Chefs, culinary experts, and true Italians all preach that there's nothing quite like homemade pasta sauce. It's a labor of love which rewards you with a sauce that is authentic, rich, fresh, and seasoned exactly to your own liking.
But, sometimes this added side quest in the kitchen is just not feasible. Some days you don't have the luxury of extra time. On others, the chore of rounding up all the ingredients sounds next to impossible. And, some people have the culinary equivalent of a "black thumb," where every recipe they touch refuses to flourish into something edible.
For all these moments, jarred grocery store pasta sauce has always been there for you. Pasta sauce was first jarred, rather than canned, starting in the 1920s. And, since then, the business has boomed exponentially. Brands like Rao's, Barilla, Ragu, and Newman's Own have proliferated along grocery store shelves, offering endless saucy options and competing to be consumers' top choice.
But, what about the store brands? Since jarred pasta sauce has become a fundamental food item, every major grocery store or supermarket also carries its own rendition—sometimes even multiple options under different private labels. And, I wanted to find out who does it best.
Since I grew up in a strictly Prego household, the majority of these store brands were new territory for me, and I found myself purchasing many for the very first time. I collected a total of 12 different jars from seven different stores and markets for my analysis. I stuck to many classic marinara and tomato basil varieties, but also snuck in a few Alfredos for good measure–all jarred so what you see is what you get.
I assessed each sauce straight from the jar at room temperature, after being warmed on the stovetop, and paired with the most neutral of all noodles: the spaghetti noodle. After slurping, savoring, and simply stomaching some, I had my answer of which store brand does pasta sauce best. Here they are in order of my least to most favorite. Buon appetito!
Target Good & Gather Signature Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce
If Good & Gather is Target's clean and aesthetic private label brand, then Good & Gather Signature is its haughty black-label cousin. The entire grocery collection has such esteem that I decided to splurge on its Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce–a product which is by far the most expensive of all jars I purchased at $5.99, but also received a 4.2 rating on Target's website. It's also "imported from Italy," according to the label.
The Look: First off, I had to appreciate that it's absolutely jam-packed to the brim. It also has that trademark bright cherry red complexion with just enough basil bits poking through. Chunks of diced tomatoes didn't dominate, but it also wasn't blended to oblivion.
The Taste: The smell was suspect at first–almost as if the tomatoes were going bad. But, as I let the sauce simmer on my tongue, the first and only thing that my taste buds picked up on was the carrots. Add in the onions and celery, and the memories of a pot roast were awakened. While I can respect the fact that we're trying to get a few more servings of veggies in, it just didn't work here. And these added ingredients hijacked the sauce.
Kroger Private Selection Basilico Tomato & Basil Sauce
Following along with the trend of higher-end private label brands, Kroger offers its Private Selection Basilico Tomato & Basil Sauce. Again, the dark color scheme gives it an air of poshness. It also boasts its inclusion of Italian tomatoes and imported olive oil, but it comes more reasonably priced than Good & Gather's version at $3.99 for an equally sized helping.
The Look: Crimson red and essentially puréed. The mixture is closer to liquid form than anything else (likely a result of the added water) and becomes even thinner when cooked on the stove.
The Taste: Scents of sundried tomatoes and sweetness filled the air as I popped off the lid. The added sugars overwhelmed the other flavors of basil, garlic, or other spices. The combined sugar and runny consistency reminded me of something, and after a few spoonfuls, I finally put my finger on it: it's tomato soup. It would have been much better served with a gooey grilled cheese than dolloped on top of pasta.
Whole Foods Pesto Alfredo Premium Pasta Sauce
Emphasis on the "premium," this sauce makes a splash at a cost of $4.99 for a 14.5-ounce jar—nearly 10 ounces less than most other options in this survey (that's Whole Foods for you). But, I've heard tales of this curious combo and it caught my eye with its Italian origins and cheeses, including both grana padano and pecorino romano.
The Look: Green and goopy. Both pesto and Alfredo emulsify into one to form a thick substance like no other, which I had to scoop instead of easily pour out into the pot. Obvious green specks of basil were also accompanied by unidentified fragments, which I can only assume was dried garlic.
The Taste: Awfully basil-forward and grass-like. I love a good pesto and a good Alfredo, but these two just don't mix well. The basil leaves mask any and all cheesy notes from the Alfredo—something that could be brushed off if the taste was there, but alas, it wasn't. Cashews were used in place of pine nuts and sunflower seed oil for olive oil in the pesto portion, which could've had something to do with it. But, either way, this science-experiment sauce was a no for me.
