Pasta with tomato sauce
It’s no surprise that Americans love pasta—we eat a whole lot of it. According to Statista, about 55% of Americans reported eating pasta regularly in 2022, just behind Italians, who (unsurprisingly) clock in at 81%. Pasta is one of those dishes that’s easy to make and endlessly customizable, and given the variety of sauces available at the store, the average home cook might think that it’s best to just toss a jar of pasta sauce into the pan and simmer it along with some al-dente noodles. But others would consider that sacrilege.
There’s a lot of online discourse about whether or not it’s “better” to make your own sauce, and the loudest voices all seem to agree that it is. Take this guy, who claims he’s never had a jarred pasta sauce that tastes as good as a homemade one. Others chimed in, saying that their pasta sauce is “sooo much more flavorful than the jars of even the best sauces,” while some moderates say it depends on whether or not you have the time.
And of course, TikTok, the social platform that has steadily become a go-to destination for cooking inspiration, now has thousands of videos under the #pasta hashtag, amounting to more than 22 billion views and counting.
In the spirit of fairness and pasta love, I experimented with both the best homemade and the best store-bought sauce, placing them down side-by-side to compare and contrast them directly. To make the pasta sauce from scratch, I turned to the queen of Italian cooking herself, Marcella Hazan, whose classic tomato sauce recipe is mind-blowingly simple: just four ingredients and lots of time simmering on the stove.
How to make your own pasta sauce
Hazan’s recipe is so basic that it only requires a can of whole peeled tomatoes, 5 tablespoons of butter, a dash of salt, and an onion cut in half. Throw it all in a pan and let it simmer for 45 minutes uncovered.
Admittedly, I was a bit leery about its texture while it began cooking on the stove. After 30 minutes, though, the sauce reduced down to about half the amount and appeared quite chunky. The result was a deeply rich and satisfying thick sauce, with hints of onion and butter that didn’t overpower the base of tomatoes. The glossy sheen achieved by the butter made the whole batch even more enticing. To finish the job, I cooked some spaghetti and mixed the sauce in. It turned out to be one of the most delicious pasta dishes I’ve ever had (and it’s vegetarian, too).
I’m far from the only one who feels this way: On NYT Cooking, there are 976 comments on this recipe alone. Even if she had never developed another recipe in her life, Hazan would have forever cemented her legacy with this pure and simple tomato sauce.
Using store-bought pasta sauce
From a cooking standpoint, making your own pasta sauce is a truly divine experience that feels cozy and comforting. Your house fills up with the most delicious smells, which are sure to draw your partner and/or children toward the kitchen, asking for a sample of whatever it is you’re making.
Compare that to Bertolli Tomato & Basil Sauce, an option that resembles Hazan’s sauce in terms of ingredients: tomato juice, sea salt, citric acid, calcium chloride, among others, are present in both the whole peeled tomatoes and the premade stuff. If you’re looking for thickness, flavor, and tomato scent, Bertolli’s promises all three for a cost of $3.99.
It’s certainly easier to grab a jar of pasta sauce and dump it into the pan along with some pasta noodles (or perhaps do it the TikTok way). Store-bought will sacrifice a bit of flavor and texture, because it won’t have the silky consistency of tomatoes freshly broken down in the pan with butter. Still, there are varieties on the market that still manage to taste rich and decadent, even if they don’t taste indistinguishable from homemade. Bertolli’s thick, chunky, and intensely tomato-y flavor still manages to dominate the plate (and palate) for a reasonable price. The more convincingly homemade a store-bought brand tastes, however, the bigger cost differential there will be between the jarred sauce and the sauce you can make yourself.
Making vs. buying pasta sauce
While the flavor and texture of Hazan’s simple tomato sauce was stunning and certainly better than any jarred pasta sauce I’ve ever had, my practical side took over and nudged me to consider its cost and the time. To make the sauce, I used a can of Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes (San Marzano style), available for $3.99 at my local grocery store, a white onion at approximately $0.45 each, 5 tablespoons of butter, which I’ve worked out to be around $0.60, and a dash of salt. Total cost: $5.04.
The question of whether or not you should make or buy depends on your lifestyle, preferences and dietary needs. The beauty of making your own pasta sauce is the ability to customize to your preferences, so long as you have the basic ingredients.
For me, as a working mother of two, the calculus usually tips in favor of a quality store-bought sauce. But if I have the time, Hazan’s recipe is the tomato sauce I’ll make again and again, for it is worth the wait and the slightly higher price.
As noted in her New York Times obituary, Hazan’s tomato sauce recipe was the embodiment of what she believed in: simplicity, precision, and balance. We don’t always have the resources to aim for all three at once, but when we do, it’s nice knowing we only need four ingredients on hand to achieve them.