After seeing how many readers wrote in to tell us about their own favorite brands, we had an idea: We’d do another taste test of jarred sauces, this one based not on market research, as the first was, but on suggestions from these enthusiastic sauce fans themselves.
We solicited even more input, asking people to name their own house brands in the comments, in a submission form, over email and on social media. We looked for the jars that got the most votes of confidence, and got to work on a Marinara 2.0 test. In addition to a half-dozen reader favorites, I included the runaway winner of our first taste test, Rao’s, to see how it would fare against this new crop.
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I enlisted five of the same colleagues who were on the last tasting panel and rounded it out with fresh palates for a total of eight tasters. In a blind test (that is, they didn’t know which brands they were tasting), they assigned each sample a score of 1-10, taking into account flavor, texture and overall appeal. By then, we were feeling like marinara pros, but just to help get us in the mood, I turned on a Spotify playlist of “Red Sauce Italian” tunes, and we dug in.
After another session in which we dipped and tasted and swirled the samples like they were flights of fine wine, we had our results. A few of these jars were hits, including a sleeper bargain. But once again, none of them could touch the reigning champion, the beloved Rao’s. Here’s how this batch broke down:
7. Muir Glen Organic Italian Herb Pasta Sauce
Many readers commented that they were looking for more organic options, and a number of them swore by this brand, which is frequently recommended for its canned whole tomatoes. But our tasters found the texture doubly unappealing, declaring the sauce to be simultaneously thin (“watery,” according to three of them) and still cursed with large tomato chunks that didn’t deliver much in the way of flavor. “I see big tomato chunks but the taste is boring spaghetti sauce,” said one. Some also were turned off by the oil that collected on its surface: “Oil slick on top is not floating my boat.” ($5.89/25.5 ounces at Giant)
5. (tie) Michael’s of Brooklyn Marinara Sauce
I was charmed at first sight by the old-school label, which has the look of something you’d see on the in-house brand from your favorite neighborhood trattoria. But that’s the beauty of a blind taste, where you can’t be influenced by the proverbial cover of the book. There were herbs galore — “like someone dumped their herb garden in,” per one taster — but the greenery was jarring and “dusty.” And the prominent garlic wasn’t doing this entrant any favors, either. “Tastes like roasted garlic but roasted too long,” said one. “Really overpowers everything else.” ($7.99/16 ounces at Giant)
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5. (tie) Mid’s Traditional Meatless
Far too thin was the unanimous opinion here. “More tomato soup than marinara,” as one put it. “Spent the night with the immersion blender,” speculated another. And it was too cloying for others: “Ketchupy,” “so sweet,” and “hate the sweetness level” were among the comments. But a couple liked the flavor, even if it was too smooth, with one suggesting that it might be put to use in contexts where you don’t want chunks, such as in chicken parmesan subs. ($4.29/32 ounces at Food Lion)
4. Silver Palate San Marzano Blend Marinara
This sample was filled with enough mystery for an Agatha Christie novel. “There’s some flavor that I can’t pinpoint that I don’t love,” mused one taster. “Wondering if there is wine in it?” said another. “Weird?” was another’s pointed question. After seeing all the confusion, I checked the ingredients and noted the unusual addition of pear concentrate. Could that have been the flavor tripping people’s palates? Whatever it was, this didn’t seem to be a jar worth seeking out, although one suggested it could be serviceable if it were “spruced up with protein or cheese.” ($4.49/25 ounces at Food Lion)
This one got lots of praise from readers as a tasty, affordable staple they can reliably find in their grocery stores. And most of our tasters agreed, giving high marks for its detectable notes of basil and garlic. Several praised the chunky consistency (“tomato was not too hard or soft. Perfect!” said one) that still coated noodles nicely. A few, however, dinged it as being a little too much like Timothy Leary — that is, perhaps high on acid? “I’m puckering,” said one. “I want a little more sweetness,” another chimed in. ($2.99/24 ounces at Safeway)
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I had high hopes for this brand, which I had never tried, on the basis of the enthusiastic (and copious) praise from readers. I’m planning on seeking it out now myself, after our panel found it to be a favorite, too. People enjoyed its straightforward, deep tomato-y vibe, uncomplicated by the stronger herbal notes you might find in other brands. “A good choice for those who want the tomatoes to shine through,” as one said. Although a couple found that tomato-forward taste a bit too tart, it did garner the highest praise (at least by my lights) of all the sauce-testants in the bunch: “reminds me of my Italian grandmother.” ($11.39/24 ounces at Giant)
1. Rao’s Homemade Marinara
This jar from the folks behind the famed New York restaurant of the same name was the clear winner of our last test. And now we can declare it to be the undisputed champ, with our panel once again finding it to be the boss of the sauce shelf. The success of this vivid-orange-hued jar seems to be in striking just the right notes, Goldilocks-style. “Not too thin, not too oily,” said one. “Balanced seasonings,” said another. Tasters thought it boasted the kind of mellow complexity you’d expect to come from a long-simmered, homemade pot. “Tastes like it cooked over time and built flavors,” according to a fan. “Mi gusto!” ($10.59/24 ounces at Giant)