sized” dried stem out of his mouth. Several also liked the brick-red color. A couple found it just a touch on the sweet side, though: “a little ketchup taste,” as one put it. Still, solid scores all around 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
The quirky grocery chain’s offerings often become cult favorites, but the jarred marinara had never come across my radar. It seems I’ve been missing out. To tick off all the boxes for our tasters: prominent herbs, a balance of acid and sweet, and a texture that featured tomato chunks but still was smooth enough not to slide off your pasta (and as a bonus, it’s one of the least-expensive brands we tried). One taster thought the herbs lacked freshness (“basil was dried too much to be reanimated,” he said.) A couple of tasters said they’d happily put this on their pizza or lasagna. “Pretty good!” enthused one. ($1.99/24 ounces at Trader Joe’s)
1. Rao’s Homemade Marinara
This sauce is often lauded by cooks who wouldn’t usually deign to dump a jar of store-bought sauce on their pasta, a couple of our tasters among them. It even has the seal of approval from Ina Garten, the queen of “store-bought is fine” — so long as it’s the “good” stuff. And so its performance was a big question in this blind test. Would our brand loyalists still love it amid the sea of samples? The answer turned out to be an enthusiastic “Si!”
Rao’s was the only brand to get a perfect score (it got 10s from three judges!) and flat-out raves: “Delicious,” one said. “I’d be proud to serve this,” said another. Our panel liked its fresh-tasting herbs and flavorful bits of tomatoes and onions, as well as its brighter hue. “Just chunky enough,” said one. ($10.59/24 ounces at Giant)