A Basic Guide to Canned Tomato Products
I don't know about you, but for me, some of my happiest moments every year are spent eating perfect tomatoes right off the vine. In a Caprese salad, in a BLT, or simply making a mess eating a whole one I just picked… with some really good salt! Alas, perfect summer tomatoes are a fleeting joy for most of us who have limited growing seasons. But so much of the cooking I love involves tomatoes, even in the winter. What's a cook to do?
There is a whole world of "canned" tomato products out there that may not be a glorious August heirloom, but that can still bring that delicious tomato zing to any number of dishes. But that whole world can be a bit intimidating, so let's take a look at what's out there, and what these different products bring to the party.
Whole, Peeled Tomatoes
These are probably my favorites among canned tomato options. Whole peeled tomatoes are minimally processed and don't require a lot of additives to maintain firmness. When shopping, seek out canned tomatoes with no added seasonings except salt; this leaves the flavoring up to you.
A quick spin in the food processor gives you a very fresh tasting sauce — smooth or chunky. An almost as quick squeeze through your fingers gives you a very rough, rustic sauce. I will also admit that, when pressed for time, I use scissors to cut them up, right in the can! And a small tip: These canned whole tomatoes are a bit like water balloons. They will spray juice if you aren't careful; my kitchen, my face, and my clothes will attest to that.
Moving further along on the "processing" scale, canned diced tomatoes are tomatoes that are simply cut into small pieces. Honestly, when you come across a recipe that calls for this variety of canned tomato, I would suggest that it's almost as easy to dice canned whole tomatoes. Doing so allows you to avoid the additives used to keep the diced tomato pieces firm and intact. However, these tomato chunks are often a little too firm for my taste, and will take a bit of time to soften in cooking. For this reason, these are my least favorites in the canned tomato world.
Crushed tomatoes are an even more processed option. However, these actually have fewer additives than diced. I would again suggest that the convenience is minimal, but if the time savings appeals to you — go with crushed, not diced. I still maintain that mincing whole tomatoes will give you better flavor and texture.
Considering what I've just said about diced and crushed, this may come as a surprise, but I am a big fan of canned sauce. Not as a fully fledged sauce, mind you — but as an ingredient. It is generally smooth, and thick, and full of flavor. The smooth, thick sauce can be a great benefit when you want a bit of viscosity added to whatever you're cooking. Look for options with nothing in them but a bit of salt. (You may find it hard to locate a sauce without basil, but that will not adversely affect whatever you're making.)
This is essentially strained sauce that has been cooked down a bit. It is thicker than canned tomato sauce, but there's not enough of a difference in the two products to justify having yet another can in the pantry. Not to me, at least.
This is an ingredient that inspires love and hate in almost equal measure. And I believe that is simply because people don't realize or recognize what tomato paste is, and what it brings to the table. Tomato Paste is a very concentrated sauce, cooked down into a thick paste. The long cooking and reducing creates a very strong but also very "cooked" tomato taste. So it's perfect when you want a long-simmered flavor. However, it can be jarring when you're looking for a brighter, fresher flavor.
Related: How to Make Tomato Paste
If you know which taste you're after, tomato paste can be the greatest "shortcut" in your kitchen. Two hints: Always brown your paste a bit before you stir it into the rest of what you're cooking. That browning makes the flavor deeper, and more rounded. And I am a big fan of buying tomato paste in tubes, like toothpaste. That way, you can use what you need, and you don't have multiple tiny open cans going bad in your fridge. Yes, the tubes are a bit more expensive, but not much when you consider all of the half-cans you've thrown out over the years.
I know this may seem an odd choice for this list, but I often find that I reach for a bit of tomato juice when a pot of something that contains tomatoes (such as chili) is a bit too thick or dry. Yes, I could use water or stock, but beefing up the tomato flavor with juice is the way I like to go. Try to find a juice without too much salt; you can always add more.
Sun Dried Tomatoes
Like plenty of others, I am not a huge fan of sundried tomatoes. I admit, that may be because I lived through the 70s and 80s, when sun dried tomatoes were disturbingly ubiquitous… appearing on every menu in dishes from hors d'oeuvres all the way to desserts. I'm a bit more forgiving of them these days because there are more "good" examples out there (and fewer bad ones). Oil-packed sun dried tomatoes have the best texture, bypassing the tough leathery feel of the dry-packed ones. The flavor is VERY concentrated, and should be used sparingly. They taste a bit cooked, but remain brighter than the darker cooked taste of tomato paste.
This is just a quick overview of the most common canned tomato products. My basic advice, in summary, is: whole peeled tomatoes are the best; crushed are okay; sauce can be good; tomato paste is great if you want long-cooked, concentrated flavor; consider juice when a pot of something needs liquid; be sparing in your use of sun dried tomatoes; look for cans with only tomatoes and salt if you can find them; and enjoy these products while awaiting the return of perfect summer tomatoes!