The purchase of jarred marinara likely causes my Sicilian great- grandmother to roll in her grave. Cooking a simple sauce takes practically zero effort and its ingredients are readily available at most grocery stores.
But sometimes (and in the wise words of meme queen Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins), "ain’t nobody got time for that." And it’s true. My fondest memories of a complex, rich Sunday gravy is one that simmered low and slow for literal hours to top pizza, pasta and eggplant Parmesan. If I want to make an authentic marinara, I want to make it right and not cut corners with time and effort. A jarred variety, however, obviously assists when I’m in a pinch and need to satisfy a sudden craving.
So, what goes into making a perfect marinara? I sought the expertise of Alessandro Manfredini, executive chef of Grand Universe Lucca. If the excess of vowels in his last name doesn’t give it away, Manfredini hails from Italy, the region of my ancestors, and knows how to make a damn good sauce.
“The perfect ingredients for marinara are very easy to find. They are garlic, onion, chili pepper and tomatoes,” he explains. “The key factor that makes it perfect and authentic is the quality of the tomatoes. Never settle. The tomatoes should be of excellent quality. I highly recommend Roma, San Marzano or Piccadilly tomatoes.”
Of course, these coveted produce items may be difficult to find (unless you hit up a farmer’s market) and I doubt a big company like Prego is scouring the vines of Naples to harvest the perfect tomato for its $2 jars, but there are certain characteristics you can look for to ensure that you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
“Please check the ingredients carefully. It’s mandatory to avoid unnecessary additives,” Manfredini adds. “The ingredients — tomato, garlic, chili pepper and onion — should speak for themselves. I think it’s also key to buy jars that are glass so that you can see the contents before buying.”
A simple search on Amazon proves that Americans love their jarred marinara. So I purchased the seven most popular, readily-available and affordable options and ranked them below. And since different marinaras may work for different types of dishes (for example, you may prefer something sweeter to counter salty meats on a pizza, something more herbaceous on a pasta, etc.), this taste test was performed strictly by warming each option on the stove and sampling by wooden spoon (much in the spirit of great-grandma, who’d hover over a saucepan all day until it was just right).
Check out the results below.
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I am a Barilla loyalist when it comes to dried pasta. The brand boasts some of the best products for spaghetti, penne and other crave-worthy noodle shapes on the market and is a staple in my pantry. That said, the company’s marinara really missed the mark for me. It was just so overwhelmingly oregano-heavy that you couldn’t taste the nuances of garlic, onion, basil and olive oil. I felt like I had to counter its herbaceousness with the addition of red pepper flakes and even a dash of truffle oil. That said, its consistency is lovely — not too chunky and not too thin, which would make it a fantastic pizza sauce to spread around dough evenly.
I have to give credit to Prego for concocting a sauce that relies solely on pure, fresh ingredients (a far departure from jarred marinaras past). But for some reason, this one tasted a bit strange … almost as if it was fermented. The longer it simmered, the more this taste went away, but you may need to doctor it up a bit with your favorite herbs and spices to get it serve-worthy. I do think, however, that for an extremely affordable option, this recipe is a fantastic upgrade to years past. So good on Prego for their no-sugar-added Farmer’s Market line which offers a higher-quality product at a lower price point.
This is an extremely simple sauce, which is a great thing in Italian cooking if you want your fresh pasta to shine. While it’s teetering on Barilla levels of oregano, there is a bit more restraint by its more garlic-forward approach. My only complaint is that it has the consistency of salsa. I wish the ingredients were a bit more blended, including the herbs, which easily got stuck in my teeth as I was noshing. You can easily break up the tomatoes in a heated saucepan, but if I’m looking for convenience, then I want 365 to have already done this work for me.
Admittedly, I went into this taste as a huge Mezzetta fan. Its spicy marinara is one of my favorite sauces on the market, and while this basic alternative didn’t quite live up to its fiery sister’s reputation, it was a solid offering. I really love the crushed tomato texture and the fact that this tastes the least like it’s been tampered with or camouflaged with powerful herbs and spices. It’s also the most tomato-forward of the bunch, which may be off-putting to younger eaters, but I appreciate the company’s commitment to letting the beloved fruit shine (per Manfredini’s recommendation).
This jar may have surprised me most. Like Prego, mainstream Classico has suffered a bit from garnering a public image of being Americanized Italian food, but it was delicious. In fact, it’s one of the few I actually kept out to douse on a bowl of macaroni. There is a great crunch and sweetness to the tomato chunks, but the sauce surrounding it isn’t too watered down. I also tried the brand’s Tomato and Basil variety, which is just as scrumptious but just a touch sweeter. If you’re looking for a good mid-priced option, this product will more than deliver, especially when it comes to versatility (I imagine that it’d taste great in a variety of classic Italian dishes).
It’s the only sauce on this list with added sugar, but I actually felt like this addition helped to accentuate the complexities of each flavor in a really positive way. For example, there is a wonderful punch of garlic that would be too overwhelming without it. The same goes for its parsley, basil and oregano trio, which would be too herbaceous. It’s the balance of this recipe that really does it for me, making it all too easy to house an entire jar in one sitting (not that I know from personal experience).
There is a reason why Rao’s tops nearly every Best Jarred Marinara list you can find on the internet and is a staple in Ina Garten's pantry — nothing beats it. I have to admit that I wasn’t a frequent Rao’s buyer, but this taste test completely changed my perception of the sauce and it will likely be my go-to jar until something better comes along (which probably won’t happen any time soon). Sure, it’s on the pricier side, but there is something about its tomatoes and straightforward ingredients that make it taste unlike any other jar — fresh, well-rounded and with a touch of acidity that I continued to crave as I ate it. I am pretty well-versed when it comes to Italian tomato sauces, having traveled abroad multiple times to taste it in Italy firsthand, and this recipe is, by far, the most authentic. In fact, it’s downright amore.