Start with a Jar of Pasta Sauce
By: By David Bonom & Ann Taylor Pittman
Of all the shortcut ingredients for the healthy cook, a good marinara is one of the finest because it delivers the pleasures of slow-cooking—in a jar. If you've ever put up your own sauce, you know the work involved. A good factory marinara (and please see the buying notes on the next slide, because there are a few things to look for) is thick, packed with flavor from herbs and garlic, and, above all, tastes like concentrated summery-tomatoey goodness. Think about what those qualities can do for your everyday cooking: add body to stew or chili; make a tangy braising liquid for meaty lamb shanks; and turn out hearty, gooey baked pasta.
We sorted through the billion pasta sauce choices now on supermarket shelves, focused on marinara (the most basic and most versatile), and evaluated using two criteria: sodium and flavor. Sodium can be particularly high, as much as 540mg per half-cup serving. Generally, we recommend seeking out sauces with less than 350mg sodium per half-cup serving. Some sauces also contain a lot of added sugar, which means you'll want to add salt to rebalance. Others have a too-pronounced dried herb flavor. Our favorites from the marinara tasting: McCutcheon's Marinara Pasta Sauce and Amy's Light in Sodium Family Marinara Pasta Sauce.
Not labeled as lower-sodium, but it is—only 185mg in a half cup. No added sugar, so it's decidedly savory, with just the right amount of herby-garlicky kick. The unanimous favorite, it has become our default pasta sauce. (We buy ours at Whole Foods.)
Sweeter than McCutcheon's (it contains "organic evaporated cane juice," which is basically sugar), but it's nicely balanced by savory onions and garlic. A half-cup serving has 290mg sodium.
The cooked flour and oil mixture, known as roux, thickens this gumbo-inspired stew. Marinara sauce adds body, enriches the color and taste, and provides slightly tangy notes for a more rounded flavor.
View Recipe: Chicken and Sausage Stew