These days our bank accounts are hurting. Food prices are on the rise, and 82% of American consumers are feeling the pinch. Since January 2020, the cost of groceries has shot up by 7% overall. One result: More customers are turning to private label or store-brand products, which tend to be 20 to 25% cheaper than their brand-name cousins.
But do private labels taste as good as the branded stuff? As more people turn to store brands, Bon Appétit food staffers are blind taste-testing products from popular grocery stores around the country to make sure you’re saving money without sacrificing flavor.
First up: jarred marinara sauce. Processed foods are especially impacted by rising costs, as the ingredients, packaging materials, transportation, and labor it takes to produce them all continue to become more expensive. And this simple red sauce is the backbone of everything from easy poached fish to piping hot pizza. It’s a weeknight workhorse when time and money are in short supply.
To test the marinara—which came from Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target, Walmart, Safeway, and Whole Foods—we stirred ½ cup of sauce with 1 cup of cooked fusilli and sampled for flavor, texture, consistency, and versatility. While none of our lineup tasted better than Rao’s, the test kitchen’s expensive-but-official favorite, all were better than or as good as Ragú, the most popular name-brand marinara in America. And the great news: Each sauce we tried costs less than $3 a jar.
Between forkfuls of fusilli, here’s what we thought of six popular private-label marinaras.
The Simple Sauce: Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Tuscan Marinara, 24 oz.
The Sauce: Costco’s store-brand marinara has a delightfully short ingredient list—we’re talking tomatoes, onions, carrots, basil, sea salt, and bona fide olive oil from Toscana. “Hands down fave,” wrote one Canadian reviewer online.
The Taste: “It’s vibrant!” says associate editor Antara Sinha. And “super basil-y,” adds Anguiano. Regardless, this very red sauce doesn’t pack a whole lot of tomato flavor. “It’s as if the tomatoes aren’t fully ripe or something,” says Gurjar. With clumps of onion and tomato skins it’s also “chunky as hell,” says Anguiano, which caused it to fall off the pasta while we were tasting. Still, “it’s mild enough that you can take it where you want to,” Gurjar admits, which for her, would likely be a salsa. She’d also cook it for longer “with a chicken bouillon cube” to bless the sauce with some umami and eke out more savory notes.
The Verdict: She’s not the right texture to slick your spaghetti, but this salsa-like sauce is adaptable and will come to life in a meaty setting. Dollop it over nachos, send it into a hot oven with some sausage and ricotta-stuffed cannelloni, sub it in for whole tomatoes in a chicken pulao or minestrone, or use it as a chip dip by bulking it up with chiles, onion, fresh tomatoes, and cilantro.
The Womp: Trader Giotto’s Organic Tomato Basil Marinara, 25 oz.
The Sauce: From cult favorite Trader Joe’s comes the marinara with the lengthiest ingredient list of the bunch. Along with the expected ones, you’ll find some surprise Parmesan cheese and expeller pressed soybean oil, which has been physically squeezed out of the soybean rather than drawn out with chemical solvents.
The Taste: While Trader Joe’s often hits the mark, this marinara was a miss. More ingredients did not equal better flavor. The sauce was the right viscosity to coat pasta, but had a “kind of odd” flavor profile, says Sinha. “This tastes like old water,” adds Aguiano. To Asbrink, it almost seemed “soapy,” and there was too much tomato skin floating about. “I would use this in an apocalypse,” concludes Gurjar.
The Verdict: If you do find yourself experiencing some of the aforementioned dark times, this marinara would be perfectly fine in a chicken stew, soup, or anywhere else where it may be allowed to fade quietly into the background.
A Sauce for All Occasions: Target’s Good & Gather Marinara Pasta Sauce, 23 oz.
The Sauce: Target’s marinara riff has earned 4.6 stars online and one commenter even dubbed it “the holy grail.” Along with the requisite tomatoes, this sauce features dehydrated onions, garlic, parsley, and citric acid, which boosts flavor and helps preserve food.
