Published February 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
Jarred pasta sauces are showing up on supermarket shelves with upscale twists: a dash of wine here, fancy olive oil there. Do these dolled-up sauces really taste better than standard jarred marinara?
Whether you’re a kid, a college student, or a full-fledged adult, jarred pasta sauce is part of a quick go-to dinner. Boil a pound of pasta, heat the sauce, grate some Parmesan if you’re feeling ambitious, and dinner’s on. Many manufacturers have branched out beyond basic marinara with sauces that feature extras like San Marzano tomatoes, special herb blends, or wine. Some cost the same as regular sauces; others charge upwards of $8 a jar. But marketing and money aside, do they taste better?
We chose seven national supermarket brands, each with a slight twist. Twenty-one editors and test cooks from America’s Test Kitchen tasted each sauce plain and then with pasta. The range of reactions was extreme. Some sauces made us wince, others were fair, and two brands prompted praise for “robust and continuing flavor” that tasters described as “authentic” and like “homemade.” We set out to investigate why some sauces hit the mark while others had us saying “No grazie.”
A good tomato sauce should taste like bright, sweet tomatoes. We like a homemade, chunky texture, with enough body to cling to the pasta, and for obvious reasons we dislike both stodgy tomato paste and watery versions. Garlic, onion, and other seasonings are a plus if employed with balance.
The two sauces that finished last had something in common: Their first ingredient was tomato puree, which is a mixture of tomato paste and water. (By law, ingredients are listed in order of weight, from heaviest to lightest.) Every other sauce in our lineup started with less-processed whole or diced tomatoes. Less processing didn’t guarantee a chunky, homemade-style texture, but it was a necessary starting point. Our winner used fancy-sounding “imported Italian tomatoes,” but so did one sauce that we could not recommend. (The latter featured tomatoes grown in the famed San Marzano region of Italy, no less.) Our conclusion? Beware hype. While “imported tomatoes” may sound as though they’d lend a sauce something special, they’re no guarantee.
For two of the sauces in our lineup, their special twist was also their Achilles’ heel. The sauce we liked least among the seven, for instance, touted Burgundy. The flavor of the wine was so forward that tasters joked that they felt wobbly at the knees-—“I think I could get drunk eating this.” (And what’s a French wine doing in Italian tomato sauce, anyhow?) Another sauce was seasoned with a “Tuscan herb” blend. Is that just another way to say dusty dried oregano? we wondered.
The sauce that came in second to last was way too sweet, prompting one taster to ask if it was “sugar sauce.” Tomatoes are anywhere from 90 to 95 percent water. Of the remaining 5 to 10 percent of solids, half is sugar. But not every tomato that drops off the conveyer belt is a blue ribbon specimen, so adding sugar to tomato sauce is a manufacturer’s shortcut to ripe, pulpy tomato flavor. When used with restraint, the sugar shortcut works. Our second-place sauce includes sugar; it’s the sixth ingredient listed on its nutrition label, with 6 grams of sugars per ¹⁄2-cup serving. The sugar played a supporting role, adding a touch of sweetness. But the second-to-last-place finisher lists added sugar third, behind only tomato puree and diced tomatoes. With 9 grams of sugars per ¹⁄2-cup serving, the “cloying,” “candy-sweet” taste overshadowed any bright tomato flavor.
Our favorite of the group has a short ingredient list that reads like a homemade recipe. It’s made with Italian tomatoes, Italian olive oil, fresh onions, fresh basil, fresh garlic, sea salt, and spices. The sauce clung to the pasta and had a bright acidity that spoke of real tomatoes. At $6.99, it costs twice as much as our winning traditional jarred pasta sauce. We pitted them against each other in a second tasting. While we still liked our traditional pick, we did prefer the premium sauce. Its bright acidity earned comparisons to a quick homemade fresh-tomato sauce, while the supermarket sauce was a little too sweet for some tasters. Neither product can replace homemade, but in a pinch, our winner delivered traditional flavor in a fraction of the time.