Buying canned tomatoes

Frankreference36 Comments

Update: The top rated brand in this post, Cento, no longer sells DOP San Marzanos. But the information about identifying good quality tomatoes is as relevant as ever. And I’m happy to recommend the other brands mentioned in this post.

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’. That I don’t have an explanation for, but just know that you’ll 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, with one exception—see PS below—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!) [NB: Unfortunately, it would seem that this product line has been discontinued and replaced by a Cento Certified San Marzano line, which are grown close to the area but not within the DOP perimeter; they’re not bad and less expensive, but not the real deal.] Also quite good are the brands called “Rosa” and “La Valle” which both sell imported San Marzano peeled tomatoes—buy the ones that are ‘DOP’ certified if you can find them. 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, almost all 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.)

Update:: If you’re willing to pay a fairly hefty premium and the shipping, you can order imported Italian tomatoes from packed as they are in Italy in tomato juice, not the purée.

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.

Post Post scriptum

I’ve recently (2019) discovered a US brand of canned tomatoes that I can recommend as heartily as imported Italian: it’s called First Field, and they’re excellent New Jersey tomatoes. You can buy them in Whole Foods, but unfortunately the supply seems to be limited, so you may or may not find them on the shelves on any given day. Stick to the BPA-free canned tomatoes. The passata for whatever reasons, isn’t quite as good. And, as I’ve written before, there’s no reason to buy commercial marinara sauce.

36 Comments on “Buying canned tomatoes”

  1. Just read your post on buying tomatoes in the US. I have been having a lot of problems with that lately, so I welcome your suggestions. I was glad to see your comment about Muir Glen tomatoes. They are indeed hard as rocks, but that’s not their only problem. I have found rotten pieces of tomato in many cans, and once I opened a can and there were no tomatoes at all — just the juice. I’d say they have a quality control issue as well as a “hard tomato” issue. Looking forward to trying your suggestions!

  2. What is it about the cans of tomatoes from Italy, that they don’t open properly with a can opener? Sections are missed, and I end up prying the lid, a dangerous procedure.

    1. I wanted to let everyone know that the New York Times did a piece on March 23, 2020 about the best (in their opinion) canned tomatoes. Check it out. There are some surprises!

  3. Although I do use canned tomatoes from time to time I have not found any canned tomato that comes even remotely close in quality to fresh Jersey tomatoes, which are widely regarded to be the world’s finest tasting tomatoes. From mid August through mid-september you can buy fresh Jersey plum tomatoes by the bushel. We usually process about 400 pounds of fresh Jersey plum tomatoes (of the San Marzano variety, which has very few seeds) and preserve them in jars for use during the winter.

    1. Thanks for the links to this important information about faux San Marzanos. As I pointed out in the blog post, you do need to be careful about tomatoes labeled “San Marzano” since much of the production is actually US grown. There is even a confusingly labeled “San Marzano brand” which produces a very mediocre product, imho.

      As for Cento brand, it is important to look for the right product line, as they have several and not all are by any means equally good. The DOP Certified San Marzano line (pictured above) is the real thing. Other Cento brand imported tomatoes included “certified” San Marzano varietals grown in the Agro Sarnese but not within the limits of the DOP area, so they don’t bear the Conzorzio label. (The “certification” is apparently Cento’s own.) Actually not bad as a second, less expensive choice, but not quite the ‘real deal’.

      But now that you mention it, I haven’t actually seen the Cento DOP tomatoes in quite a long time. I did a little Googling around and it seems they may no longer be marketed, which would be too bad. My local supermarkets carry La Valle (mentioned) and a newcomer to these parts Rega, which I haven’t yet tried. Seems like it may be time for an update to this post…

      1. Thanks for the additional info, Frank. I just can’t believe how complicated this whole “tomato” industry has become. Such deception. But, why not. Deception is everywhere—especially when it comes to the food source. Very frustrating.

  4. I have no idea if you can find the CIRIO or MUTTI brands in the US (I live in Paris and they are relatively easy to find here), but if you can, they are excellent.

    1. Thanks for your recommendations, Glenn. I’ve seen Cirio in some stores. Multi is a rarity but, I agree, worth seeking out.

      1. Hello Frank, I just discovered your site from Laura @ Hip Pressure Cooking (Bollito Misto post). Here in Montreal, Cirio and Mutti are very available. You would recommend these brands?

  5. I am so glad I found this post…great information and will go a long with with our Italian cooking, thanks so much!

  6. Frank,I heartily endorse your recommendation of Cento’s organic San Marzano tomatoes… ma ahime’… il prezzo!! One thing is noteworthy about imported Italian tomatoes; they’re much lower in sodium and the domestic brands.

    Your website is a real find, count me among your biggest fans.

  7. Hello and thank you for this interesting post.

    I’m Italian, and based in Italy. It goes without saying that I love our native tomatoes.
    To be sure, none beat my dad’s organic, sun-ripened, fresh & tasty tomatoes, and I can’t wait to eat them again.

    I’d like to share with you enthusiasts of this produce that I only recently discovered the delicious san marzano variety grown in Sardinia – that’s my husband native region (we live in Trentino, in the north-east): they’re very good and we usually buy lots at the farmers’ market when we are in Sardinia in the summer.

    Here in Trentino, where we live, we are happy for we have found the canned tomatoes of the CASAR company, that is based in Sardinia.
    They are a bit more expensive than most, but definitely worth the price.

    I meant to check if the company exports, too, but it seems the website is down at the moment. Anyhow, you may want to give them a… bite!

    Cheers and thanks again for your interesting article and comments – I didn’t know about this difference in taste and products.

    Annalisa / Su Trigu e Sa Cocciua Niedda

  8. La Valle *does* have a D.O.P. now. Have you tried it, Frank? I haven’t had access to the Cento brand, and I wonder how the La Valle D.O.P compares in your opinion.

  9. 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. 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.

  10. 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).


  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!!

  14. 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.)

  15. 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. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 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.


  18. 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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