Taste Tests

We taste the leading brands to find the distinct differences and rate them with tasting scores.

Taste Test: Jarred Pasta Sauces from Celebrity Chefs and Restaurants

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

#1: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce
#2: Lidia's Tomato Basil
#3: Patsy's All Natural Marinara

It's pretty easy to satisfy the occasional urge for a nice bowl of pasta in marinara sauce in New York's red-sauce district (SEHQ is conveniently located in Little Italy). Even making it at home couldn't be easier.

But there are certain times in life when convenience trumps all, and that's where jarred pasta sauces come in. As it turns out, celebrity chefs are tuned into this urge and are capitalizing on it by releasing their own branded tomato sauces. Our question is simple: how do these celebrity-brand pasta sauces stack up?

The Contenders

There are a few major celebrities that offer their own take on pasta sauce. We included all of the ones available nationwide in supermarkets. We also included local New York red-sauce legends Rao's and Patsy's (both are readily available for mail order online)

We also included a jar of Francesco Rinaldi Traditional Sauce [buy here] in the lineup to see how the celebrity sauces would compare to their common man competitors. We started with Wolfgang Puck's sauce in the mix, but ended up disqualifying it because the only variety available to us was the Arrabiata variation.

The Criteria

Tomato-based marinara sauce should taste first and foremost of ripe, juicy tomatoes, with no metallic tin flavor or raw under-ripe tomato aftertaste. The best tomatoes have a good balance of acidity and sweetness with neither dominating. We want tomatoes that taste naturally sweet, not like added sugar or corn syrup.

From a good tomato base, flavorings should be mild and never dominate the tomato flavor. Garlic, onions, and/or basil are all good places to start. If there are herbs present, they should taste fresh and aromatic, not dry and dusty.

For texture, we like a sauce that has variety. Smooth pastes are not good—give us a few chunks so that we know the tomatoes are real!

Sauces were tasted hot plain, as well as with pasta and tasters were asked to rate the sauces on a scale from 1 to 10 for sweetness, fresh tomato flavor, and overall preference. The tasting was conducted blind, and the results were tabulated after all tasting was finished.

The Results

Turns out that when it comes to jarred tomato sauce, you really do get what you pay for. Looking at the price-per-ounce of each sauce, you can split the sauces roughly into two categories: those at 25¢-an-ounce and up (Patsy's, Rao's, Mario Batali, and Lidia Bastianich's), and those below 25¢-an-ounce (Emeril's, Francesco Rinaldi, and Newman's Own). In the higher category, a full three out of four sauces scored above a five in our overall satisfaction. On the other hand, of the more inexpensive sauces, most didn't even break the 4-point mark.

When it comes to comparing these sauces to regular, non-celebrity sauces, most fare pretty well. Only our bottom two contenders ranked below the Francesco Rinaldi sauce.

The plot thickens (or should I say the sauce thickens?) even further when you compare pricing to overall sugar and salt content. Yep, you guessed it: the cheaper sauces all contain far more sugar (between 7 and 9 grams per half cup serving) than our winning brands (between 2 and 5 grams per half cup serving).

This makes a lot of sense. The "premium" expensive sauces are universally made with either imported whole Italian plum tomatoes along with actual fresh herbs, garlic, and olive oil. Whole tomatoes and fresh ingredients = plenty of natural-tasting flavor without any of the strange aftertastes of added sugar or dried herbs and vegetables.

Take a look at the back of the bottle on our three biggest losers, on the other hand, and you'll find that the primary ingredient is either tomato purée (made from combining water and tomato paste), or crushed tomatoes treated with citric acid to help them keep some semblance of texture. Whole tomatoes don't even enter the picture. In all of the inexpensive sauces, sugar shows up on the ingredients list, as well as dried garlic or garlic powder. None of these help with freshness.

The inexpensive sauces also tend to be higher in salt. It's an old lazy cook's trick. Don't have the flavor you want? Just add salt and sugar to bump it up. It's a shortcut that leads to passable results, but can never compare to food in which flavor is properly developed, starting with good ingredients.

As for texture, you could easily tell the difference between the sauces:

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On the left is Francesco Rinaldi, made with tomato purée, while on the right is our winner, Rao's, made with whole Italian tomatoes. See those nice chunks?

Acidity was also key to good flavor. We preferred brighter, more acidic sauces to dull ones. Interestingly enough, while waiting for the taste test to start, I had bowls of hot sauce covered with aluminum foil to keep them warm until tasting time. When I unwrapped them, I noticed that in some cases, the aluminum foil had a tarnished look, while in others, the foil came off completely clean. Tarnished foil is a good indicator of the presence of more acidity, and indeed, the sauces that left tarnished marks on the foil all scored on the higher end of the scale.

