When it comes to tomatoes, I can't hold back. I love them and I taste nearly every one I can find (at least every promising one), be they fresh or canned. It's always a-kid-on-Christmas-morning moment. But most tomato anticipation ends up like those Christmases of long ago when your aunt wrapped the white cotton underwear in the Lego box.
The goal of this canned tomato tasting is to save you from that sort of disappointment, at least in the kitchen.
The Standard: The canned tomato we're looking for is rich with layer upon layer of come-hither tastes, and has a delicious teetering between sweet and acid. Why bother with exceptional? Because the outstanding tomato is packed with umami, that fascinating substance that makes that tomato, and everything it touches, sing. What great tomatoes can do for recipes borders on the remarkable.
Back in 2007, we (managing producer Sally Swift and myself) set out to see if this tomato existed in a can. We were finishing our book, The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper. It turned out that the canned tomato lived!
To find out if it still exists, I gathered some of the canned tomatoes most readily available in supermarkets. Whole canned tomatoes are my preference because there's less chance that tomato paste (not the best-tasting), has been added for thickening, as is sometimes done in purees.
The Tomatoes in Order of Preference
These were tasted straight from the can. A small amount of salt was added to the Italian imports, which are often unsalted. Most American canned tomatoes are salted.
1. Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes (The label states there is no BPA, or Bisphenol A, in its can lining.) This is the stand out. None of the other brands came close. A tomato you can eat straight from the can, it's big and rich tasting with an ideal balance of acid and sweet.
2. Red Gold Whole Peeled Tomatoes Not deep and rich enough to be a winner but the balance between sweet, tart and savory is OK. This used to be a first choice for me before Muir Glen came along.
3. Pomi Chopped Tomatoes Packaged in a box, Pomi comes from the Parma area of Northern Italy and is only sold chopped or pureed. The tomato flavor is thin, not rich and full, but well balanced. Use Pomi where you want light tomato character.
4. Hunt's Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes Sweetness is the first taste you get, followed by slightly off-kilter tomato flavors. Not bad, just not all that exceptional. Their balance is off.
5. Cento San Marzano Certified Peeled Tomatoes Imported from Southern Italy and certified as true San Marzano tomatoes. These are too weak-kneed and bland to have much appeal. The tomato flavor has an unpleasant acid edge. What is it with San Marzano Tomatoes? Their PR shines; every chef recommends them, but I wonder how many have actually tasted them next to American tomatoes. For me, after 30-some years of eating them on both sides of the Atlantic, I have yet to be wowed by more than a few brands (most, not easily found here). DOP San Marzano fruit, DOP (protected designation of origin) is the designation that appears on the can insuring that the tomatoes inside were grown in the original Sarnese Nocerino area near Naples where supposedly the true San Marzano began.
6. Whole Foods 365 Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes Where did these tomatoes come from? There's not much in the way of redeeming flavors. They are too sweet without enough tomato richness and acid to save the day. You expect a lot more from this brand.
[Disclosure: This tomato taste test was conducted in October 2012, at a time when The Splendid Table had no business relationship with any canned tomato company. In July 2014, we were thrilled to welcome Muir Glen as an underwriter of our program. While this relationship now prevents us from including them in current taste tests, you can rest assured that we will continue our hunt for great-tasting tomatoes.]