A good jarred pasta sauce is hard to find. Even painstakingly average grocery stores offer dozens of options, ranging from swill to swank, and to say they're all the same is fat lie: fatter than the creamiest alfredo, and don't even get me started about price points. Sauce matters -- it's the only thing keeping us from consuming naked, tasteless noodles just lying there in a limp tangle. So, to help you avoid a surefire bout of depression, we've rounded up a group of the country's top store-bought marinara sauces and ranked the best of the best.
First, we whittled down a lengthy list of 26 simple marinaras to nine standouts by testing them on their own, dunking a simple chunk of Italian bread into the jars, and eating them cold. The brands able to hold their own under this worst-case scenario moved on to the final round, warmed up and served atop spaghetti. We judged them on aroma, flavor balance, and coating ability. Here's how the jars stacked up.
9. Cucina Antica garlic marinara
From the looks of it, I thought this one would be some sort of refined, tomatoes-airlifted-from-Sicily situation. The small jar's packaging is rustic: fake hand lettering on rough, khaki-colored paper -- it's all very Restoration Hardware. Inside the jar, the sauce was thin and chunky at the same time, almost like salsa. Cold, it finished clean, and with its ample spice quotient it could really set off some veal meatballs. But once warmed up, the spices dulled and the tartness took over, transforming into a sharp tinge. It's best paired with fatty meat to balance that acidity.
8. Stop & Shop-brand marinara
With its super-smooth texture, evenly distributed spices, and salt-sweet balance, this Brand-X guy scored surprisingly high during the cold round. Warm, however, things were different. It coated the pasta like a damn dream, but aroma-wise, the tomato paste overpowered. It's also very sweet, and the sugar squashes the subtle fennel and oregano notes. If you're into the sweet stuff (talkin' to you, ketchup lovers), this is your best bet -- especially for the buck.
7. Rao's marinara sauce
I came into this thing thinking Rao's was unstoppable. It's been my go-to since I started buying my own groceries, and to me it's always tasted like everything a good pasta sauce should be -- velvety but not pureed, rich but not overwhelmingly spiced, consistent but never boring. But there was something about this taste-test that really put Rao's in its spot -- the No. 7 spot (it's still No. 1 in my heart though). It smelled enticing and clung beautifully to the pasta, which I expected, but the heated sauce revealed a strong umami flavor that dominated each bite. Spring for the tomato basil version.
6. Newman's Own marinara
Paul makes a pretty decent product, and this marinara was no exception. It's definitely not going to blow anyone away, but with its pleasantly thick consistency, clean finish, and gentle fennel and basil flavors, it'll make your spaghetti 10-20% better than butter and salt. The only negative, besides a general blahness, is that the sugar factor grows stronger with heat. I'm not sure I could eat an entire bowl of the stuff un-doctored, but throw in some salty pancetta or earthy mushrooms and you're in good shape.
5. Lidia's marinara
Sopped up cold with a chunk of bread, Lidia's was top-notch -- seriously, I basically made everyone in the office try it, it was so good. It tasted as fresh as a spring garden, with bright basil on the nose and soft layers of grassy vegetables and sweet plum tomatoes. But heat completely transformed it in nearly every way. It took on a soupy quality, losing its bite and devolving into bitterness. It might have been improved by some diced onion, sea salt, or a handful of briny green olives to cut through the dankness, but on its own it's best served as a dipping sauce for mozz sticks.
4. Victoria all-natural marinara
This was a simple sauce, devoid of complexity but deeply satisfying all on its own. It reminded me of my mom's Sunday gravy -- slow-simmered, drenched in red wine, and screaming for juicy, greasy meatballs to take it to that next level. Alone, it was pretty solid: tangy with just a hint of sweetness. It became more complex as it warmed, becoming unctuously tart like a good balsamic. I wouldn't call it a standalone sauce, but it does manage to carry its distinct, enjoyable flavors from the jar to the bowl with ease.
3. Whole Foods 365 marinara sauce
You know that feeling you had when you were, like, 20 after a long, stressful day of class, when all you wanted was to watch baseball, drink a beer, and shovel something quick, filling, and relatively un-complex into your gullet? This is the sauce of your burned-out collegiate dreams, my friend! It's completely inoffensive in every way, the "Chad" of the spaghetti sauce world. It was a little oily on top, clung nicely to the noodles, and smelled like absolutely nothing despite the fact that all the herbs in the mix still popped on the tongue. It needed no additives on its lonesome, though a few hearty shakes of that powdery green-tube Parm wouldn't hurt at all.
2. Trader Giotto's traditional marinara sauce
I've been burned before by Trader Joe's, but I'll be damned if Giotto didn't hit it out of the park. It's a hearty sauce, with strong, unabashed flavors -- black pepper, fennel, oregano, parsley, fresh-cut basil -- and large hunks of stewed tomatoes that maintained their dexterity from start to finish. It smelled wonderful poured over hot pasta, its barbecue-like sweetness cut with the lovely acidity of an aged cabernet. There was no sour aftertaste to be found and it opened up as I ate it, as if the bowl were a decanter and the sauce a fine wine. It didn't coat the pasta as firmly as I'd have liked, but, hey, Giotto still makes a hell of a sauce.
1. Guy Fieri Traditional Old Skool pasta sauce
If someone had told me the mayor of Flavortown would steal the sauce show, I'd probably have dumped a jar all over his head. But, here we are. The man who created Donkey Sauce has also produced a marinara so tasty, so smoky, so alive with crushed red pepper and slow-cooked herbs, that it quite literally has soul. It stuck to noodles with effortless grace, warming the lucky eater with a slight caramel sweetness and an astonishing depth of flavor. It's winter sauce, the kind of thing we need to get us through the harsh realities of subzero temperatures and 13-hour days at the office. So step aside Batali, take a seat Giada -- there's a new Italian cuisine king in the house, and his sauce is truly "money."
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