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By Cook's Illustrated Published February 2008

Jarred Pasta Sauce

Published February 2008

How we tested

If you're going to buy pasta sauce (and Americans spend $1.7 billion a year on jarred sauces), you should know which one tastes best. To find out, we assembled a lineup of nine national brands of marinara (or basic tomato and basil) sauce and called our tasters to the table.

All of the sauces list reconstituted tomato puree (water and tomato paste) and tomatoes as their first two ingredients; we were surprised that the two sauces that list fresher diced tomatoes first finished in the middle of the pack. If fresh tomato flavor wasn't our tasters' top consideration, was it texture? The sauces ranged from perfectly smooth to quite chunky. To measure the relative chunkiness of each sauce, we portioned an equal weight of each into a fine-mesh strainer, rinsed it under running water for 20 seconds, and then weighed the remains. Our tasters' favorite sauce was the chunkiest, with 44 percent of its initial weight remaining after rinsing. But several other chunky sauces didn’t score very high overall. So what drove our rankings?

Just as important as what our tasters did like—good tomato flavor and a chunky texture—was what they didn't like: overpowering dried herb flavor. Even a sauce with a chunky texture and fresh tomato flavor can be ruined by overseasoning with acrid, stale-tasting dried herbs (basil and oregano are the main offenders). While our lowest-rated sauce was actually bland and lacked seasoning, the rest of our lower-scoring sauces were downgraded for their harsh dried herb flavor; our top three sauces were more subtly seasoned, and compare favorably with homemade.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*