Buying Canned Tomatoes

Buying canned tomatoes

In reference by Frank Fariello20 Comments

Here’s a special note for readers in the US, where buying canned tomatoes can be tricky thing. When I first moved back from Italy, I ran into all sorts of trouble trying to find a brand of canned tomatoes that ‘behaved’ properly. The main problem being that, for some reason I could not fathom, no matter how much I cooked the canned tomatoes, they never seemed to ‘melt’ as they should into a sauce. My Italian friends all had the same problem and didn’t understand why American tomatoes were so different. I then found out that Americans apparently prefer their canned tomatoes that way, so manufacturers actually add a chemical called calcium chloride to canned tomatoes to prevent them from melting! Of course, when you are using canned tomatoes to make a sauce, firmness (especially artificially induced firmness) is not a positive quality.

The other problem is that canned tomatoes made in the US often have an ‘off’ taste, which I would describe as sort of ‘stewy’. So you need to pick and choose carefully if you want your tomato sauces and other tomato-based dishes to taste as they should.

After much trial and error, I now stick to certain brands of imported Italian canned tomatoes. The best brand I have found here in the US so far is Cento Organic DOP Certified San Marzano tomatoes. As you might know, San Marzano tomatoes, grown in a defined area close to Naples, are considered the finest in Italy, if not the world, particularly for making sauces. (Never mind that the little red farmhouse on the label looks like it belongs in Pennsylvania!) Also quite good are the brands called “Rosa” and “La Valle” which both sell imported San Marzano peeled tomatoes, though neither is ‘DOP’ ceritified. Bionaturae‘s Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes from Tuscany are also quite acceptable.

But even buying imported Italian canned tomatoes is not a panacea. For reasons apparently having to do with US tariffs, Italian canned tomatoes imported into the US come packed in purée rather than simple juice as they are in Italy, so what you get is rather too thick to cook with and needs to be diluted with a bit of water when cooking. Their taste is, unfortunately, not quite as pure as it should be because of the purée, but it is better than having chunks of raw canned tomato in your sauce! (I realize that some people actually like chunky tomato sauce, but that is not what you want in Italian cooking.) Here is where the Cento brand stands out, because its flavor is just as sweet and ‘clean’ as I remember the pelati in Italy being.

If you either can’t find or don’t want to spend extra on imported tomatoes—the good ones are not cheap—look either for canned tomatoes without calcium chloride added, just salt, basil and juice, usually called “Italian style“. Or look for crushed tomatoes, which gets around the ‘melting’ issue. Among the US brands, “Redpack” crushed tomatoes, which is the kind that Angelina used—are pretty good, especially for robust sauces like ragù. I recently tried some US made “Colavita” crushed tomatoes and found them not bad. And be careful about tomatoes marked as “San Marzano”: some sold here in the US are actually not from Italy at all but are simply the San Marzano varietal of tomato grown here. Somehow, they don’t taste the same.

One brand that I unfortunately would not recommend, at least for Italian dishes, is Glen Muir. I had high hopes for their easy-to-find line of organic products but, alas, notwithstanding Cook Illustrated’s endorsement, the sample I tried suffered from that funny ‘stewy’ taste. I have heard good things about their roasted tomatoes, but they are not really appropriate for everyday Italian cooking.

Post scriptum

Some readers have wrote in with some of their favorite brands: a ‘Foodbuzz’ friend from Italy recommends DOP San Marzano tomatoes from Gerardo di Nola, the renowned pasta-maker. I have not seen them myself here in the US, but a quick internet search shows that there is at least one store in New York that sells them (not sure they ship). Some readers from the US recommend the “Nina” and “Pastene” brands, both imported San Marzano from Italy. (“Nina” brand is available from Costco. I have not seen Pastene where I live, but it is available from various purveyors online.

Frank FarielloBuying canned tomatoes

Comments

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  6. Cookin Canuck

    This is a great post! I buy the Cento brand whenever I’m at the specialty store and they really do taste better. If only they were easier to find (and a tad less expensive).

    1. Frank Fariello

      Why, thank you Dara!

      Yes, it’s true, the price of a good can of tomatoes is really a downer. Something to do with tariffs, I understand, as well as shipment costs, of course.

  7. Vince from Scordo.com

    Our family cans local, NJ, plum and roma tomatoes every year (the only “additives” are basil). Sure, the tomato variety is not San Marzano but the end product is of a very high quality (not to mention freshness and price point/value).

    Vince

  8. Anonymous

    If you want true canned “Certified DOP San Marzano Tomatoes” without all the puree then you have to purchase the Coluccio brand. They are located in Brooklyn NY.

  9. Christine H.

    And now I read that I'm supposed to avoid canned tomatoes all together because of the BPA lining in the cans, which purportedly leeches into the food. They say the Pomi tomatoes in the box are O.K. I've never tried them.

  10. dianna

    Hey there,

    I realize this is an older post, but I am in the midst of trying to find the “perfect” canned tomato for Italian sauces so I appreciate this info. I started yesterday by simply buying what was available at the local specialty market. It was the GIA RUSSA brand – I was really VERY disappointment. The tomatoes were deflated, reduced to mere threads, and most of the can was filled with tomato puree that had a heavy “stewy” taste, like tomato paste. I am going to try Cento and Pastene next. Thanks!!

  11. Kathleen

    Canning is hot work in August (even with central a/c), but so worth it now that the weather has turned chilly.

    (I also grow Tuscan cavolo nero in the winter garden – nearly impossible to buy here. This may be a ribollita weekend.)

  12. Frank

    Thanks for all the kind comments! And thanks to those who wrote in with their tips and suggestions on finding good quality canned tomatoes.

    And Kathleen: Very impressed that you can your own–nothing can compare, of course! I used to do that back in Rome, where we had a whole hillside to plant vegetables. Just a memory now, however… :(

    1. Chris Mersey

      I don’t know if you have Carmelina on the East Coast. Comes in normal and organic, and are imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes distributed out of California. Love them – works every time, great flavor and low acidity.

  13. pegasuslegend

    Pastene is at BJ wholes sale. Also, Angela Maria, California grown major resturants in Miami use them finally found them, they are packed with fresh very green basil….delicious and the best I have used. Also Scaffilini Tomatoes…you can order from Don Pepino.Com…check that out again New Jersy the best acid rain grown tomatoes there are lol .thanks for the post enjoyed this as usual.

  14. Tasty Trix

    This is funny – just yesterday I bought the organic Cento tomatoes, and I thought – I bet Frank would approve of these!

  15. Kathleen

    That is really interesting information. I always wondered why this would be the case.

    I grow my own tomatoes from Franchi Sementi seeds (Franchi being a major Italian seed company – I get them by mail order from growitalian.com). San Marzano varieties (commonly called “Roma” in the US) make superior canned tomatoes.

    I can the harvest in mason jars (and I also dry some of the tomatoes, too). They are just tomatoes, nothing else added. Salt gets added on the cooking side, not the canning side, in my kitchen. Noticeably superior to American canned tomatoes, they are very much on a par with Italian imports.

    If it's a good year for eggplant, I'll also put up some caponata.

    Saluti!

  16. Joy

    VERY interesting. Calcium chloride is added to tinned tomatoes here in Australia too. I always search out Italian imports (although I am usually proud to buy Australian made)as they are so much tastier – and I hadn't realised re the melt factor before, but it is so!

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