If you're using cooking anything with tomatoes in it, you might be surprised to learn that canned tomatoes are better than fresh tomatoes at least 92 percent of the time. The remaining 8 percent of the time is the month of August, when fresh tomatoes are at their peak of ripeness and flavor. And even then, unless you're planning to eat them raw, you've still got to peel them.
Either way, that leaves 11 months out of the year when canned tomatoes are actually better than fresh. But making sense of all the different styles of canned tomatoes—including whole, diced, crushed, puréed and sauce—can be confusing. Here's a comprehensive guide to each type of canned tomato.
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Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Whole peeled tomatoes are the least processed form of canned tomatoes. They've undergone minimal heating, usually just the quick burst of steam necessary to remove the skins. Other than that, these are whole tomatoes, usually Roma, San Marzano, or American-grown "San Marzano-style" cultivars, packed in either tomato juice or purée.
Most folks find that the ones packed in juice offer a fresher, fruitier flavor. If you're making marinara sauce, which benefits from a fresh, clean tomato flavor, this is the product to start with. You can either purée the tomatoes in a blender or food processor or simply break them up with a wooden spoon while they're simmering.
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Diced tomatoes have been through more processing—they're basically whole peeled cut into medium chunks. These are still uncooked tomatoes (so there will be seeds), and they are ideally suited for soups, chunky sauces, chilis, and stews.
Note that like whole peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes will usually contain calcium chloride, which helps them stay firm. However, because they're diced, thus exposing more surface area, diced tomatoes absorb more calcium chloride than whole tomatoes, which means they don't break down as well when simmered. In other words, use these when you want the dice to keep their shape.
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Crushed tomatoes are whole peeled tomatoes that have been ground into a coarse consistency–still uncooked, still including seeds—but with no further processing involved. And since they don't need to hold their shape, they are free of calcium chloride. This is a good product to have on hand for making pasta sauce.
If you want a smoother consistency you can purée it further, but if you leave it the way it is, the coarse pieces will break down as you simmer it. If you're particularly keen on straining out the seeds, you can do so using a metal sieve or something similar, although the seeds don't seem to affect the flavor in any appreciable way.
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Tomato purée is the first canned tomato product on our list that has been cooked. It has also been strained, which means it's the first product on our list that is free of seeds. Interestingly enough, tomato purée is the starting point for making tomato paste, which is done by simmering it until as much as 80 percent of the water content is removed.
The inevitable corollary to this fact is that some brands of tomato purée are in fact tomato paste which has been reconstituted by adding water back to it. This added water has a tendency to separate back out of the purée when you heat it. Since you won't know from the can whether your tomato purée is reconstituted, this might not be your first choice of canned tomato product.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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Tomato sauce is the first product on our list to which any sort of seasoning has been added, usually salt and sugar, but sometimes herbs and garlic might be added as well. As with purée, tomato sauce is cooked and strained, and is even thinner than purée. Like purée, it might also be made by reconstituting tomato paste.
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Stewed tomatoes are whole tomatoes that have been cooked and seasoned with salt, sugar, and other ingredients such as celery, bell peppers, onions, herbs, and spices. Cooks who prefer a greater degree of control over how much and what kinds of seasonings go into their sauce may want to make this from scratch, but the canned product can be a real time-saver that you can purée or use as-is, depending on your preference. If you find a brand you like, canned stewed tomatoes are a good thing to keep in your pantry for a busy day.
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Tomato paste is, as mentioned above, simply tomato paste that's had up to 80 percent of its water removed. It's a handy thing to have around to add flavor and thickness to sauces and stews. But you can also, in a pinch, use tomato paste to make tomato sauce simply by adding water and seasonings. Will it be the best tomato sauce you ever had? Maybe not. But in a time crunch, it's certainly better than nothing.
Here's a helpful tip: If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of tomato paste, what are you supposed to do with the rest of the can you just opened? Spoon it out in tablespoons onto a piece of parchment and freeze them, then store the frozen lumps in a plastic bag until another recipe calls for it.