Finding Tasty, Healthy Jarred Pasta Sauce

Gone are the days when the whole family would gather around the dinner table on Sundays. If you grew up in an Italian-American family, that meant on the table would be Sunday Gravy, or what the rest of us call Pasta Sauce. Those meaty, rich sauces that simmered on the stove for hours, developing ever deeper flavor, have mostly gone with those days. Today, even if you like to make your own pasta sauce, there are times when a jar in the pantry is worth two on the stove. But can you really get homemade taste out of a jar? Well, you can certainly come close. 

Even seasoned cooks will sometime reach for a jar of sauce, sometimes to use as a base to which they will add their own touches. Why? Because pasta sauce is available on multiple shelves taking up a whole wall of space in the grocery store. The one thing that tells us is that lots of people have some pretty good recipes for sauce. But not all sauces can be duplicated when gearing up for mass production. 

Still, the primary component of most pasta sauces, is tomato sauce which can be used in so many ways. The difference between a pasta sauce and a pizza sauce is the pizza sauce is usually sweeter with generous use of extra herbs like basil and oregano. That makes a jar of pasta sauce a pantry staple, especially for busy bachelors. 

And, my, oh my, the many different options you’ll find at the grocery store. There are sauces that highlight herbs and spices from mild to bold. There are many which do have a homemade taste, saving you the hours of chopping, mixing and simmering. 

_/b/I Consumer Reports \b\i_[link] magazine recently went shopping for pasta sauces to find the tastiest and most nutrition of what’s available on the market. In all, they tested 41 different tomato sauces they bought from the grocery store. Thirty-two were marinaras and nine were tomato basil sauces. Seventeen got high marks for both taste and nutrition. 

Weren’t We Supposed To Stay Away From Processed Foods?

Yes. As a general rule, if you can make it yourself, you’ll get more out of it no matter what it is. Processed foods, like nearly everything found in the middle of the store, can be full of unwanted ingredients like extra fat, sugar and salt, because those things make food taste better. The key is to always read the labels. I know this takes extra time, but I think it is time well spent for your health. 

Pasta sauces are surprisingly healthy. Cooked tomatoes, for example, have more nutrition than fresh. Herbs and spices not only add flavor but can add antioxidants and other good chemicals for your body. They usually don’t need preservatives because they are canned in the jar which already gives it a long shelf life. Most contain no saturated fat. And the added sugars are low, but they are often there to enhance the “tomato-ey” flavor, balancing the acid with the sweet. 

There is one component on the nutrition label that you need to pay attention to. This is true for any processed or packaged foods. Check the sodium content. The Food and Drug Administration suggests adults not exceed about 2,300 mg. of sodium a day. That doesn’t necessarily mean a high sodium pasta sauce is totally off limits. But you then need to be aware of the salt content in other foods. Many sauces have more than 400 mg in a half-cup serving, that’s one-fifth of your total sodium content for the day. That doesn’t take into account the pasta, which will have a little salt in it, too. It isn’t hard at all to go way over your limit every day. If you invest in a food diary tracking app or website, you will quickly see what I mean. 

Special diets can also be a concern for many. Fortunately, there are plenty of jarred pasta sauces that have good flavor and reasonable amounts of sodium. Two on the following list are both low-sodium and no added sugars but still have plenty of flavor. 

What Makes A Good Pasta Sauce

Obviously, personal taste has a lot to do with it. So does the food you’re preparing with the sauce. But the judges at /b/i Consumer Reports \b\i did find some factors seemed common to all of the highest rated sauces. They found the better tasting sauces had a bolder, fresher tomato taste and a good balance of seasonings, with no one component, like garlic or basil, overpowering the others. In general, they found that sauces made with whole tomatoes rather than puree or sauce, had a better flavor. And those that used dried or dehydrated spices did not favor as well. 

Price turned out to be important, too. The more expensive sauces usually ranked higher than the budget-priced brands. That was not always true. Some of the store brands they tested did quite well against the high-priced ones. 

Besides Spaghetti, What Else Can You Do With It

Well, in addition to just using it to top pasta, it works well in a casserole, lasagna or any baked pasta. It can spice up leftovers. And, it can turn you into an artist, using the jarred sauce as your canvas. In just the time it takes to heat the sauce, you can create a masterpiece of flavor. 

I’m going to let you in on a little chef secret. Always save some of your pasta cooking water. Just a cup of this salty, starchy liquid will smooth the body of the sauce and make it cling to pasta better. You can add all sorts of ingredients to make a brand new dish. Leftover veggies and meats can be blended into the sauce, adding nutrition, body and flavor to top pasta, rice or bread.

Even if you bought a jarred sauce that says it’s dormant flavors are garlic and onion, you can help that sauce a lot by sautéing some chopped onion and garlic in a little olive oil. A half-cup of wine, cream or vodka can transform your sauce to a new level. Fresh herbs are another way to boost your jarred sauce to a more homemade taste. Freshly chopped basil, thyme or oregano will release their flavors into the sauce as it heats. If you only have dried herbs, just heat them up in a dry pan or sauté them in olive oil for no more than a minute.