Target Good & Gather Roasted Garlic Alfredo
Another Good & Gather find, but this time not from the pretentious Signature collection. The G&G Alfredo sauce is said to be a dependable and satisfying selection for the price ($1.89 for 15 ounces), and I decided to branch out with the Roasted Garlic variety.
The Look: A somewhat dirty shade of off-white. It's not as thick and creamy as other rival Alfredos–giving off more of a slosh than a jiggle when shaken in the jar.
The Taste: The label says it's made with "no artificial colors or flavors," but I'm skeptical. Something fake, phony, and almost synthetic-like is going on here. I also could've been breathing garlic fire after the heating process really unleashed the flavor of the roasted cloves—a big shock since the sauce didn't smell like garlic at all in the jar. Unfortunately, with garlic as the front man, neither the parmesan or romano cheeses were detectable, but black pepper definitely was.
Aldi Simply Nature Organic Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce
Aldi's Simply Nature Organic Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce is backed by the Good Housekeeping Nutritionist Approved Emblem—meaning it is known to be both a practical and health-conscious food choice. For an Aldi-like price of $1.99, the sauce is organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO with no artificial flavors, preservatives, or colors.
The Look: More of a dull or darker shade, similar to a brick red. It also walks the line between thin and thick with sparse tomato cubes.
The Taste: Here we go again with the overdose of basil. The herb just about knocks you sideways when eaten straight from the jar. After heating on the stove, it thankfully subsides, replaced with the meaty and potent taste of tomato paste. A dash of sweetness announced itself at the end of my bite, helping to pull this one up a little bit in the rankings.
Walmart Great Value Marinara Pasta Sauce
As always, you can't beat a Walmart Great Value price. This pasta sauce is the cheapest of all at just $1.62, and I wanted to find out if there really is any value to be found here. Or, if this saucy deal is too good to be true.
The Look: Leaning towards the watery side, but not offensively. I would describe it more as pulpy, sans any big pieces of tomato flesh and with very few foreign dots of spice.
The Taste: A tad nostalgic, but also diluted. The zest of the dehydrated herbs and spices seems to be lost here, and it tastes more like a jar of just squashed tomatoes. Overall, the flavor could have been much worse for $1.62 though. And, if you're willing to doctor it up a bit, it does seem like a highly versatile sauce.
Trader Joe's Roasted Garlic Marinara Sauce
Trader Joe's reputation precedes itself when it comes to noteworthy condiments and sauces. So, it was never a matter of whether or not I was going to swing by the store on my hunt, but rather which sauces would be chosen from the myriad of options. I decided to go with a few more standard and well-known options like this Roasted Garlic Marinara Sauce, priced at $1.99, to level the playing field.
The Look: A classic puréed pasta sauce in a shade of muted red. An herb medley of dried parsley, basil, and oregano can also be seen floating throughout.
The Taste: This garlic-based sauce has the exact opposite problem as the previous Good & Gather Alfredo: not enough garlic. The only time it was prominent was while the sauce warmed on the stove. It is difficult to identify in the jar and also when splashed over noodles–and believe me, I tried, with my dose coming dangerously close to being dunked. I will admit that the consistency and taste of this one beyond the garlic was very enjoyable. But, my qualm remains that if you're going to brand yourself as a roasted garlic product, I would expect that garlic pungency to be a little more evident.
Costco Kirkland Signature Organic Marinara Sauce
Everything is bigger at Costco. And, die-hard members would argue that things are also better at the warehouse, especially when it comes to its famed Kirkland brand products. But, does this sentiment hold true for the Kirkland Signature Organic Marinara Sauce? And, does the sauce hold up to Rao's, a beloved option also stocked in bulk at Costco? I was certainly hoping so, after I bought a pack of three monstrous jars for $14.09 (or, about $4.70 per jar) for the sake of this taste test.
The Look: A medium ruby red. Thick, but not chunky, and very uniform–similar in look to pizza sauce.
The Taste: The essence of traditional stewed tomatoes carries this one, and the meaty flavor of tomato paste is absent (as proudly indicated on the jar). It's on the sweeter side with six total grams of sugar. But, without much support from the salt, sautéed onions, and other herbs and spices, it's regrettably bland and even leaves you with a strange vinegary taste at the end.
