I Tried Every Single Jarred Pasta Sauce at Trader Joe’s — These Are the Ones I’ll Buy Again
There is a time and a place for jarred pasta sauce: The time is all the time and the place is my kitchen. (Can someone print that on a wooden sign and sell it in Home Goods? Thanks.) That’s not to say that I don’t have a deep love and appreciation for the homemade stuff, which pretty much courses through my Italian American, New Jersey-born veins. It’s just that in a pinch, jarred pasta sauce feels like a gift from up above.
I’ve tried many a brand before and have boldly declared my two favorites. I’m looking at you, Rao’s and Carbone Fine Foods! The thing is, though, both of those jars usually cost around $8 or $9 each. Don’t get me wrong — those options are certainly worth their high price tags, but I need a budget option in my back pocket too.
Thus, I set forth to my favorite grocery store — Trader Joe’s — to do some serious jarred pasta sauce reconnaissance. I knew that Trader Joe’s would pull through, but I didn’t know just how much. To my utter shock, I found an entire wall of tomato-based pasta sauces ready for the sampling. (It was always there, of course, I just never really noticed!) And the highest priced option was $3.99. The best part of this haul? The crew member who checked out my cart consisting of 14 jars of pasta sauce, 2 pounds of rigatoni, and a loaf of ciabatta didn’t even question my motives!
How I Tested the Jarred Pasta Sauces
Sampling 14 different jars of pasta sauce in one day isn’t for the faint of heart. I do not have a microwave nor do I have more than one sauce pot, so heating the sauces so that they would all be piping hot simultaneously was a sight to behold. While heating the sauces, I also boiled a pound of rigatoni and segmented a loaf of ciabatta bread for additional dunking.
To evaluate the sauces fairly, I separated them into 4 judging categories: Marinara Sauces, Creamy Sauces, Spicy Sauces, and Outliers. One category at a time, I evaluated the sauces by four parameters: a sniff test, a spoonful, a dipped chunk of bread, and a dunked rigatoni (okay, multiple dunked rigatoni). These are the four jars I’ll be buying again.
The Marinara Sauces
There were six jars that fell into the marinara category: Organic Marinara, Organic Tomato Basil Marinara, Tomato Basil Marinara, Roasted Garlic Marinara, and Traditional Marinara Sauce. While I acknowledge that pomodoro sauce is its own simpler category of tomato sauce, there was only one option, so I lumped the Rustico Pomodoro Pasta Sauce with these because they felt the most “classic.”
The Best Marinara Sauce: Organic Marinara Sauce, $2.49 for 25 ounces
In the largest category, Trader Giotto’s Organic Marinara Sauce reigned supreme. It has an extremely fresh-yet-zippy scent on the nose and a nice thickness to it, with visible chunks of tomato and garlic throughout. Amongst a few very bland and a few far too flavorful options, this one sits right in the middle, with enough tang and zip to stand out — in a good way — and a good amount of aromatic herbs. It also clings to the noodles, creating the perfect partnership. For what it’s worth, the regular, non-organic Tomato Basil Marinara ($1.79 for 26 ounces) was a very close second.
The Creamy Tomato Sauces
When plain ol’ tomato sauce just won’t cut it, Trader Joe’s has a few creamy tomato options that will do the trick. For this category, I tasted Trader Giotto’s Three Cheese Pomodoro Pasta Sauce, Creamy Tomto Basil Pasta Sauce, and the Organic Vodka Sauce, because all of them incorporated cream and /or cheese in some capacity.
The Best Creamy Tomato Sauce: Three Cheese Pomodoro Pasta Sauce, $2.49 for 25 ounces
This one took the honors in the sniff test, earning descriptors such as “twangy,” “Parmy,” and “zippy,” likely due to the trio of cheeses within (Romano, Pamesan, and Asiago). There is no lack of flavor here and the sauce is gloriously thick. A pairing tip for the future: The natural sourness of this sauce would balance the slightly sweet taste of frozen cauliflower gnocchi. Or if you want cheese overload (and who doesn’t?), pour this on top of ravioli! Note: Creamy Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce ($2.99 for 26 ounces) also earned very high marks. Although there is no “cheese” in the name, the cheese flavor (hello, Parmesan!) was very pronounced.
The Spicy Sauces
Sometimes you just need to “add a little bit of spice.” (Am I spending too much time on TikTok?) When that’s the case, Trader Joe’s has two options in the sauce category for you: Spicy Chunky Tomato and Pepper Pasta Sauce, and Arrabiata Sauce. And the competition was HOT.
The Best Spicy Sauce: Arrabiata Sauce, $3.29 for 25 ounces
There were no losers in this category of two, but the Arrabiata Sauce eked out a win. It’s peppery, garlicky, smooth in texture, and gives off vibes that it would pair perfectly with seafood. Seriously, I had to check the ingredient list to make sure it didn’t already have some in it. Next time, I’ll try tossing this along with linguine and Trader Joe’s frozen Argentinian Red Shrimp to complete the vibe. The only reason that the far spicier jar didn’t win is because (as the notes on the back of the jar recommend) it’s better suited as a Shakshuka starter, rather than a straight-up pasta sauce. But to each their own!
Because these three sauces are wildly different, yet still tomato-based, I put them in an “Outlier” category. There is one common thread, though: They are all flecked with additional ingredients: mushrooms, meatless plant-based crumbles, and beef (from left to right). I understand I’m kind of comparing apples to oranges — er, mushrooms to beef — here, but there was a clear favorite amongst these as well.
The Best Outlier: Bolognese Style Tomato & Beef Pasta Sauce, 3.99 for 24 ounces
In theory, I was afraid to try the shelf-stable beef sauce. In practice, I loved the shelf-stable meat sauce. Sure the flecks of meat are just that — flecks — but they give this sauce a richness that certain dishes call for. If you’re making something time-consuming that involves meat sauce, say a lasagna, and want to shave off some prep time, this jar is your new best friend.
This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: I Tried Every Single Jarred Pasta Sauce at Trader Joe’s — These Are the Ones I’ll Buy Again