As much as I am a proponent for homemade over store-bought for many things, the one thing I rarely (if ever) make from scratch is marinara sauce. My brother is screaming as I write this. He never buys jarred sauce—it’s sacrilege to him, as I’m sure it is to many others out there. I, however, always have a jar of sauce on hand. The thing is though, I’m not loyal to any particular jar of marinara sauce. I normally just pick up whatever jar is on sale the week if I’m making some form of pasta dish and call it a day. I’ll doctor it up with some parmesan, basil, extra spices, and roll on with life. But it does make me ponder: what is the best grocery store pasta sauce?
So, of course, this felt like the perfect next edition of my Taste-Off series. From the best pumpkin bread recipe to the best dark chocolate brand, I love putting my and our team’s tastebuds to the test. I have no bias or preference, so I could go into this taste-off completely open minded without any idea of which jar my tastebuds should be looking for.
We went into this taste-off with a few things in mind. While we were planning to taste each marinara sauce on their own to dissect the flavors and texture, we also know that marinara sauce isn’t eaten straight off the spoon—at least, not all the time. So we tasted each sauce on their own and also over spaghetti for the complete experience.
Here’s how we ranked each jar.
- Flavor: It’s all about the tomato here but we wanted the tomato to be balanced out by the spices. The sauce should balance the sweetness and acidity of tomatoes without leaning too far one way or the other. We didn’t feel like we wanted any of the spices to be overwhelming either, but rather just part of the sauce to round out the tomato flavors.
- Texture: When it comes to marinara sauce, we were all looking for something with with good tomato chunks, but that also felt cohesive with a thick sauce. We wanted a sauce that clung to our pasta with richness and also added a little texture to our bowls.
- Would I eat this off the spoon? Seems like a pretty straightforward explanation.
I was super skeptical that we would be able to rank these, I mean, it’s a jarred sauce. But when we compared these back to back, it was mind blowing how different each one tasted and how we were all into certain flavors and textures over others. In the end, it came down to two sauces that split our taste testing group, with one just edging out the competition by a nail. Keep scrolling to find the winner of our marinara sauce taste-off.
7) Trader Joe’s Organic Marinara Sauce: I was so disappointed that this sauce ranked so low because like basically everyone else, I love TJ’s. The texture of the sauce itself was slightly less than fine, but what really got us was that it had this weird after-taste and almost leaned a little sour. To quote one of our taste testers: “I don’t like this one”.
6) Newman’s Own Marinara Sauce: This sauce had a mild flavor that leaned to the sweeter side but was slightly acidic as well. We didn’t necessarily feel as though it tasted like tomatoes either. It tasted almost artificial in flavor even though there’s nothing artificial in it. The texture was fine, but this wasn’t a sauce we were down to eat without doctoring it up a lot.
5) Whole Foods 365 Organic Marinara Sauce: This was another disappointment because I practically live in Whole Foods—I’m definitely a frequent shopper—and think most of their branded items are great. While the flavor was fine on this sauce it was a little oregano forward and the texture really let us down. This sauce was the most watery of the group, and almost slid off of our pasta just leaving tomato chunks and a hint of sauce on the noodles. I think this one would be fine if it was doctored up a bit or reduced down in a pan to make it thicker and richer.
4) Ragu Old World Style Marinara Sauce: So I’ll swallow my piece of humble pie here because I remember hating on Ragu sauce for a long time. What kept this one ranked in the middle with our group was its mild tomato flavor that was exactly that, tomatoey. It felt like the purest tomato flavor, which some people liked and others wished would be pumped up with extra herbaceous flavor and savoriness that we like in a pasta sauce. What kept it out of the top three however was the texture. It’s smooth. Very smooth. And our group really wanted some tomato chunks to add textural interest. Overall, we felt like this would be a good base marinara sauce that we could doctor up as we like.
3) Prego Marinara Sauce: This was the sauce I grew up eating, so I was excited that it still held up. It was also mild in flavor and lighter on texture than our top two. Some tasters said this felt like the elevated Ragu. It was a little richer, a little more tomatoey, and packed with a little more flavor. Overall, we would eat it again with some doctoring.
2) Barilla Vero Gusto: Y’all, the difference between one and two was so close. What testers really liked about this sauce was it’s sweetness with a slightly savory ending note. The tomato flavor was upfront without being acidic and just tasted really good. The texture was so good, really rich, and a step above the others on our list. Several of us said we would eat this one without changing anything, and thought it tasted great over the pasta and by the spoonful. Would purchase this sauce again.
1) Rao’s Marinara Sauce: Before we started our tasting and did some polling, most friends and people said their go-to jarred sauce was Rao’s. One friend even said when Rao’s is on sale at the store, she buys at least five jars to stock up. I totally get why. This sauce lives up to the hype. The flavor is outstanding, striking the perfect balance of sweet tomato with herby savory, it has a perfect finish, and we all ate this one straight off the spoon with gusto. The texture is next to perfect, having both chunks of tomatoes, but also a nice almost-buttery finish to it. We would all eat this sauce without any edits. This is a 10/10 recommendation and you know I’ll be stocking up next time I’m at the store.