The Taste: You know people are enjoying something when they all close their eyes and stop gabbing for a while. That’s what happened when we tasted this velvety sauce in the test kitchen. “It has some chunks, but it clings really well to the noodles,” Sinha says. According to Gurjar, the sauce tastes bright with a good salt-to-acid ratio. And the inclusion of onion and garlic deepens the flavor profile—without locking your meal into a hyper specific direction. The biggest compliment comes from Anguiano: “This is even good without cheese.”
The Verdict: Good & Gather is a winner of the bunch and can hang virtually anywhere red sauce ventures. It’ll coat your noodles, has enough body to dunk a crispy grilled cheese, and isn’t too domineering to sub in for whole tomatoes in a chicken curry.
The Inexplicably “Woodsy” One: Walmart’s Great Value Marinara Pasta Sauce, 23 oz.
The Sauce: Walmart’s store-brand marinara sauce clocks in at 4.2 stars online and contains, by label, the exact same list of ingredients as Target’s. One purchaser claimed that it’s “the same consistency as the name-brand sauces.” And another wrote about how “it saves you so much on sauce, and it’s awesome.”
The Taste: Though it contains no added sugar, this bright red sauce is definitely “on the sweeter side,” says Anguiano. Our taste testers really liked the consistency; slightly chunky with onion bits and plenty of body to thoroughly coat pasta. Somehow the flavor profile veers slightly floral and “cinnamon-y,” says Sinha. “There’s a woodsy quality here,” agrees Gurjar. To neutralize the sweetness, Asbrink says she’d add more salt. Or she’d add a complementary “splash of balsamic vinegar”—depending on the application. A little shake of red pepper would also bring some much-needed heat.
The Verdict: This is a versatile, slightly sweeter sauce that Anguiano suggests offsetting with some golden crunchy-salty mozzarella sticks. You could also sub it in for fresh or canned tomatoes when braising chicken, baking eggs, or making guanciale and chile-laced bucatini.
The One for Sugar Lovers: Safeway’s Signature Select Pasta Sauce Marinara Jar, 25 oz.
The Sauce: Safeway’s private label marinara is made from tomato paste, canola oil, dehydrated herbs and spices, and citric acid—and is the only brand we tried that contains added sugar.
The Taste: For most people the consistency was a little watery and the sauce too sweet. But the team came up with ways to overcome both. “It needs more herb” to add some complexity, says Aguiano. And it should be cooked longer, says Asbrink, to both reduce the wateriness and amplify the tomato flavors, which Gurjar agrees tasted almost “raw.” Still, the sauce wasn’t totally unbalanced. “I’m getting a citrus vibe,” says Sinha.
The Verdict: This slightly too saccharine sauce has potential to be good; she just needs a little help to really shine. Bring it to life as a pasta sauce by cooking it down with garlic, fresh herbs, salt, chile, and something “earthy and savory,” says Gurjar, like mushrooms or meat.
The Sauce for Hearty Winter Meals: Whole Foods’ 365 Pasta Sauce, Marinara, 25 oz.
The Sauce: Whole Foods’ store-brand marinara has earned almost 5,000 reviews and 4.6 stars on Amazon. It’s made with about the same ingredients you’d use at home—tomatoes two ways (diced and paste), aliums, herbs, salt, and pepper—plus some organic expeller-pressed soybean oil. “Somehow, this is my favorite store bought pasta sauce?” wrote one Amazon reviewer.
The Taste: It’s giving classic chicken parm. This is one of the milder-flavored sauces in the bunch; not too sweet, not too salty, and definitely not spicy enough for anyone loitering in the test kitchen while we were testing. The sauce also feels more appropriate for heartier winter meals than the others because of how “oregano-forward” it is, says associate food editor Rachel Gurjar. “It’s asking for cheese,” interjects test kitchen coordinator Ines Anguiano. “And garlic and basil,” says deputy food editor Hana Asbrink. “And red pepper flakes,” adds Gurjar. And you know what? That is fine because we all have needs.
The Verdict: Though light on salt and heat, this is a classic mellow sauce that’s easy to adapt however you need. Deploy it whenever you’re craving cozy: layered in lasagna, spread over pizza, or in place of fresh tomatoes in your next Big Batch of Beans.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit