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.
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Marinara Buying Notes
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.
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McCutcheon's 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.)
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Amy's Light in Sodium Family Marinara Pasta Sauce
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.
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Chicken and Sausage Stew
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.