We’re still in the food doldrums, those weeks at the tail end of winter and the beginning of spring, where it can be a bit of a challenge to find good stuff to cook with. Oh, good things are there, given the massive food economy we labor under, but to be honest, I balk at spending $5 a pound for the ‘best’ tomatoes that really aren’t all that good. And let’s face it, tomatoes are key to many of the things we want to cook and eat at this time of the year, AKA, hearty and comforting stuff.
As such, it’s time to consider canned tomatoes. Certainly there are good and bad in this regard, with everything from indifferently chosen and packed to fabulously tasty, and cheap to outrageously expensive. Fact of the matter is, when making soup, stew, and tomato based sauces, canned are preferable to fresh at any time of year, due to the volume needed to achieve the desired end, and because most of us grow tomatoes that excel when used fresh; many of those varieties, and a whole lot of heirlooms, don’t sauce very well at all.
With that in mind, let’s explore what is worth your hard earned money; UrbanMonique has gone to bat, and done the research for you. We tested stuff that ranged from a buck a can to the $8 per range, and found that, as fate would have it, price has little to do with taste. In fact, some of the priciest variants don’t even warrant honorable mention. Here’s what we found.
First, the general caveats.
1. Sound logic dictates that you should avoid the basest, generic variants. White cans with TOMATOES printed in black, block letters thereupon are not likely to be tasty, (And if you’re old enough, remember those?).
2. Check the can to see if they’re BPA free. Beyond what’s in it, what’s part of it should not be something you have to ingest.
3. The house brand from your favorite grocery may or may not be decent. These vary from region to region, so you’ll need to do a bit of label reading to discern the bore and stroke of yours. Buy a can or two and taste test before you go to town with them. Taste them as we did, straight from the can with nothing added, and keep in mind that tomatoes are often a base layer in cooking, and all the augmentation in the world won’t make bad ones taste better.
4. Read the label before you buy; don’t assume that there’s nothing in there but tomatoes. Added water, salt, preservatives, or other veggies of dubious lineage are to be avoided.
5. All canned tomatoes are going to have some degree of metallic taste from the container. The solution to this is cooking time and a little fresh citrus; if you don’t give them those treatments, the metal flavor will remain, and it is most unpleasant.
6. Famous name does not mean good taste; fact is, not one tomato labelled San Marzano was good enough to make our recommended list. I know food shows and chefs go wild for them, but fact is, our domestic contestants simply taste better. I suspect this is somewhat in the same vein as ‘Italian’ olive oil or balsamic vinegar; what you see may not be what you’re getting…
7. Get whole canned tomatoes whenever you can. More flavor survives in the whole fruit than the processed variants, and with a stick blender, you can make any consistency you like in a snap.
We judged tomatoes on flavor, acidity, texture, and appearance; all those metrics are purely subjective, of course, so again, you should put in your due diligence when deciding what to stock your pantry with. I will say that, for the most part, everything we looked at and rated looked and felt pretty good; the final results were awarded predominantly on flavor first, and acidity second.
And the winners are…
365 Organic. This brand is available in our neck of the woods through several grocery chains. They have a nice balance between sweet and acid, and make great sauce.
Trader Joe’s house brand. Dang near a tie with the 365, and notably cheaper. Joe’s also happens to have the best and cheapest frozen pizza dough.
Muir Glen Organic. As good as the top two, but notably pricier, hence the third place finish.
Hunts 100% Natural. A bit on the acidic side, but still a very nice, balanced offering, and can be a discount brand from time to time.
Haggens-Top Foods house brand. A very decent tomato, often on super sale, (As in 15 9 ounce cans for $10 cheap). Not quite as flavorful as the top contenders, and not available outside the Pacific Northwest.
And to celebrate, we offer our go-to pizza sauce recipe.
1 9 oz can whole Tomatoes
1 small Lemon
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar
1-2 small cloves Garlic
2-3 leaves fresh Basil, (1/4 teaspoon dry OK)
5-6 leaves Oregano, (1/4 teaspoon dry OK)
Sea Salt & fresh ground Pepper to taste
OTPIONAL: A couple inches of tomato paste from a tube, or a light scoop from a can.
Rinse and zest lemon. Peel and mince garlic. Chiffonade basil and oregano.
Process tomatoes with a stick blender to your desired degree of chunkiness.
Add zest, vinegar, oil, garlic and herbs and blend thoroughly.
Start with a quarter lemon and add juice, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Blend through, then adjust seasoning and citrus as desired.
Allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to using.
Don’t cook this sauce; the tomatoes got cooked before they were canned, and you’ll cook it again with whatever dish you prepare.
Sauce will keep for a week, refrigerated, in an airtight, non-reactive container.