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Tonight, I made a quick tomato pasta sauce, using canned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil. And ... it was better than even the $11 jar of fancy gourmet tomato pasta sauce I once bought.

It's been my general observation that even the simplest, quick, homemade tomato sauce, made from canned tomatoes, is as good or better than the very best commericial jarred tomato sauces. And it's not just me, America's Test Kitchen has said the same thing.

So my question is ... why?

Clearly something causes commercially prepared tomato sauces to degrade in processing or in the jar, despite the best efforts of well-funded food corporations. Is it double-cooking the tomatoes? The high-pressure canning required? Some kind of degredation that happens when cooked tomatoes with oil sit in a jar for weeks?

To add to this, in a straight comparison, the problem is mainly the "tomato" flavor, which is extremely muted even in high-end jarred sauces, and in comparison with simple canned whole tomatoes. This is probably why many pasta sauces add sugar and a host of otehr ingredients, to make up for the lost tomato flavor. Supporting this, non-tomato-based pasta sauces seem to do better in jars; there's a butternut squash sauce we buy sometimes that's the equal of my homemade version.

So, thoughts and citations?

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  • Jarred tomato sauce is purely a "convenience food" category at the grocery store. Finished product in a can is rarely better than homemade. Taste isn't the top priority--most people are paying for convenience & not taste.
    – AMtwo
    Nov 17, 2022 at 8:13
  • The things that occur to me (but aren't fully-fleshed enough for an answer) are that (a) you are presumably an expert on your preferences, which are unlikely to match the public's; (b) you might be buying better canned tomatoes; there is a very wide spectrum of canned tomato quality; (c) something along the lines you suggest about flavours degrading on storage (perhaps tomatoes by themselves are canned differently to the sauce would be).
    – dbmag9
    Nov 17, 2022 at 9:20
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    I personally buy the Wegman’s store brand ($1/jar), but doctor it up with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms, meat, herbs, and whatever else I have. I’m just removing the time to cook out the raw tomato taste and thicken it up
    – Joe
    Nov 17, 2022 at 12:39
  • @AMtwo That seems inconsistent with the existence of very expensive jarred tomato sauces. Nov 18, 2022 at 18:14
  • Even expensive jarred tomato sauces are "convenience food"... They do it better than others, but it's still convenience food. I think Wendy's makes a burger 10x better than McDonald's. But it's still fast food, and not as good as "slow food"
    – AMtwo
    Nov 18, 2022 at 20:38

1 Answer 1

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It's a lot of factors, that all come together, but mostly it boils down to cost. Those $11 jars are making someone a lot of profit.

Cheap everyday sauces in jars (supermarket own brand example) have quite a lot of water added, and starch to thicken them. More expensive (brands) have a greater proportion of tomato, but still rely on starch for texture. Starch-thickening seems to mute things a little too.

I don't know about yours but my home made sauce is thickened simply by reducing the juice from the tomatoes (and adding puree/paste, but the commercial ones do that too), so like ketchup has more tomato to start with than the total volume. I tend to buy cheap tinned tomatoes, and they can still make a good sauce, but take more cooking to thicken. If you're making it quickly, using better quality tomatoes is a good idea.

Plus at home we're likely to use more herbs, both quantity and variety, garlic, black pepper, etc. You and I both use olive oil (cheap, quite flavourful, in my case), rather than rapeseed/canola or sunflower, and we might use more of it. We might use finely chopped onion instead of powdered; I often add some finely chopped carrot and celery, maybe even sweet (bell) pepper. Mine is tastier than bought despite having next to no added salt (only a tiny bit from a small amount of low-salt veg bouillon powder).

At home, we don't have to consider long term storage unless canning it, which I don't - it freezes well. That means there's no need to regulate the acidity with citric acid, though we might choose to add a drop of lemon juice for flavour.

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  • BTW, saying it freezes well - it's convenient for me to make a big batch, sometimes when I'm cooking another dish with similar ingredients (saves washing up). Then I freeze 1- and 2-serving containers and have cheap easy tasty food on hand <whisper>it might even be healthier</whisper>.
    – Chris H
    Nov 17, 2022 at 10:21
  • This is helpful, but it seems like it doesn't entirely answer the question. As the OP says, there exist very expensive jarred tomato sauces. Why doesn't anybody make a jarred tomato sauce that's actually really good, for any price? You could skip the starch and use fresh vegetables; surely the citric acid isn't a deal-breaker. Nov 18, 2022 at 18:17
  • I think Chris is arguing that even the expensive ones cheat on ingredients. Is that correct, Chris? If that's your answer, can you find a citation?
    – FuzzyChef
    Nov 19, 2022 at 20:18
  • @FuzzyChef I suppose you'd call it cheating. The starch also speeds up cooking if you're using cheap watery tomatoes. And there probably are truly premium brands that do something closer to what we'd do at home (I have an idea of one worth looking up, but it's not widely sold). I doubt any citation better than the ingredients lists exists.
    – Chris H
    Nov 20, 2022 at 13:43

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