You say tomato, I say tomahto… Let's call the whole thing off.
This recipe post is the first in a series of posts where I will discuss working with canned tomatoes. In this class we’ll discuss working with canned tomatoes. If you’re a fan of fresh tomatoes, you might be surprised why a lot professional chef’s prefer canned to fresh.
Chef's Note: Here’s an interesting bit of information: When you’re using fresh tomatoes versus canned tomatoes, on a salad or other uncooked dish, fresh tomatoes will win out every time. However, in cooked sauces, and especially in pizza sauce, canned tomatoes win out almost all of the time. I find that interesting.
Wise chefs understand that and create their dishes accordingly. But not all canned tomatoes are created equal, and there is a trick to using canned tomatoes that will help to remove the “tinned” taste, but that’s for another post. For now, let’s look at the best brands of canned tomatoes.
LET’S TALK TOMATOES
The contents of a can of tomatoes are relatively simple. You’ll find tomatoes, tomato juice or sauce, salt, citric acid and, occasionally, calcium chloride.
The question that I put to you is: Why are some canned tomatoes firm, meaty and pack a lot of flavor, while others are mealy and shredded?
The answer is simple: It’s a given that a homegrown tomato will be more flavorful than almost any grocery-store brand. In the same respect, a good canned product must begin with a good tomato.
AND THE WINNER IS
Plum tomatoes are the hands down winner in the canned tomato department, and most chefs go out of their way to make sure their canned tomatoes are this variety. The reason is because they have a larger percentage of tomato meat to seeds. If you compare them to the typical round tomato variety, which can contain five to seven seed pockets (called locules), the majority of plum tomato varieties have only two.
Bottom Line: Look for the word Plum Tomatoes, on the label.
NOT ALL PLUM TOMATOES ARE CREATED EQUAL
The San Marzano tomato, has a longer, curvier shape with a slightly sweeter taste and softer skin than its Roma cousin. The San Marzano region of Italy, from which the variety gets its name, grows some of the best tomatoes in the world, and their price reflects that. However, because of severe industrial pollution in the San Marzano area of Italy, the quality of Italian tomatoes has decreased. It also doesn’t help that we impose a one-hundred percent tariff on all imported tomatoes.
WHAT DOES DOP MEAN?
Many cans of tomatoes have the letters DOP, proudly displayed on the label… is that important?
DOP stands for denomination of protected origin (Denominazione di origine protetta). Tomatoes that receive this designation have to go through a demanding set of standards to receive the DOP designation. They are checked from the original seeds, to the fertilization process; finally, how they are harvested and packed is closely monitored. They must meet the standards, or they will not receive the DOP designation. In addition, DOP tomatoes are organic tomatoes.
Bottom Line: Look for the DOP designation on the label.
GROWING TOMATOES FOR THE CAN
Fresh tomatoes are picked from the vine before they fully ripen. The grower knows that those tomatoes will be on the grocery-store shelves, sometimes for days, before being picked up by the consumer. The problem with allowing the tomato to ripen off the vine is that they begin to lose flavor. And the longer they sit there, the more flavor they loose.
On the other hand, tomatoes grown for the can are allowed to remain on the vine until they fully ripen, and then are immediately processed. This helps to retain that fresh tomato flavor.
For example, after harvesting, the Muir Glen company immediatly takes their tomatoes to Gilroy, California for processing, where they are packed in lead-free steel containers that have been lined with white enamel. They claim that from field to can is less than eight hours.
SALT VERSUS SALT FREE
Some cans of tomatoes come with the sodium free label. Salt is added to tomatoes for several reasons: however, the primary reason is that salt added to an acidic product, such as tomatoes, makes the tongue transmit more of a flavorful taste sensation to the brain. If salt intake is a concern, then you might want to consider a sodium free variety. However, when I work with sodium free, or regular canned tomatoes, my only consideration is the amount of additional salt I’m adding to the dish while cooking.
Bottom Line: The addition of salt to a can of tomatoes is primarily a flavor enhancer.
WHAT DO WE KNOW SO FAR?
Because of their high meat-to-seed ratio, we want plum tomatoes, of the San Marzano variety (only two locules versus five to seven in other tomato varieties).
We’re looking for DOP on the label, because it guarantees a specific process for the growing and harvesting of the tomatoes.
Because of industrial pollution, we’re shifting our location from Italy, to the American West Coast.
WHAT TO BUY?
I’ve listed several brands of canned tomatoes that work well in anything from an Italian tomato sauce, to a mouth-watering pizza sauce. I wanted to be fair here and not just include tomatoes that will break the bank. Some of them are DOP, and some are not. Some come from Italy, and some from California. I’ve listed them in the order, from what I consider the best tasting and versatile to the least. But all of them are good, and all of them will make good sauces.
I love these tomatoes. They have a bright taste and a balance of sweetness and acidity that make an excellent marinara.
Sciafani San Marzano
It has only one ingredient… tomato, without even the typical citric acid preservative. It is hard to find tomatoes you can use for real authentic pizza sauce, but this one works great
Very meaty texture and juiciness, and a good balance between acid and sweet. Excellent for sauces, but not so good for a pizza sauce.
If you're looking for a sweet, meaty tomato with perfect tang and sweet balance this is the one to look for. Expensive, but worth it.
Excellent for making thick pasta sauces. Sweet and tangy, they remain firm in sauces when cooked.
I just made a tomato soup the other day, using this brand... Fabulous.
Cento San Marzano
Bright taste from proper natural salt/sugar balance. You probably cannot get better tomatoes fresh unless you know a specialty grower. Just make sure you get the DOP certified variety.
I make a really great pomodoro sauce with this brand of tomato.
Note: Muir Glen did not go BPA free on their cans until the Summer of 2013. When purchasing them make sure that you check the date, and buy newer tomatoes.
Besides being an excellent tomato for any kind of sauce, they are totally GMO and BPA free with just the right balance between sweet and salt. They are a standard in many European kitchens.
Hunts Whole Plum
Good tomato flavor and good balance between sweet and sharp with a meaty and firm texture. A good all-purpose canned tomato that's available in most stores, and at a good price.
I'm including this brand, only because I really like them. For sauces, pizza or otherwise they can't be beat; however, they're almost impossible to find, and very pricey.
Keep the faith, and keep cooking.
Final Note: In the next recipe post, I'm going to show you a trick my Aunt Josephine used to remove some of the bitter taste from canned tomatoes...
I'm sure she wasn't the only one to use it (probably all of Naples did), but it does work.