Trader Joe's Tomato Basil Marinara Sauce
This marinara shares all the same attributes as its Roasted Garlic brother: tomato purée, diced tomatoes, soybean oil, dried onions, extra virgin olive oil, dried parsley, basil, oregano—the works. But, in place of roasted garlic, the marinara offers dried garlic. Even the $1.99 price tag is copied.
The Look: Identical to TJ's roasted garlic variety, which isn't surprising. Without any sense of taste or smell, the two would seem interchangeable.
The Taste: This is really the first tomato sauce for me where an oniony flavor delighted my taste buds. And, also the first where the basil works well with the rest. It seems to be more of a homogenous fusion of ingredients rather than separate parts performing on their own. It's smooth, spoonable, and just a smidge sweet, with one gram of added sugar. A bit more seasoning in the form of something as simple as salt and pepper would have been welcome here. But, it would be a sound base for a meal like chicken parmesan or lasagna. This sauce just works so much better than the roasted garlic kind, when there's not one ingredient—or, the lack of one ingredient—standing in the way.
Trader Joe's Alfredo Pasta Sauce
This Trader Joe's sauce has gained recognition as one of the best jarred Alfredo sauces on the market, so it was a non-negotiable as I walked into the quirky store. On a hustling and bustling Sunday afternoon, I found only five of the 16-ounce jars surviving on the shelf and quickly snagged one for $3.49.
The Look: Incredibly dense, silky, and a nice off-white color comparable to vanilla pudding or a fresh container of mayonnaise, but with some cracked pepper mixed in.
The Taste: The parmesan and romano work together to create something unbelievably creamy, cheesy, and even buttery. This Alfredo is lightyears ahead of Good & Gather's attempt. However, I still have my critiques. I tried really hard to find the roasted garlic, onion powder, black pepper, and even nutmeg (which I thought was an interesting addition) in the sauce, and simply couldn't. I think just a touch more salt and pepper or other spices could really elevate this one, and I bet some of Trader Joe's other more flavor-filled choices like its Cajun Style Alfredo Sauce or Black Truffle Alfredo Pasta Sauce would be pure bliss.
Whole Foods 365 Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce
Whole Foods' 365 products follow strict ingredient guidelines, and the Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce is no different. Each and every additive listed is organic, from the tomatoes to the extra virgin olive oil to the garlic and onions. I also found that this specific product is one which appears often in pasta sauce taste tests and has fared well even when pitted against big-name brands. Based on this, I felt I had no other choice but to add one of the jars to my shopping list. At $2.39, it's surprisingly affordable for the notoriously high-priced organic market.
The Look: Darker and just like salsa, with hunks of tomato and onion swimming together in harmony. If it was slopped into a bowl and served with tortilla chips, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.
The Taste: More savory than sweet, it presents considerably more character than previous sauces. The real organic diced tomatoes are juicy and fresh. I encountered onion and garlic, and a hint of oregano is mild but definitely noticeable. Having to chew and tackle some of the bigger lumps somewhat distracts from the taste, but still an exceedingly solid sauce, through and through. Even so, there's still one sauce that I liked even better.
Kroger Simple Truth Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce
Similar to Private Selection, Simple Truth is another one of Kroger's store brands. But, this one carries a curated collection of only organic and natural grocery products. The Marinara Pasta Sauce from the line is USDA-certified organic, made with extra virgin olive oil, and contains no added sugars. It was middle of the road in terms of price at $3.99.
The Look: Lackluster red with a mostly glossy and smooth consistency. A small portion of diced tomato pieces squeaked through, and multi-colored seasoning speckles give it some added personality.
The Taste: My first thought was that I could shamefully eat it with a spoon, hot or cold. It's rich from the extra virgin olive oil—a superb choice—and from the peppery and spicy components, yet also refreshing because of the juicy tomatoes. Perhaps it's all the quality organics at work, but this seems to be the crème de la crème when it comes to pasta sauce that would pair well with nearly any dish. It's a truly slept-on sauce, which has been hiding in plain sight at your neighborhood Kroger.
For some additional context, I will say that I conducted a supplementary taste test for these last couple tomato-based sauces: Simple Truth, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. I had no doubts these three would make the final podium, but struggled to place any one in front of the others without a direct side-by-side comparison. Following this extra experiment, the Kroger brand is the one I couldn't stop coming back to and the winner was crowned.
Bravo and grazie mille, Simple Truth!