Cooked tomatoes hold a soft spot in my heart. Their rich aroma simmering over a stovetop conjures specific, warm memories from throughout my life—from my mother carefully blowing on a spoonful of hearty stew before handing it off to me, to making a delicious (and messy) homemade pizza sauce with my partner as an adult.
Really, there’s something both comforting and nostalgic about a cooked tomato. And when done right, it has a distinctly harmonious effect on your taste buds—that amicable balance of savory and sweet—that, to me, holds a certain magic.
It must be said, though, that the magic behind the perfect cooked tomato dish has a secret: canned tomatoes.
You may scrunch your nose at the very thought of canned produce because, sure, for many of us, it evokes flashbacks of syrupy fruit salads or the bitingly salty green bean. Some canned produce does get a lousy reputation for good reason, usually thanks to a list of added ingredients. However, with the right canned tomato, you can throw your produce preconceptions out the window.
It’s true: When you’re cooking with tomatoes, canned tomatoes are a better ingredient than fresh. And I’ll tell you why.
First, Here’s a Little Context
We actually owe it, in part, to canned tomatoes that tomatoes are so often consumed in the United States today. Sara Bir of Modern Farmer tells us that tomatoes weren’t commonly eaten in pre–Civil War America due to the widely held belief that they were poisonous—all thanks to their dodgy relatives in the nightshade family. In fact, they were dubbed “love apples” (very temptingly, in my opinion) and used mainly as a decorative plant.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that the sentiment toward tomatoes shifted. The canning industry began to grow rapidly during this time, and, thanks to tomatoes’ ability to can well, they became a very popular choice of canned produce.
Now, tomatoes are consumed daily in a variety of forms, and canneries are typically located right next to farms to ensure all our many tomato products are processed quickly. When tomatoes are canned, they’re picked at their most ripe point, peeled, sealed, and heated to kill off any harmful bacteria. The result? A partially cooked, partially fresh, and exceptionally flavor-packed tomato. Which leads me to…
Why Canned Tomatoes Are Better
Again, canned tomatoes are always picked at peak ripeness, resulting in a high-quality product regardless of the season. Skip guessing around the produce section if a given tomato will be fresh and flavorful—instead, stroll down the canned aisle, and you’ll get a great product every time.
Not only are canned tomatoes consistently fresh year-round, but they’re also much less watery than their fresh counterparts. In their tin tubs, canned tomatoes bathe in tomatoes themselves by way of juice or purée, ensuring a concentrated, doubly-tomatoey product that is rich in taste and texture.
Speaking of texture, I won’t be the first or last to say that good texture is an important aspect of any dish—and separated tomato skins don’t make that cut. There isn’t much that furrows the brow quite like a stray curl of tomato skin grating against my tongue. Of course, with canned tomatoes, this won’t be an issue. As mentioned above, their skins are generally always peeled prior to canning (and will be labeled as such), so you can expect a pleasant lack of curled-up tomato skins in your dishes.
Indeed, the right canned tomato is a product that is velvety and punch-full of umami goodness. Now, all that remains is the question, “how do I pick the right canned tomato?”
There are several canned tomato options out there, which can make the selection process at your local grocer somewhat intimidating. So, to avoid any last-second Googling, here are some tips I follow that you can use to help navigate your decision.
Which Canned Tomatoes To Use
Whole canned tomatoes are your most versatile bet in the vast field of canned tomato products. It’s the tomato in its righteous form, albeit peeled. With whole canned tomatoes in your pantry, your options are plenty; you can dice them, crush them, or otherwise transform them into any form you find appropriate for the recipe at hand.
To avoid any consistency or flavor mishaps, I pass on canned tomatoes with added ingredients other than salt, citric acid, and calcium chloride. It’s worth noting that there is some debate here and there over whether or not to use canned tomatoes with added calcium chloride, which many include. While the preservative citric acid occurs naturally in tomatoes, calcium chloride is a firming additive that tends to hold blame for causing canned tomatoes’ inability to break down when cooking and a noted bitterness—though, in my opinion, those complaints really only hold weight with the more absorbent diced tomato option. You can avert these issues by just sticking to whole.
Now, let’s talk San Marzanos. You may have heard of the illustrious San Marzano tomato due to its tip-top status among canned tomato mentions. It’s a delightfully thick plum tomato from Italy, known for its tantalizing sweetness and low levels of acidity.
To be a legitimate San Marzano, it must include what’s called a DOP certificate (protected designation of origin, in English), which certifies that it’s from the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region of Italy. It really is the crème de la crème of canned tomatoes.
Yep, having paid myself the steep $4 or so per can, I can attest to its quality. But, rest assured, paying this much is not your only option on your quest for the right canned tomato. There are many more affordable alternatives that taste good, or perhaps even better, depending on your personal taste. For me, nostalgia sits largely in a can of Redpack’s $2 Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes.
Case in point, you can count on the canned tomato to be tastier and better-textured for recipes that call for cooking. Whether for bolognese or braising, canned tomatoes will make any cooked dish worlds better than their fresh alternative.