So many of our recipes start with a can of tomatoes.

By Lynn Andriani
July 25, 2019
Bryan Gardner

Take a look in the cupboards in our test kitchen and you'll find plenty of cans of tomatoes. Sure, the food editors will agree with you that nothing beats a fresh, raw summer tomato on a BLT, in a salad or alongside some mozzarella and basil. But they'll also tell you that if you're making a dish that involves cooked tomatoes, you're almost always better off using the canned version.

Why aren't canned tomatoes inferior to fresh? It's a matter of gardening. Most varieties you find in cans are plum tomatoes, which are meaty and have less juice and fewer seeds than "vine tomatoes," so they hold up well to canning. Plus, they're picked and processed when they're at their peak-so you don't have to worry about getting mealy or unripe fruits (yes, tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable!).

For soups, stews, and sauces, it's hard to beat canned tomatoes. Here are the basics.

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Whole, Diced, or Crushed?

Whether or not you splurge on San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, whole peeled tomatoes are a versatile workhorse, they are what our test kitchen stocks up on. Muir Glen is a favorite brand because their tomatoes have a fresh-from-the-vine tomato taste. Diced tomatoes can be unevenly cut, but as long as that doesn't bother you, they're a reliable player in chili. Most diced tomatoes have calcium chloride added to ensure they maintain their firm texture after hours of simmering, so if you want pieces of tomato to show in a soup or stew, used diced. If you want the tomatoes to breakdown, use whole peeled. When pressed for time, go for crushed tomatoes; They reduce down in sauces more quickly than whole or diced tomatoes but still retain a nice, velvety texture (some are mixed with a small amount of tomato puree, which helps smooth the tomatoes into a consistency similar to jarred applesauce).

How Long Will They Last in the Pantry?

The expiration date you'll see on a can of tomatoes refers more to peak flavor than freshness; generally speaking, tomatoes are good a year past the date stamped on the can. That said, prolonged exposure to the aluminum can cause the tomatoes to take on a tinny taste, as the acid from the tomatoes interacts with the inner lining of the can.

Can You Save Leftovers?

Transfer any tomatoes you haven't used from the opened can to an airtight glass or plastic storage container, and they'll keep refrigerated for about a week. You can freeze them, too, and although once you thaw them you may find the texture becomes a little softer, they're still great for cooking.

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