There are dozens of different pasta sauces on the supermarket shelves, not to mention the ‘fresh’ versions in the chiller cabinet. We couldn’t test them all, so we focused on three popular varieties and picked the leading brands available in most supermarkets:
- Eight tomato-based (napoletana) sauces,
- Three brands of pesto and
- Three of carbonara.
Two of the tomato and two of the carbonara sauces were chilled; the rest were the shelf-stable types sold in jars.
Many thanks go to our panel of food experts:
Sam Cosentino — hospitality industry consultant.
Syd Pemberton — Pemberton’s Food Workshop.
James Kidman — executive chef, Otto’s Ristorante Italiano, Woolloomooloo, Sydney.
We heated the sauces following the instructions on the label and served them with penne. The three food experts independently scored each sauce for:
- Flavour and
- Overall impression.
We also asked them to comment on the authenticity of the sauce — does it taste like the original Italian recipe?
The tasters didn’t know the brands they were tasting and the sauces were presented in a random order within flavour types (tomato first, followed by pesto then carbonara).
While it’s possible the experts were more critical than some of us might be, they weren’t much impressed with any of the sauces.
According to the experts, if you’re after the authentic taste of Italy you’ll be disappointed, but these sauces are still the best of the bunch. The tasters liked the colour of most of them, but on the whole thought the sauces lacked depth of flavour and were too sweet.
These sauces seem to be trying to suit too broad a spectrum of tastes, and the result is a fairly characterless end product.
Traditional pesto is made from basil, pinenuts, parmesan cheese, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. Instead, we found sauces made with peanut oil or cashew nuts. So perhaps it’s not surprising that these sauces only scored around 50% or less.
The colour’s wrong and none of these sauces looks or tastes like fresh, home-made pesto.
An authentic carbonara sauce should be made from egg yolks, cream, parmesan and diced bacon or pancetta. While they all have cream and at least some bacon, LATINA Fresh Creamy Carbonara has no egg and LEGGO’S Carbonara no parmesan. And you’d be to lucky to find much bacon in a serve of LEGGO’s Carbonara — we washed a jar of it through a sieve and found only about 4 g of tiny bacon pieces in the whole 565 g jar.
As one of the experts commented:
“Carbonara is a very difficult sauce to pre-make — in fact it shouldn’t be.” However, the manufacturers could at least have started with the right ingredients.
To be fair, while the sauces can stand alone as an accompaniment to plain pasta (as we served them), the serving instructions for some of the tomato-based ones suggest serving with ravioli or with additions such as cooked mince or diced cooked chicken — all of which would be likely to make them tastier.
- The manufacturer of the LATINA range of ‘fresh’ pasta sauces (you’ll see many other flavours in addition to the two in this test) told us its sauces taste better than the cheaper equivalents in jars because they’re fresh, and because they’re a ‘premium’ product. But the ‘fresh’ sauces in this test didn’t stand out as obviously better.
- SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Napoletana scored best of the tomato sauces, but SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Carbonara was rated worst of the carbonaras and LATINA Fresh Creamy Carbonara scored the same as LEGGO’S Carbonara from a jar.
And how ‘fresh’ anyway is a sauce that can be stored for about two months in the fridge before reaching its use-by date?