The best marinara sauce is savory, fragrant, and deeply flavorful. It should never be too sour or excessively sweet, and it should, ideally, be made with high-quality ingredients while not costing a small fortune.
Everybody makes it seem like red sauce can only be good if it’s homemade, like it’s a sin to even consider not making your own red sauce. But there lies a falsehood. Say it with me: Homemade doesn’t necessarily equal quality. How I cook (good) and how you cook (I don’t know you) are very different. I don’t want my friend Dave’s “homemade sauce” that he’s been tinkering with in his dirty kitchen where his cat hangs out. Alton Brown, who I believe is an incredible cook, gaslit all of us when he put ketchup and worcestershire in his marinara. And, statistically, not everybody’s grandmother can be a good cook. It’s just not possible, man!
And I love homemade sauce. Growing up, my family always made fresh pasta and fresh pasta sauce. I worked in Italian restaurants for over a decade. Recently, my pandemic side hustle was selling pasta dinners out of my apartment, which was very illegal and very fun. I’m also regularly on the pasta beat here in Los Angeles, writing about Italian food, so I feel like I know a thing or two about red sauce. And I’m telling you, friend, the store bought landscape is promising. Sure, some brands we shall not name still taste like a bunch of dried oregano and undercooked tomatoes. But, there’s good stuff out there, too. Sauce with zip, bang, and bite. Savory, deeply flavorful sauces that go big on flavor and save you a ton of time.
It surprised me. I mean, so much so that I’ve been questioning my whole identity as of late. I came in skeptical, and I left a believer: Jarred marinara sauce can be good. Excuse me, I need to go stare into a mirror.
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- Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce
Rao’s is still the best marinara on the market thanks to its quality ingredients and lack of preservatives. Tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil, onion, and oregano—that’s all you need for a quality sauce. The olive oil gives it a nice, healthy sheen and a savory, mouth-smacking quality. I also appreciate that the herbs are fresh, so you don’t get that dry, leafy, herb flavor (lookin’ at you, brand I shall not name). There’s no added sugar (pasta sauce never needs added sugar), and it’s just an overall lovely, consistent, flavorful pasta sauce. There’s also something delightful about fresh oregano in any marinara. Most people opt for basil only, but oregano is the type of herb that our grandma’s cooked with. Its subtle earthiness contributes flavor without getting in the way. This is homemade marinara in a jar. Pay the extra money and don’t look back.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Amazon
- Mezzetta Napa Valley Homemade Marinara
Mezzetta is a textured, chunky sauce with plenty of bite. Open the jar and you’ll notice a glossy sheen on top from the olive oil, which is deliciously fatty.
Side note: There’s a red sauce joint in my hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania. It’s called Ladies of the Dukes and I love it. I asked a friend who used to work there what made their red sauce so good and he said, “Those old ladies dump a ton of olive oil in there.”
Emulsifying olive oil into a red sauce is the move if you want to create a flavorful, decadent sauce. Mezzetta (and those old ladies) understand that.They also use a mix of San Marzanos and California plum tomatoes to achieve a thick, aromatic, brightly acidic bite that you can count on. It’s got a slightly higher sugar, sodium, and fat content than Rao’s—but, in my opinion, that’s a good thing. Plus, it’s certified vegan and keto. This is closer than you might think to Rao’s and much cheaper.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Walmart
- Rao’s Tomato Basil
This is the classic Rao’s marinara sauce with a heavy dose of basil, and, boy, is it lovely. What this actually reminds me of is a pomodoro sauce, which consists of two prominent flavors: tomatoes and basil. The herbiness here is utterly delightful and notably fresh. There’s no dry basil flavor, just a boldly herbaceous flavor with a savory, slightly sweet tomato sauce. There’s a bit of onion, and only a slight amount of garlic, but overall this is just a well-balanced, delicious marinara that you could use for pizza or pasta. This tastes like something your nonna jarred and stored herself.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Target
- Carbone Tomato Basil
Look, this is the most intimate of the sauces on this list. It tastes slow cooked, like the tomatoes have been simmering all day in a pot on nonna’s stove. When tomatoes cook for a long time, some of the carbohydrates caramelize and release savory, “brown” flavors that taste almost like meat. That’s what’s going on with Carbone. There is a tasty smokiness to this sauce that you’ll keep coming back to. It feels meaty without meat; the umami factor here is strong. Plus, the tomatoes aren’t too acidic, which is a problem with most jarred marinara. Carbone touts that they cook their sauce in small batches, and boy, does it feel that way. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parm, mozzarella sticks: Use this for any of the Italian-American hits.
