When you hear "store-bought pizza sauce," the first words that come to mind might be "thin," "acidic," "salty," or worst of all, "bland." And though in a pinch, you might be tempted to buy any old red sauce to get the job done, picking the right sauce involves knowing what to seek out and what to avoid. There's a difference between pasta sauce and pizza sauce, for example.
To get a fuller picture of the saucy options available, I subjected friends to five brands straight from the jar. We studied overall flavor, texture, and seasoning. I also made several pizzas using only mozzarella, sauce, and ready-to-use plain dough. (It was hard work, but someone had to do it!)
The internet is all over the place when it comes to this question. Some insist that pasta sauces are uncooked, whereas pizza sauces are cooked, but food experts like J. Kenji López-Alt would likely quibble with this position. He does seem to agree, though, that for something like a classic New York slice, you don't want your pizza sauce to caramelize as it simmers: pizzas bake at upwards of 400 degrees, cooking the sauce further. Also, generally speaking, pizza sauces tend to be thicker than their pasta sauce counterparts.
A pizza sauce, at its core, generally comprises good-quality tomatoes blended with garlic and herbs. Some might have onion or carrot, basil or oregano, citric acid or other additives.
I could eat tomatoes every day of my life, and prefer not-too-thin sauces with a rich, robust tomato flavor-and enough salt to amplify the toppings' flavors.
It's not unusual to see a little sugar in a jarred sauce, which counters the acidity of the tomatoes. And it's worth keeping in mind that cooking these sugars will caramelize them and create new flavors. (Similarly, heat can transform your perception of the saltiness of the sauce.)
Below are five sauces ranked from "not worth the pennies" to "la vita bella!"
5. Don Pepino Pizza Sauce
To our surprise, this sauce-which regularly ends up on "best pizza sauce" lists online-ranked lowest for us, in both the raw and pizza tests. Its taste was very vegetal and slightly metallic, and its bright reddish-pink, gazpacho-esque hue was not very appealing upon opening its can.
4. Wegmans Organic Pizza Sauce
Under seasoned and thin-with a smell reminiscent of ketchup or canned tomato soup-this sauce met our initial fears about a pre-made sauce. Its flavor made sense once we looked at its short ingredient list: just tomato purée and sea salt. Indeed, it contained the most sodium of all the brands, at 13% of your recommended daily value per serving. I suppose you could use this thinner sauce sparingly in a pinch, especially if trying to avoid added sugar. That said, I'm not a fan.
3. Prego Pizza Sauce Pizzeria Style
While this sauce has a pleasant bouquet, the pizza itself lacked salt, and ranked the sweetest of the five during the raw test. This could be easily rectified with more umami-rich toppings, such as mushrooms or cheese, or a meat of choice like a classic pepperoni. While not particularly offensive, it wasn't a "Wow!" for us.
2. Rao's Homemade Pizza Sauce
Because of the hype surrounding their pasta sauces, we knew we had to try Rao's pizza offering. It didn't disappoint. This sauce stands apart thanks to the odd, not-altogether-unwelcome addition of cherry tomatoes and carrots. We actually thought it tasted the best straight out of the jar, and the resulting pizza was absolutely decadent! This is the richest sauce in taste, texture and price. Rao's definitely tasted the most interesting to me, but its price precluded its taking home the crown.
1. Trader Joe's Pizza Sauce
Once it hit the oven, the aroma was undeniable: This pizza made tasters nostalgic for hangouts with friends and family at their local pizzerias. Its sauce-a fresh sauce housed in the TJs refrigerator section-perhaps had an advantage over its canned, bottled competitors however. And it contained the most sugar of any of the options. That said, a luxurious red hue, readily available, and perfectly balanced? Love it. I always complain about undersalted food, but this yielded a perfect slice. This sauce is the one for me.
We all know we can't beat the convenience of our favorite pizzeria, but next time you're looking for a sauce that'll make you say "Mamma mia!"--don't be afraid to give that supermarket sauce another go.