At this moment, as you’re holed up at home, the best canned tomatoes are the ones you’ll grab from your cabinet to make dinner.
A 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes is one of the most versatile players in the cupboard. Canned tomatoes deliver velvety, bright pasta sauce in the dead of winter and perk up soups like minestrone. They bring earthiness to ribollita and play supporting player in a tikka masala. And the vibrant red of a canned tomato always pleases, be it the star of shakshuka or baked ziti.
But all canned tomatoes are not created equal, as editors and reporters from NYT Cooking and Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Company, discovered at a tasting held last month, weeks before coronavirus brought American life to a standstill.
Michael Sullivan, a kitchen writer at Wirecutter, chose a dozen canned brands to sample, all normally available at big-box stores and groceries around the country, though selection may now be limited. (At the time of publication, many canned tomatoes are sold out online.)
And he devised the testing criteria for the blind taste test: Each brand would be sampled raw from the can, though warmed slightly, and then tasted again in a tomato sauce, Marcella Hazan’s famously simple four-ingredient sauce.
The tomatoes were rated for color, flavor, sweetness, acidity, overall appearance and texture. Many cooks have prized the San Marzano tomato, grown in Italy, as the ideal. Only one certified D.O.P. — “designation of protected origin,” the European Union’s stamp of authenticity — was included in the tasting. Others were San Marzano-style or tomatoes grown in America.
There were variations in salt content, and some contained calcium chloride, an additive that firms the flesh of the tomatoes to help with processing, Mr. Sullivan said.
The tomatoes were evaluated by a panel, led by Mr. Sullivan, that included me, an editor on the Food desk; Alexa Weibel, a recipe editor for NYT Cooking; Ligaya Mishan, a Hungry City columnist and a contributor to T Magazine; and three editors from Wirecutter’s kitchen and appliance teams: Marguerite Preston, Marilyn Ong and Winnie Yang.
The results astounded even NYT Cooking’s resident tomato expert, Julia Moskin, who conducted her own taste test three years ago, when she chose Muir Glen Organic San Marzano-style and Bionaturae Organic as her favorites.
1. Bianco DiNapoli Organic Whole Peeled ($6 to $7)
Ingredients include California tomatoes packed in juice with sea salt, citric acid and basil.
The most balanced tomato, in terms of sweetness and acidity, and one that passed Julia’s test: being put on a sandwich straight out of the can. The addition of basil makes this brand ideal for Italian recipes.
2. Market Pantry Whole Peeled (About $1)
These American-grown tomatoes, packed in juice, include calcium chloride, citric acid and salt.
This house brand from Target was a surprising winner. Tasters found the shape to be pleasing, and the flavor was “forward, bright and fresh,” Alexa said.
3. San Merican Tomato (S.M.T.) Whole Peeled ($4 to $7)
Packed in juice, these American tomatoes include sea salt, calcium chloride and citric acid.
These were pleasantly firm tomatoes without too much bite. “I could eat this on my own without even cooking,” Ligaya said.
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4. Cento Certified Peeled Tomatoes ($2.60 to $5.70)
Italian tomatoes packed in a purée with salt and basil.
These Italian tomatoes had a delicate texture, and tasters found more tomato flavor in the liquid than in the solids.
5. Hunt’s Whole Plum Tomatoes ($1.60 to $2)
Tomatoes grown in California, packed in juice, with salt, calcium chloride and citric acid.
These had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity, but lost points for unripe tomatoes and peel included in the can.
California tomatoes packed in juice, with sea salt, calcium chloride and citric acid.
“Just fine” was the consensus on these tomatoes, which “lacked depth,” according to Winnie.
7. Rega Rega San Marzano Tomatoes ($4.60 to $6)
San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes in juice.
These were the only certified San Marzano tomatoes in the tasting, with a pleasant acidity and flavor, a velvety texture and a deep red hue. The juice, though, was powerfully sour.
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8. Organico Bello Whole Peeled Tomatoes (About $5)
Tomatoes grown in southern Italy and packed in purée.
These tomatoes were sour, and I detected that smell you get when you’re walking in the woods and catch a whiff of the bones of a decaying animal. Other tasters found that the tartness remained even after cooking, and that flavor dominated the sauce.
9. Bella Terra Organic Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($5 to $6)
Grown in the San Marzano region, but not certified, and packed in purée with basil.
Something was off with these tomatoes. “A flavor that should not exist in nature,” Alexa said.
10. Whole Foods 365 Whole Peeled Tomatoes (About $1.30)
Grown in California and packed in juice, these canned tomatoes included calcium chloride, citric acid and salt.
Flat, bland and poorly peeled, these were “a cardboard cutout of a tomato,” Michael said.
11. Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($3 to $5.70)
Packed in juice, these organic California tomatoes include sea salt, calcium chloride and citric acid.
The peels were problematic in this canned tomato, and tasters found the fruits to be sour and overly acidic.
12. Contadina Whole Roma Tomatoes With Basil (About $3.30)
Ingredients include California tomatoes packed in juice, sea salt, calcium chloride, citric acid, sugar, basil and natural flavors.
The added seasonings, mostly oregano, overpowered the taste of these cloying Roma tomatoes. “Not good,” Julia said.
If you cannot find the cans listed here, enjoy what you have on hand.
“Every region is going to have their own type of tomato,” Mr. Sullivan said. “If somebody loves a certain brand that is specific to their region, then keep using it.”
“This is more of a general overview of all the main brands that are available regionally.”
Now may not be the time to dream of a perfect canned tomato, but self-quarantine will end, and when it does, you might want to bring along this list.