They're a pantry essential.
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Credit: Marcus Nilsson

Canned tomatoes are a favorite pantry staple. They are essential ingredient for making comfort food favorites like marinara sauce, chili, lasagna, shakshuka, and pizza. Recipes sometimes call for whole tomatoes while others for crushed or diced tomatoes, tomato paste, or some combination of a few different iterations. That fact begs the question: Which products do you really need to keep on hand? Here, we'll walk you through all the different canned tomato products you can find on grocery store shelves, explain the best versions available of each, and outline which ones should you be shopping for.

Why Use Canned Tomatoes?

While fresh vegetables usually trump canned varieties, canned tomatoes are often a better choice than fresh. Fresh tomatoes have a short season whereas canned tomatoes are consistent year round. And, according to Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, "Canned tomatoes are rich in a symphony of nutrients linked with health, including vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium, and lycopene—the antioxidant compound that gives tomatoes their bright red color. In fact, when tomatoes are cooked, as they are in processed tomatoes, the lycopene is more bioavailable to your body as it breaks down the cells of the tomato and allows lycopene to be released more readily." Lycopene is important explains Palmer because it has been linked with health benefits, such as reduced risks of prostate cancer and heart disease, as well as reduced inflammation and oxidative stress.

The Most Common Types of Canned Tomatoes

Whole Tomatoes

If you had to choose just one canned tomato product to keep in your cupboards, know that whole tomatoes are the most versatile. You'll find a variety of canned whole tomatoes from the U.S. and Italy readily available in grocery stores. San Marzano is the name most often bandied about, but buyer beware: Many products may have the name San Marzano but are not the official Pomodoro S. Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino that is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO or DOP in Italian) product. To find the real deal, you'll have to make sure it has an official red and yellow DOP label.

What makes San Marzano tomatoes so prized? The long shaped tomatoes have a distinctive bittersweet flavor and low acidity, few seeds, and a meaty texture because they have only two seed pockets. They are grown in volcanic soil of the Sarno Valley that is high in potassium and phosphorus. San Marzano tomatoes must be harvested seven, eight times or more only by hand from July to September, and after harvest the tomatoes are peeled and processed for 13 minutes. Canned San Marzano tomatoes are the officially recommended product for making certified Vera Pizza Napoletana. Italian brands that offer DOP San Marzano tomatoes include La Valle and Mutti. If you're looking for domestic organic tomatoes, the Bianco Di Napoli brand is highly rated. For conventionally grown domestic tomatoes, award-winning Red Pack brand (also sold as Red Gold in some parts of the country) ranks.

Diced Tomatoes

While whole tomatoes can easily be crushed and dissolve into sauce when cooked, diced tomatoes are designed to hold their shape. Palmer recommends using them in soups, stews, curries, casseroles, salsa, all dishes were where you want chunky texture. Calcium chloride is typically used to ensure firm texture. Diced tomatoes are available from both Italian and American brands. Some domestic brands including Ro-tel, Muir Glen and Whole Foods 365 Organic also offer fire roasted diced tomatoes which adds another layer of flavor for soups, chili and more. Even more recent innovations include diced tomatoes with roasted garlic or fresh basil from TomatoLove. Other brands offer diced tomatoes with a variety of different chiles.

Crushed Tomatoes

Think of crushed tomatoes as a more convenient version of whole tomatoes for sauces and soups. Usually a better choice than canned tomato sauce, they may include both tomato purée and crushed tomatoes, citric acid, and calcium chloride and are strained so you won't find seeds. Crushed tomatoes are best in recipes that are cooked for a shorter amount of time, as opposed to whole tomatoes which even when crushed by hand will take longer to break down into sauce when cooked. Muir Glen also offers fire roasted crushed tomatoes.

Tomato Paste

A concentrated paste of tomatoes, tomato paste adds sweetness and intensity and depth of flavor that's hard to achieve using fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes. Very little tomato paste is generally needed to boost flavor of tomatoes and is often used in recipes that also include whole or crushed tomatoes. Tomato paste can be purchased in cans but also in tubes. Recent innovations include roasted garlic and sweet basil flavored tomato pastes from Tuttorosso.

Is It Best to Buy Cans, Jars or Boxes?

Cans are convenient and can be relatively inexpensive. Jars or bottles of tomatoes do have their advantages, though. Jovial uses glass for all their imported Italian tomatoes, which makes it easy to store leftovers if not using a full container.

Boxes have also become popular recently and are offered by brands like Pomi. The product is packaged without any additives commonly found in other canned tomatoes. If you find canned tomatoes to have a "tinny" flavor, these are a good option.

American or Italian?

It's a matter of personal preference, of course, and quality varies from brand to brand, but according to sources at Jovial, tomatoes from Italy are usually superior because of the weather and rich soil; still, this all depends on what part of Italy the tomatoes are from, how they're harvested, and picking the right tomatoes. Some are grown in ideal conditions in and around Tuscany, namely in rich soil, close to the ocean, where the weather is not too hot nor too cold. You may pay a premium, but their tomatoes are grown on small family farms that are aiming for tomatoes with flavor, not the uniform, unblemished tomatoes found in supermarkets.

According to Rosanna Sellitto, export manager for La Valle, a DOP San Marzano producer based in the south of Italy, the taste of Italian tomatoes also differs from American tomatoes because less citric acid is used to balance the flavor and the production process is more natural. She also points to the strength of the sun in the Mediterranean, which yields tomatoes that are sweeter along with the combination of climate, soil, and traditional methods of processing.

Specialty Canned Tomatoes

You may have to look for some of these special products, but they are well worth it. Canned cherry tomatoes bridge the divide between fresh and canned, offering the convenience of canned but the bright pop and form factor of fresh tomatoes. Mutti offers canned cherry tomatoes and Colavita offers canned cherry tomatoes with chili peppers. They work best in quick cooking recipes so their shape and texture is preserved.

Frustrated with lack of chilis in canned tomatoes? You're not alone. Colt Reichart, a fourth generation owner of family owned Red Gold Tomatoes says consumers are consistently disappointed with the amount of chilis in canned tomatoes which is why he recently helped to launch Red Gold Tomato Love brand of fiery hot diced tomatoes with green chilies, red chiles, 2x chiles and with red chilies and Huy Fong Foods "rooster" brand hot chili sauce.

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