What’s the best marinara sauce under $5?

The contenders. Photos by Jill Harrison.

The contenders. Photos by Jill Harrison.

For me, the idea of jarred marinara sauce has always conjured images of thick, overcooked, underachieving globs of tomato. Growing up in a family that imports Italian specialties such as canned San Marzano tomatoes, I wasn’t raised on what many Americans consider a dinner-table staple. So when I was recruited to test jarred marinara sauces for Brokelyn, my curiosity was piqued.

I was familiar with the national brands, but also wanted to experiment with some of the gourmet sauces that I have seen profilerate over the years on supermarket shelves. Patiently they sit across from the pasta, hoping for a chance to prove their worth to the linguines, spaghettis, and penne rigates across the aisle.

The task was simple: to taste five supermarket brand “marinara” style sauces, all for less than $5 a jar, and pick the best. Though these brands offered many different flavors and styles, for this experiment we were going to only evaluate marinaras. In my research I learned that a traditional one is made up of onions, garlic, black pepper, whole peeled tomatoes, and some form of dried spices, and so I tried to remain as faithful as possible to that recipe. I narrowed the list down to Italian brands DeCecco, Colavita and Barilla, while also giving Newmans Own and Brad’s Organic a fair shot.

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The judging panel consisted of myself, Mark Bello (above left), ambassador of all things pizza and founder of Pizza a Casa; Amy Sisti Baum (above right), a representative for one of the best breads in the city, Tom Cat; and Gary Baum, owner of City Beautiful Carpentry and an official foodie.

In a blind taste test we tried each sauce first on its own, then with pasta, and finally with bread to see how well the sauce sticks. This is an important consideration in most Italian American households, even though this has become taboo in post-Atkins America.

By a landslide, the overwhelming favorite of the group was the Barilla Classic Marinara sauce came in at only $3.19 a jar for 26 ounces.

Testers raved about the “onion chunks” and thought it tasted the “most authentic,” though none of us considered it a substitute for homemade. Barilla’s sauce also passed our bread teast and held up nicely to the fusili pasta we paired it with. The sauce scored somewhat low for texture, in that it had a “tomato paste” feel on the palate.

The pasta our sauces had to stick to.

The snazzy test-pasta. How well did our sauces stick?

Coming in as our second favorite was Newman’s Own Marinara Sauce, which was $2.89 a jar. One of the cheaper sauces of the group, Newman’s ranked high in both the texture and aroma categories, but poorly for its color. One judge thought it looked “orangey.” I found it to be the sweetest of the group. This sauce also held up well in our bread test but didn’t cling to pasta as the Barilla had.

Rounding out the top three was national brand Colavita for $3.89, which was panned by one judge for being “thin and flat” but received praise for its “fresh-looking” herbs. I thought it could use a healthy dose of Colavita’s world-famous extra virgin olive oil.

Another nationally recognized Italian brand, DeCecco, the least expensive of the five at $1.99 a jar, also tested poorly. Though it received high points for its vibrant red appearance, judges found it to have a “mushy” texture and a burnt, overly processed aroma. Another judge found it overwhelmingly “acidic.” Perhaps the addition of some salt and sugar would help to bring balance to this disappointing sauce.

The most expensive of the five also turned out to be worst. Brad’s Organic, at $4.49 a jar, was instantly berated as “overcooked” and “too sweet.” It was also charred beyond redemption. Brad’s was also the only sauce that failed both the bread and pasta test, holding far too much liquid therefore never allowing to the tomatoes to adhere to the starches.

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The panel, prepping for battle.

My suggestion? Barilla in a pinch, but better still: make your own. You just drizzle a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil into a pan over a low flame. Add half or so of a diced onion, a few paper thin slices of garlic, and some fresh basil. I am not a fan of the dried variety and find there is much more flavor in the Sicilian dried oregano on the stem. Open a 28-oz. can of Italian whole peeled tomatoes (those labeled D.O.P.  are subjected to higher quality standards and well worth the extra money, as the tomatoes are less acidic and naturally sweet). Then pour the contents of the can into a large bowl and gently squeeze the tomatoes between your fingers.

