Variety is the spice of the canned tomato aisle. That’s for sure. If you’ve found yourself cooking at home more often, you may have started to notice how many recipes call for the processed product. Learn how many types of canned tomatoes there are and their uses.
Let’s start with the basics. The most common types of canned tomatoes are whole peeled tomatoes, diced and petite diced tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and finally the famous San Marzano tomatoes. Besides San Marzanos, most canned tomatoes are made from plum tomatoes because their firm texture can stand up to processing and time in the can.
The great thing is that most processed tomato products taste pretty fresh because they are canned at the height of the tomato season. They’re picked when they’re perfectly ripe and then canned quickly to preserve the freshness — no transporting or time on a truck spent ripening further compared to what you find in the produce section.
Canned tomatoes are cooked
All canned tomatoes are technically cooked. After being picked and sorted and once the skins are removed, tomatoes are canned and sealed. Then they’re sterilized in a hot bath, which also cooks them.
So what can you cook with canned tomatoes? Pasta (of course) chili, pizza, soup, salsa, and many skillets, casserole, and risotto dishes. It’s an essential ingredient to stock for any home chef. After all, they’re affordable and convenient to buy while also packed with glutamates, a natural savory flavor-enhancing compound, adding a ton of flavor to dishes. They bring a little sweetness and acidity and also add color.
Whole peeled tomatoes
Whole tomatoes are peeled by steaming or treating them with lye and then canned with tomato juice. They might be packed with tomato puree instead, creating a more cooked vs. fresh flavor, and calcium chloride is typically added as a firming agent (but you can find cans without it). The advantage is that you can crush or chop the whole tomatoes down to the desired size. They are ideal for making marinara sauce or homemade tomato soup.
Diced tomatoes and petite diced
Diced and petite diced tomatoes go through the same process as whole peeled tomatoes, but before canning them in juice or puree, they’re — you guessed it — diced. Salt and citric acid are other common additives you might find on the label to help prevent tomatoes from getting mushy and brighten the flavor. Use them in dishes where you still want some chunky tomato texture. They even sell fire-roasted versions for an instant smokey taste, like this quick salsa!
Note: They will cook down and should break down when cooking with them, but if they don’t, there’s a chance the producer added too much calcium chloride (a firming agent meant to help retain their shape).
Stewed tomatoes are cooked before being canned and almost always combined with other seasonings like herbs or salt and sometimes sugar. They’re cut up into thick slices for bigger bites. So if you’re swapping in stewed tomatoes for a dish that only called for plain canned tomatoes, beware of the additional ingredients on the label and how those flavors might impact your meal (i.e., oversalting it).
Crushed tomatoes are great for making sauces and soups, but the term crushed is used loosely here. Some brands are chunkier, and some may be more like a puree. Ideally, you want a consistency right in between. Crushed tomatoes from the can still have a bright and sweet flavor, but if canned with puree instead of juice, they may have a more cooked tomato taste vs. fresh.
Tomato puree is not as smooth as a paste but is smoother than crushed tomatoes. While most tomatoes are canned as soon as possible, tomato puree requires a few extra steps once their skins are removed. The tomatoes are cooked down and reduced and then strained before going into the can to remove any seeds.
Because the tomatoes are cooked, they won’t bring as fresh a tomato flavor but are still an excellent choice for stews and sauces and other slow-cooker dishes. They work great as a quick pizza sauce to top on some dough, especially Neapolitan style.
Tomato sauce is smooth and pourable like puree (though with a more liquid viscosity), and you’ll typically find it in smaller cans. It’s excellent for blending into sauces and in slow-cooker recipes like chili. It’s different from canned pasta sauce in that pasta sauce contains added herbs and flavors like garlic and sugar.
Tomato paste is the most processed and cooked type of canned tomato. It’s more concentrated, rich in tomato flavor, thicker in texture, and darker in color (it can make a great thickener). It’s used in soups and stews as well. As a general note, you’ll need much less paste than tomato puree or sauce. How is it made? The fresh tomatoes are cooked and reduced, then strained to remove solids, and the remaining juice is reduced again.
This is a particular — and coveted — tomato variety that’s native to Italy. They have a sweet taste with a touch of tang, and many professional chefs swear they are the mecca of all tomatoes. While some farmers have cultivated San Marzano seeds in the US, only tomatoes grown in a specific region in Italy can carry the DOP certification from the Italian government. If they’re true San Marzanos from Italy, the label will read DOP certified.
According to the USDA, unopened canned tomatoes retain their best taste and quality for 18 months [source]. Thanks to high acidity, they will keep longer than other canned goods with less acid. Once they’re opened, you should eat or toss within three days.
Some cans of tomatoes contain BPA in the inner lining, but several brands have gone BPA free (Muir Glen is one of them). Additionally, don’t consume tomatoes from dented, leaking, or swollen cans. They could contain mold, or worse, bacteria from toxins that thrive if the canned products were sealed without enough oxygen. This can lead to a serious, potentially deadly condition called botulism.