I, Danny Palumbo, fought hard to include Carbone on this list. The fact is, no other sauce on this list tastes quite like Carbone. That said, it’s a little too expensive and not as readily available as the other ones here to include at the very tops. But personally, if I was going off of flavor alone, this would be up there next to Rao’s and Mezzetta. Carbone rocks.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde /Walmart
- Cento Marinara
Cento’s sauce feels like a true, homemade marinara. The onion flavor is really strong, so if you like a pungent bite you’ll love Cento. Still, it’s not too overpowering. Cento’s marinara is basic, but the good kind—understated, flavorful, and straightforward. I imagine this is what the prison sauce in Goodfellas tasted like. Don’t put too many on-jins in the sauce! But, also, if you do, hopefully it tastes as good as Cento.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Cento
- Mezzetta Spicy Marinara Sauce
The best marinara sauce is a combination of savory, sweet, salty, and aromatic, and this has all those qualities and some heat. Spicy marinara, aka arrabiata, provides all the naturally sweet, tangy, and savory flavors of a tomato sauce but with an added spicy kick of crushed red pepper. Mezzetta’s spicy marinara sauce has a blend of red pepper, black pepper, garlic, and herbs to provide a punchy, aromatic bite. This jarred marinara sauce is a natural pairing with some ground pork, but this also adds an extra layer of flavor to a sandwich or a chicken parm, too.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Instacart
- The Silver Palate San Marzano Blend Marinara
Silver Palate marinara comes in hot with an excellent texture and a great balanced taste. It stands out from the pack, perhaps because they use a few key ingredients that other brands don’t. In addition to plum tomatoes, garlic, onion, and herbs, and olive oil, it’s also made with shredded carrots and pear concentrate. That means there’s an underlying, natural sweetness to this sauce that’s delightful. The consistency is super solid, too, meaning this will cling to pasta relatively easily. Silver Palate also has the lowest sodium content per serving of the bunch, coming in at 360 mg—but it’s still perfectly seasoned. Man, it’s just super solid all around.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde / Walmart
- Bertolli d’Italia Marinara
Bertolli d’Italia is a perplexing product. On one hand, it’s made with a combination of tomato juice and tomato paste, which helps balance out texture without having to use more expensive ingredients. Tomato paste brings some nice sweetness to any pasta sauce; my personal opinion is that it’s quite necessary. On the other hand, Bertolli also uses citric acid as a preserving agent, which is a potential red flag on an ingredient list for me. That said, the normally acrid taste of citric acid didn’t come through as much as I thought it would. Even though Bertolli cut some corners that other companies didn’t, this is a solid (and widely available) sauce. And the flavor here is quite good.
Credit: Sarah Demonteverde/Target
Best of the Best
Best That’s Not Rao’s
Best Restaurant Quality
Best Onion Flavor
Best Low Sodium
Best Bold Flavor
Rhett & Link’s Pick
“Prego, you have done it once again,” exclaimed Link at the end of this blind pasta sauce taste test. “Not a sponsor, we just sucked them right through a tube and decided what’s best. That’s how it works,” added Rhett. The boys are esteemed flavor scientists, ya’ll. Prego won their taste test with its herby, tomato-forwardness. Heck, it beat out Emeril!
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