Add the tomatoes and sauce to the pan, with some salt, black pepper, a few red pepper flakes and simmer slowly to allow the flavors to blend. Adding butter or freshly grated pecorino romano will also give the sauce the depth and flavor of a slow-cooked Sunday. I sometimes add a splash more of a good extra virgin olive oil after the pasta has been plated.

If that proves to be too much, I’d venture that even the most ordinary of sauces, had in good company, with a nice bottle of wine, makes for a well-spent Sunday afternoon. And ultimately isn’t that what a Sunday sauce is all about?

21 Comment

  • That sauce aisle is so overwhelming, I’m glad someone did the homework.
    I was definitely going to be the snooty commenter saying, “Why not just make your own?” so I’m glad you tacked on that recipe at the bottom. Cooking really is the best!

  • i hear emeril’s jar sauce is pretty good. it costs around $3 and change per jar.

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  • Ummmm. I think the idea of the “broke” in Brokelyn may mean something different to certain segments of your readership than others. $3.50 for a jar of sauce sounds expensive to me.

    I buy Hunt’s for a dollar (when it’s on sale) and add my own sauteed onions and mushrooms with a dash of red wine to cut the sweetness. Sometimes I’ll add olives and/or capers. It ends up costing less than $2 for a solid four servings and I can pretend it’s homemade.

    • BViB–yes, broke does mean something different to everyone, which is kind of the fun of the whole enterprise. Great tip, thanks!

  • Great points by all…maybe next we test domestic tomatoe packers such as hunts, muir glen, sclafani…any other brands worth checking out?

  • As a rule I make my own and have been doing so for over 50 years…but i think all of the above are great for cooking with meat, poultry or fish

  • FYI last night I tried Louis’ marinara recipe and it was great. I used one can of San Marzano DOP tomatoes and one Muir Glen crushed tomatoes (that was all I had) and the difference between the two was amazing. The San Marzano were subtle and light and the Muir Glen was like ketchup. Am definitely a San Marzano snob now… hey isn’t this a frugality blog?

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  • On that note I am determined to host a best san marzano tomato for your buck taste test…any volunteers?

  • I vote for Rozzano Marinara Pasta Sauce. Pack of 2 (32 ounce) jars for $6.79 ($3.40 each) at BJ’s. Ingredients: Imported Italian tomatoes, pure Italian olive oil, fresh onions, fresh basil, fresh garlic, sea salt, and spices. I started using it because I was looking for a sauce without a sweetener for a low-glycemic diet, and it was so good I stuck with it.

  • Make your own is right.

    You get three cans of tomatoes, and three of tomato puree, fresh garlic, fresh basil, fresh parsley, salt pepper. Simmer for 90 minutes to an hour, making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Divide into a bunch of containers, and freeze them.

    It’s something like a dollar a dinner for four people if you get the cans on sale. If you make the white beans from scratch, that’s two meals worth for $1.49 or less. And $1.00 for the pasta. The Romano you put on top is most of the cost.

  • Dear S C, I agree with you wholeheartedly about Rozzano’s from BJ’s. I fell in love with it about a year ago. I have tried getting it the past three weeks, and it looks like they are not selling it any longer. I’ve been searching on-line to find it????!!!

  • you forgot to include fairway’s own marinara…it’s very good and reasonably priced.

  • At Pathmark, they have Greenway organic Marinara sauces in jars for $2.50 each. And they’re really pretty good.

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  • The cheapest way to buy tomato sauce is in a CAN instead of a jar. A 26.5oz can of Hunt’s costs $1.99 in keyfood. Jars only hold approximately half that amount, and cost at least $.50 more.

  • 1/8th cup olive oil in spagetti pot add 2 medium onions diced and 3 tablespoons fresh garlic cook on medium until carmelized.Add into the same pot whole imported peeled plum tomatoes,1-12oz puree and 1 8 oz paste,8 oz water,basil,sea salt.Turn down heat cook in low 4 hours.Mom’s recipe.

  • Just happened to buy Barilla once, and it’s all I use now. We like things spicey so we do add red pepper flakes.

  • It was the best.  Have you tried it lately.  It no longer is the wonderful tasting sauce you would buy.  It was full of diced tomatoes and is watery.  No taste.  Sooooooo disappointed.

  • another critique by someone who thinks Pizza Hut ,Papa Johns,etc is good pizza.
    Razzano’s is the only one thats more than crushes tomatoes and oregano.