I love fresh tomatoes. I grow a dozen plants every year, post way too many tomato photos on Instagram, and I’m currently working on a tomato cookbook. But I’m also practical, and once fresh tomatoes are out of season, my affections turn to canned.
Unlike most canned fruits and vegetables (think spinach), a quality canned tomato isn’t some poor imitation of the fresh version. The challenge is that unlike a fresh one that you can see, smell, even squeeze, a canned tomato is … in a can. So, how do you know which ones to buy? So many brands, so many forms: whole peeled, with or without basil, garlic, chiles. Diced. Petite diced. Crushed, pureed, stewed — even fire-roasted.
Stick to the basics: You may think it more efficient to select “crushed” because you plan to make a spaghetti sauce or “diced” because you want small pieces in your vegetable soup. But it’s best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavorings except salt, and do the shape-shifting yourself.
Working with whole tomatoes can be messy, but it lets you maintain control and avoid surprises, such as “crushed” tomatoes that are too watery, or “diced” tomatoes that remain so stubbornly diced as to never soften and integrate with soup or salsa or chili. This is by design, as most brands of diced tomatoes contain calcium chloride, which keeps the tomatoes firm. I’m sure there are some dishes where unyielding squares of tomato (even “petite” squares) are a benefit, but I generally want mine to soften.
Check the label for calcium chloride and then make your choice. (You may even see it in whole tomatoes.) The one widely available brand that does not add the firming agent to its chopped tomatoes is Pomi, and the texture of their “chopped” is what you’ll get if you were to chop your own — slightly sloppy, irregular chunks. Like real food.
My go-to brands: I would love to conduct a full tomato tasting someday, complete with sensory evaluation checklists, but for now I stick with a couple of brands that I like: Muir Glen for basic whole tomatoes and Cento for imported San Marzanos (more on those below).
Muir Glen is a California company with a wide range of organic canned tomato products, including that fire-roasted line, which has a slight smokiness that’s nice in chili.
Cento is a New Jersey Italian-import company with wide distribution and a decent price point. I buy their San Marzanos, which are fleshy, low-seed, low-acid plum tomatoes, traditionally grown in the Sarnese-Nocerino region of southern Italy, near Naples.
About those San Marzanos: Like many traditional European foods, authentic San Marzanos have been granted D.O.P. status, meaning they are allowed to display a special mark certifying they are a specific tomato type, grown in a designated area under strict guidelines for cultivating, harvesting and packing. The D.O.P. system is a way of controlling the quality of the product and its ability to command a higher price.
But any time an ingredient has legendary status with a higher price, beware. You may see “San Marzano” or “San Marzano-style” on a label, meaning the tomato variety is San Marzano but it’s grown elsewhere. It may be just as delicious, but it’s not a real San Marzano.
My favored Centos are currently not using the D.O.P. label, though they claim to follow the guidelines. Instead, Cento offers a third-party certification that includes a nifty PAC Traceability (Product Attribute Certification). Enter the code from the can and then zoom through Google Earth to arrive at the exact field where your tomatoes were grown, which in my case was a not particularly bucolic one on the outskirts of an industrial park in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. Cool!
Regardless of what brand you choose, use the following tips to get the most from your can:
Transfer leftovers directly to the freezer. Canned tomatoes freeze well, so if you don’t need the entire can, slide some into a freezer container for later use. Do not put the excess in the fridge — like I often do — thinking you’ll use it in a couple of days and then find it a month later, “embellished” with mold.
Break them up in the can. A slightly awkward move that can save a mess when all you need is to break up the whole tomatoes. Either take a sharp knife and slice through the contents several times or use kitchen shears to snip them … be sure the hinge of your shears is clean because you’ll be submerging them in the tomato juices. Yes, I see what’s in your junk drawer.
For more control, take them out of the can. Do this when you want a uniform chunk or a fine chop rather than waiting for the tomatoes to break down in a long-simmered dish. To avoid too much mess, gently squeegee each tomato with your fingers before placing it on your cutting board.
Focus on your core. Most tomatoes are soft and will easily break apart during cooking, but sometimes you get a batch with a tough, stringy core and dense tomato stem ends, so chop or crush the tough sections before adding them to your dish.
Use a canned tomato more like a fresh one — roast it. Line a couple of rimmed baking sheets with parchment — makes cleanup a cinch. Lift a tomato from the can, open the seed pockets gently with your finger, squeegee off excess liquid, and arrange on the baking sheet with a half-inch between tomatoes. Roast at 300 degrees — naked, or drizzled with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a scattering of rosemary, oregano or thyme — until the excess liquid has cooked off and the tomatoes grow chewier, concentrated and lightly browned around the edges, 45 to 90 minutes. Use right away or store in the fridge tightly covered for up to a week.
Ideas for roasted canned tomatoes:
Whole: Use in sandwiches, such as a winter BLT, with the “L” being a wilted green such as kale or rapini. Layer with mozzarella and/or roasted red pepper for a winter caprese salad. Top a pizza or focaccia. Alternate with sliced potatoes and onions, then bake as a gratin. Skip the marinara and use as one layer in your next lasagna.
Chopped: Add to the aromatic vegetables in soups, stews or a pot of beans (add toward the end of cooking, as acid can inhibit the beans from softening). Create an instant pasta sauce with chopped anchovies, black olives, torn herbs, chile flakes, a splash of pasta water and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Baked Tomatoes, Shrimp and Chickpeas With Feta and Bread Crumbs
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 small onion, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (sweet or hot)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste
One (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice, coarsely chopped or cut with kitchen shears (tough stem ends removed)
One (14-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, or more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh tender herbs, such as dill, cilantro, mint and/or parsley
1/4 cup roughly chopped pitted Kalamata olives (optional)
1 pound raw shrimp, preferably wild-caught, peeled and deveined, tails removed
4 to 8 ounces feta, crumbled
1/3 cup coarse bread crumbs, such as panko-style
Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion, the 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper, and cook, stirring, until the onion looks soft and translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until everything is soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Don’t let the onion or garlic brown; lower the heat if you need to. Stir in the smoked paprika, cumin and crushed red pepper, and cook for a few seconds more until fragrant.
Add the tomatoes along with their juices, followed by the drained chickpeas, lemon zest and juice and season the mixture with a bit more salt and a few twists of black pepper.
Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the consistency has thickened and the flavors have melded, 10 to 15 minutes. During cooking, smash some of the chickpeas with a wooden spoon to thicken the mixture.
Fold in the fresh herbs and the olives, if using. Taste, and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, lemon zest and/or juice to taste.
If your skillet is ovenproof, keep the mixture where it is. If not, transfer the mixture to a baking dish. Nestle the shrimp into the tomato mixture, trying to cover them so they don’t overcook in the oven.
Distribute the feta over the top, stir together the bread crumbs and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle the mixture over the top.
Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until the juices are bubbling around the edges of the dish and the shrimp are fully cooked. (If the shrimp are larger than 13/20 per pound, you might need another couple of minutes in the oven.)
Transfer the dish to a heatproof surface and let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
From food writer Martha Holmberg.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More canned tomatoes recipes from Voraciously:
Calories: 500; Total Fat: 26 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 200 mg; Sodium: 610 mg; Carbohydrates: 29 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 34 g.