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Any pasta lover will tell you that the best tomato sauce is homemade — preferably by a grandma. My own grandmother Myrtle Corsillo made some of the best tomato sauce I have ever tasted. It featured giant meatballs, lots of Parmesan cheese, and no onions, and she made it (with help from my aunts and cousins) in huge quantities so there were always leftovers to pass around after family gatherings. I have tried to copy it, with some success, but it takes all day to make correctly. For the times when I can’t wait that long, a tasty dupe in a jar is the next best thing. But which jarred tomato sauces are the best? To find out, we asked five chefs and a food editor to tell us about the actually delicious and surprisingly inexpensive jarred tomato sauces they stock up on for quick meals in their own homes.
Rao’s marinara was by far the most recommended tomato sauce, with four of our six experts calling it their go-to sauce in a jar. The brand is also a favorite of Strategist junior writer Leah Muncy, who buys its sensitive marinara because it doesn’t mess with her IBS. “Rao’s is so much better than everything else,” says Maile Carpenter, Food Network Magazine’s editor-in-chief, who sometimes uses it to stretch her homemade sauce. “It just tastes so good. I put in everything.” At the start of lockdown, when other people were stocking up on canned beans, she “freaked out” and bought 30 jars of Rao’s. “Costco sells a set of two jars for cheaper than I can get a single small jar in the city. So I really went nuts, and you know what? We went through it all,” she says.
Chef Nyesha Arrington, who was recently featured on HBO Max’s Selena + Chef, Erin Shambura, chef and owner of Fausto in Brooklyn, and chef Keesha O’Galdez are also fans. Shambura and Arrington say they like Rao’s marinara for its balance of flavors, and O’Galdez likes that it’s made without any added sugars or preservatives. “It definitely has an authentic taste and the sweet, delicate flavor comes solely from the tomatoes. I can eat it straight out of the jar,” she says. According to Shambura, “The marinara is wonderful on its own, but sometimes, when I have some extra ingredients in the refrigerator, I like to elevate the flavors.” She says this could be as simple as sautéing thinly sliced garlic or adding a dash of Calabrian chili.
If you’re on a budget and looking for an organic option, O’Galdez and Arrington suggest trying Whole Foods 365 marinara. It’s made with all-organic ingredients, including 100-percent-organic extra-virgin olive oil, and there is no added sugar. Arrington says it’s what she chooses as a base for more elaborate dishes. “Whole Foods is the closest grocery store to my apartment, and on more than one occasion, I have bought their jarred tomato sauce to use as a base for red sauce dishes. I highly recommend adding a touch of garlic and basil,” she says.
In addition to the four mentions of Rao’s marinara sauce, the brand’s vodka sauce also got a shout-out. It’s the option Shambura recommends if you have time only to open a jar and pour. “When I make pasta at home, in a pinch, this sauce provides warmth of flavor and all the tastes I love,” she says. “It’s thick enough that it grabs onto the pasta perfectly, creamy, and flavorful” — everything she thinks a vodka sauce should be.
“Why have regular tomato sauce when you can have vodka?” asks Chef Stephanie Nass. She uses Il Mulino to make baked ziti and chicken parm. “I always prefer homemade. However, if I must buy, it has to be Il Molino’s vodka sauce. It’s the most decadent sauce in a jar and so nice and creamy,” she says.
A delicious side effect of the big 2020 sourdough craze has been all of the homemade pizza dough made from leftover sourdough starter. To give her homemade pizzas the right taste, Shambura uses Don Pepino, an old standby (that technically comes in a can). “It’s what I have always used for homemade-pizza nights since I was young. It has a thick consistency and a bright, tomato-forward rich flavor. It tastes like freshly crushed and seasoned tomatoes: exactly what I want on my pizza,” she says.
Max Hardy, a Bahamian American chef and the owner of Coop Detroit, says Barilla is his overall favorite sauce in a jar. It’s also his recommendation for a base you can add to and use for saucing a pizza. “It’s tangy with a little sweetness, and it has a solid base with neutral flavors if you want to jazz it up with some of your favorite ingredients,” he says.
What O’Galdez likes about this sauce is that you can find it in any supermarket. “It’s slightly sweet and herby, making it great on both pasta and a homemade pizza.”
Two of the chefs we spoke to, O’Galdez and Arrington, mentioned jarred sauces made from San Marzano tomatoes. “San Marzano tomatoes are one of my favorite tomatoes to cook with for sauce, mainly because of their low acidity, their density, and the very few seeds they contain,” Arrington says. Though many different sauce brands use this kind of tomatoes, her favorite is La San Marzano Marinara because of the robust flavor, the recipe, which has been passed down for generations, and the fact that it is still produced in the San Marzano Valley in Italy.
Yes, that’s a very specific subcategory. But if you’re looking for sauces that are made a little closer to home (assuming home is the East Coast), O’Galdez highly recommends the following three options.
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