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Lesson learned: If you want the best fresh-tasting sauce, read the label and look for fresh ingredients and no added sugar, then be willing to shell out a bit more for the pleasure.

Take a look at our rankings for a few more details.

#1: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (7.1/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 31¢
Sodium Per Serving: 340 mg
Sugar Per Serving: 3 g

The runaway winner, this sauce also had the fewest ingredients: imported Italian tomatoes, imported olive oil, fresh onions, salt, fresh garlic, fresh basil, black pepper, and oregano. Hey—those are pretty much the same ingredients I put into my own Marinara sauce!

It beat out the competition with the freshest, brightest real tomato flavor, along with nice chunks of tomato. On top of that, with only 340 miligrams of sodium and 3 grams of sugar per half cup serving, it was the least salty. You can throw the theory that salt = flavor out the window when it comes to jarred pasta sauces.

#2: Lidia's Tomato Basil (5.8/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 26¢
Sodium Per Serving: 430 mg
Sugar Per Serving: 5 g

We were happy to see that the Queen of Italian Food TV actually puts her name on a product worthy of it. It was a little wetter than some of the other sauces with a strong cooked garlic flavor. Some added sweetness comes in the form of carrots (you can't tell they're there).

#3 Patsy's All Natural Marinara (5/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 48¢
Sodium Per Serving: 423 mg
Sugar Per Serving: 5 g

Another New York contender in the top three, this was the most expensive sauce in the lineup. Its ingredients list is similar to Rao's, but it also contains an amount of tomato paste in addition to the whole tomatoes which might have led some tasters to comment on a "weird, stale flavor." Like Lidia's sauce, this one is a garlic bomb. Tasters were generally happy with the seasoning level.

#4: Mario Batali Marinara (4.4/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 41¢
Sodium Per Serving: 490 mg
Sugar Per Serving: 2 g

Despite its 41¢ per ounce price tag, the Batali sauce came in at the bottom of our more expensive sauces. Rather than fresh tomatoes, herbs, or vegetables, olive oil dominated the flavor profile of this sauce, which some tasters enjoyed, but others found threw it off-balance. It was pretty thin, with a touch of garlic and a good level of acidity.

#5: Emeril's Tomato & Basil (2.9/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 15¢
Sodium Per Serving: 430 mg
Sugar Per Serving: 7 g

Here's where we dive into the inexpensive sauces. Emeril's might be only half the price of our winning Rao's, but it's not even half as good. Every single taster commented on its sickly sweetness and artificial, processed flavor. "Tastes like the pizza sauce packet that came in lunchables," was my favorite comment, and perhaps the most accurate.

For the record, the Francesco Rinaldi sauce placed just above the Emeril's in the lineup.

#6: Newman's Own Tomato & Basil (2.7/10)

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Price Per Ounce: 15¢
Sodium Per Serving: 520
Sugar Per Serving: 9 g

"Holy s*&t sugar!" was the theme of the day, along with a good deal of "Grandma's dried herbs." Those'd be the herbs your grandma had in her kitchen cabinet above the stove for 4 decades before passing them down to you. Many tasters also noted a strange medicinal aftertaste described as everything from bubble gum to lavender.

The Wild Card: Giada De Laurentis' Sauce

Since it's available only at Target, we didn't include Giada's sauce in the regular lineup, but as it was the winner of Consumer Reports' jarred pasta sauce tasting, we decided to add it at the end. At 440 mg of sodium and 8 grams of sugar per serving, it's closer to the cheaper sauces in terms of salt and sugar levels, but it's made of mostly whole tomatoes, combined with some tomato puree and—a first—actual fresh tomatoes. All of the aromatics are fresh as well. Interestingly, it's also the only sauce in which the added fat is in the form of butter instead of olive oil. The butter lends it a richness that is almost cheesy in nature.

The price of the 23.5 ounce jar varies by location, but in New York we paid $3.49 for a 23.5 ounce jar, putting it at just 15¢ an ounce—as inexpensive as the cheaper sauces, making it the best buy of the bunch. Too bad it's only available at Target. Our conclusion? This is some seriously good sauce. Not quite as fresh or bright tasting as the Rao's, but one we'd gladly toss our pasta with.

Seeing how simple a good homemade marinara sauce is to make (check out Josh Bousel's recipe), we don't anticipate buying jarred pasta sauce too often, but when we're in a bind for a quick dinner, we wouldn't mind having a jar of Rao's or Giada's sauce kicking around the pantry.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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