Soul-Satisfying Pasta Sauces You Could Eat Tonight
Sauce matters -- it's the only thing keeping us from consuming naked, tasteless noodles just lying there in a limp tangle. But show up at the average grocery store and you’ll see dozens of options, ranging from swill to swank. How do you decide which sauce is the one? We've rounded up a group of the country's top store-bought marinara sauces and picked out some recommendations for you.
First, we whittled down a lengthy list of 26 simple marinaras to a few standouts by testing them on their own and using them in our own everyday meals. We judged them on aroma, flavor balance, and coating ability. And because brands and tastes change over time, we update this list every year or so to make sure the quality and availability still holds up. These jars are our current favorites.
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.
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. 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.
Senior food editor Adriana Velez adds: We have to say something about Rao’s Arrabbiata. It has come to our attention that this sauce has something extra going on. Everything that puts the marinara on this list, the scent, the texture, the pasta cling, the umami, is all there. But the Arrabbiata has a spicy heat that demands mentioning. It’s not distractingly spicy; it’s just picante enough to give your face a glow while you’re eating it, which kind of makes it a beauty product, when you think about it.
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.
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.
Prego Farmers' Market Classic Marinara Sauce
Look, I’m not one to be swayed by an obvious marketing ploy, especially one that aims to charm bring-your-own-grocery-bag millennials with a mason jar-style container, rustic brown paper label and distressed fake stencil lettering. But damn you, Prego, you wormed your way into my jaded heart. Overlook the exterior and you’re in for a refreshingly simple ride that feels more like it came from an legit garden instead of an assembly line. It’s all garlic right out the gate, followed by a rich blend of black pepper, tomato, basil and oregano and summed up with a sweet-n-tangy kicker. The consistency is on the thicker side, not a great match for a slippery bowl of noodles but I imagine it would be aces something that calls for a heartier spread, like lasagna or thick crust pizza.
The Silver Palate San Marzano Marinara
I have to admit, I was skeptical here before I even popped the top. The label -- thick green serif crowned by Roma tomatoes in dropshadow against a maroon backdrop with a subtle vine pattern -- evoked a midwestern kitchen overflowing with gingham and chicken figurines. It’s even got a little State Fair-style gold medal icon. But lo and behold, you really can’t judge a book by its corny ass cover. Thanks to a healthy dose of EVOO, the texture was light and delicate, broken up by juicy tomato hunks and the crunch of the occasional carrot. Cold, it tasted fine but the veggies combined with the oil made it more of a gazpacho situation, not terrible, but not altogether appetizing. Heated, however, the garlic came to life, the chunks softened and everything gelled brilliantly. It all came together, even the pear concentrate, which sounded gnarly on paper but actually produced a rounded sweetness that had me coming back for more.
Whole Foods 365 Marinara Pasta 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.
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.
The Meatball Shop Classic Tomato Sauce
If you’ve ever been to a Meatball Shop -- they’re up to six NYC locations now -- you’re well aware that this red sauce mini-empire knows exactly what it’s doing. If you haven’t had the pleasure, you’re in luck, because these crisply designed bad boys aren’t just pretty to look at, they’re pretty damn tasty, too. Cold or warm, the texture screamed real, slow-simmered ingredients, with each spoonful blanketing my palate in a soft creamy hug that required very little chewing. That undeniable silkiness didn’t do it any favors when it came to plain pasta, but unsurprisingly, it really sang poured over some gut-busting meatballs. Spice-wise, it hit a nice mark between unctuous garlic, sweet tomato and just a hint of heat from the chili flakes and a peculiar smokiness that only bolstered its meat-appropriateness. It’s not the most versatile jar on the shelf but you know what to do: skip the noodles and go straight for the cheesy, sauce-drenched sub.
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."
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.