Food & Drink CAN IT!

How to pick a great tin of tomatoes

Slow-cooked sauces, chilis, and soups are comforting winter fare - even when it’s a mild winter - and the familiar canned tomato is often at the center of the recipe. Commonplace, perhaps, yet anything but standard, canned tomatoes can make or break a dish.

Before you protest that all canned tomatoes are created equal, or boast that your favorite brand is the best, let me say there are really only two kinds of canned tomatoes: plum and all others. The “all others” are usually round varieties, even cherry tomatoes in some cases. The difference between the varieties is the number of seed pockets, or locules. Round tomatoes have between five and seven; plum and San Marzano have just two. The “jelly” in the locules is the most acidic part of the fruit, with the least amount of sugar. So, with round tomatoes, the taste is sharper and you may have to add a little sugar or wine to cut the bite. Marketers of Italian San Marzano plum tomatoes claim that when using their tomatoes, grown in the volcanic soil near Mt. Vesuvius, a sauce will never require additional sugar or wine. Still, it may be just a matter of taste. I learned to make a slow-cooked sauce from an Italian mama in New Jersey who always added a little red wine to her all-day sauce. So I follow suit. However, in the Sopranos Family Cookbook, there’s not a mention of wine in the Sunday Gravy recipe.

Quick & Simple Marinara Sauce

2 T olive oil

2 t minced garlic

1 28-ounce canned whole tomatoes with liquid

2 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Cover bottom of heated frying pan with olive oil, add garlic, and cook over medium heat until lightly browned. Add tomatoes and basil and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Serve right away with pasta, on vegetables, or over grilled chicken breasts.

Go figure.

You can’t just peel fresh tomatoes, put ’em in a can, and sell ’em; you have to pack them in liquid. Half of the tomatoes we tested were packed in plain, uncooked tomato juice, while the other half used a puree made of pulverized and cooked tomatoes. This packing liquid can affect both the body of your sauce and the taste of your dish, so be sure you’re getting what you want.

Salt is a common ingredient in canned goods, be it of the sea or otherwise. Only two brands we tasted, Central Market and Bella Terra, bucked the sodium trend. Even organic brands, except for Central Market and Bella Terra again, contain either citric acid or both citric acid and calcium chloride. The citric acid balances the flavor profile of the varying ripeness of the hundreds of pounds of tomatoes the companies process. Calcium chloride is added to maintain firmness. Half of our samples contained basil; for non-Italian dishes, you may want to find a brand without herbs.

So, with 10 or more brands to choose from at local grocery stores, how can you tell which one is the best for your recipe? I invited a few friends to help me find out. We judged 10 products right out of the can using two criteria: the texture and taste of the tomatoes and their stewing liquid.

Surprisingly, our top three choices are all plum tomatoes, but none are San Marzanos, often lauded for their perfection in sauces. Two favorites, Racconto and Cento, contain tomatoes grown and processed in Italy, and the third, Muir Glen Organics, contains plum tomatoes from Washington state. All took top spots for their texture, flavor, sweetness-to-acidity quotient, and appearance.

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The fruits of our labor - all in one chart.

Admittedly, this wasn’t a truly scientific test because I didn’t use beakers, pH test strips, or Bunsen burners. But here’s a chart of my findings, based on a blind taste test by a panel of people with good palates, a variety of cooking styles, and no axes to grind.

(all 28-oz cans except as noted)
Cento Italian Peeled
$2.39; Italy
11 large
23 oz.
1 1/3 cups
Puree, basil, salt *
1. Great color, texture, and flavor; just right liquid
Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled
$2.89; USA
8 large
17 oz.
1 1/3 cups
Juice, sea salt **
2. Juice is thin, but flavor is strong; firm, whole tomatoes are appealing
Racconto Italian Whole Peeled
$1.77; Italy
16 oz.
1 1/2 cups
Puree, salt *
3. Balanced firmness and sweetness; liquid has good consistency
365 Whole Peeled
(not 365 Organic)
$1.19; USA
15 oz.
1 cup
Juice, salt **
4. Stringy with many skins attached, too firm in some places, OK flavor, thin sauce
Bionature Organic Whole Peeled “Tuscans”
$2.49; Italy
11 large
18 oz.
1 cup
Puree, basil, sea salt *
5. Many attached skins, slightly bitter taste, nice thick sauce
Progresso Whole Peeled with Basil
$1.97; USA
10 - many not whole
15 oz.
1 3/4 cups
Juice, basil, salt **
6. Looks mushy, has a stringy texture, tastes OK, liquid is thin and bland
San Marzano Whole Peeled
$2.99; USA
9 large
23 oz.
< 1/2 cup
Juice, salt **
7. Overly firm and chewy, mild tomato flavor, water rose to top of liquid when resting
Central Market Organics Peeled
14-oz. cans 2 for $3; Italy
9.5 oz.
1/2 cup
8. Bland flavor and thin juice
Bella Terra Organic Whole Peeled San Marzanos
$2.84; Italy
13 plus pieces
14 oz.
1 2/3 cups
Puree, basil
9. Tomatoes look deflated; thin, watery sauce, poor flavor with metallic tinge
Cento San Marzano Peeled
$4.49; Italy
18 oz.
1 cup
Puree, basil, salt *
10. Looks good, tastes bad; lingering bitter flavor
* citric acid, ** calcium chloride & citric acid

Even the greatest tomato fan rarely eats plain stewed tomatoes, and very few recipes call for them to be used fresh out of the tin without further cooking. So we took a few more bites of bread and sips of water to cleanse our palates, and plodded on to taste them cooked. The question was whether our top three choices could stand the heat and maintain that great taste .

As my New Jersey mentor taught me, nothing’s easier or faster for dinner than a simple marinara sauce. I used her recipe with our top three choices, cooking each with the same ingredients, in the same size and type of pan, for the same amount of time.

Once cooked, the competitors remained in the same preference order, with Cento leading the pack for its thick sauce and the way the tomatoes softened but didn’t disintegrate. Two tasters agreed that, for a long-cooked sauce, Cento wouldn’t require additional tomato paste to add body. Muir Glen got the nod as the favorite for light dishes that require a “summer sauce” flavor. When cooked, the Racconto tomatoes were slightly overwhelmed by the garlic and basil in the recipe, and needed more salt or seasoning to make the sauce compare favorably to the other two brands.

Home cooks and professional chefs will tell you that the key to good food is good ingredients. Simply reading a label on a can of tomatoes may tell you where it’s from and what it contains, but only your taste buds can tell you if it’s right for your recipe.

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