Microwave Pasta Sauce Face-Off

Ragú Fresh & Simple Pouch Smooth Pasta Sauce

By: Unilever

Suggested Retail Price: $2.03 for a 13.5-ounce bag

Taste: 2stars


Marketing: 4stars

The idea of microwaving premade pasta sauce in a bag is about as appetizing and authentically Italian as vomit on a waffle. Yet, that’s where civilization stands, so it would be foolish to ignore the latest full-court press from the sprawling multinational Unilever corporation: low-end Ragú-in-a-bag and medium-end Bertolli-in-a-bag.

I blind taste tested two flavors of each. Ragú’s “all natural” promise is that its sauce will be fresh and simple, and that’s about half right: Complicated and subtle it is not. Fresh is a bit harder to argue, however. The Tomato, Onion & Garlic variety tastes more than a little like pizza sauce blended with honey. The Garden Veggie is sweeter still, though the onslaught is mediated by the taste of basil.

Both Ragú flavors come in beautiful red and green pouches that implicitly offer up the bounty of the garden to the consumer. As appealing as it is to imagine a fresh, renovated, all-natural Ragú—and, admittedly, this stuff tastes a little brighter than the jarred sauces—it’s too far from real to qualify as a pleasant surprise. Moreover, you’d think that something called “Garden Veggie” might at least have a little heft, but both varieties of bagged Ragú come up weak and overly smooth on the texture front.

Bertolli Premium Pasta Sauce

By: Unilever

Suggested Retail Price: $2.79 for a 13.5-ounce bag

Taste: 4stars


Marketing: 2stars

Bertolli’s premise is that its product is so dead-on reminiscent of fine Italian cooking that chefs will run, panicked, to the fields and orchards in order to obtain better, fresher ingredients to compete with Bertolli’s offerings. Meanwhile, restaurants will go belly up because overgroomed yuppies are pouring their dinners out of bags.

Here’s the funny thing: Bertolli’s sauce in a pouch isn’t bad. It’s … actually pretty good. Gourmands are bred, conditioned, and self-taught to hate the microwave, hate slickly marketed food, hate anything that reeks of mass accessibility; and yet, it’s hard to get around the way this stuff tastes.

The Summer Crushed Tomato & Basil style is thicker and pastier than either of the sampled Ragú flavors and far more robust. It tastes simmered. Its ingredients—diced tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, water, onions, carrot juice concentrate, garlic, salt, basil, capers, parsley, and oregano—offer some insight into why this plastic-sealed abomination resembles actual pasta sauce. It is actual pasta sauce.

The Champignon & Portobello Mushroom variety shares many of the same qualities as its hearty brother: It’s a relatively thick and (versus the Ragú) nuanced sauce. What a difference 76 cents make! Generic but palpable mushroom umami and the flavor of onions both register, and the texture is—if not a grandma-made masterpiece—a real thrill considering its humble origins.

While this product isn’t going to stand up to a homemade sauce, and it shouldn’t tempt anyone with the time and wherewithal to put together something from scratch, it’s surprisingly seductive as a possible day-to-day pantry stocker. Hats off to Bertolli, and a suggestion to Unilever: What if you shelved Ragú entirely in favor of Bertolli, the bagged, mass-marketed sauce that actually tastes like sauce?

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow Chowhound on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.

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