A lot of recipes rely on canned tomatoes for flavor, acidity, richness, liquid, and so much more. Canned tomatoes are definitely a pantry staple we can't live without, especially when it's the middle of winter and there aren't any good fresh tomatoes to be found.
The canned tomato aisle at the grocery store is pretty impressive, with so many varieties and brands competing for your attention. How is each kind made, and how is it best used?
The Importance of Reading Labels
Canned tomatoes are literally just tomatoes sealed in a can, right? It's more complicated than you think. While some canned tomatoes just contain tomatoes, many have hidden ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup, salt, or calcium chloride — things you might be trying to avoid. It pays to read the label to see exactly what's inside. If there's something listed on there that you don't like, try looking at another brand instead.
Processing Is the Main Difference
The differences in the varieties of canned tomatoes come down to how they're processed. Processing always starts by removing the skins of the tomatoes, but after that, how they're broken down and what they're sealed in the can with may vary by variety and brand. The labeling of varieties isn't totally consistent across brands, but here are the ones you'll most likely see at the store, from least to most processed.
1. Whole peeled tomatoes
If you only stock one kind of canned tomato in your pantry, I would recommend stocking whole peeled tomatoes, as they're the most versatile. Whole peeled tomatoes are just that — fresh whole tomatoes packed in tomato juice, sometimes with a basil leaf thrown in for flavor.
You can pretty much turn whole tomatoes into almost any other canned tomato product: Tear them into large chunks by hand, chop them up with a knife to make diced tomatoes, or buzz them in a food processor or blender to make tomato purée or sauce.
Whole peeled tomatoes also break down beautifully when cooked, since intact tomatoes have less surface area exposed to chemicals that are sometimes added to the can to keep them from breaking down too much.
2. Diced tomatoes
Next up are diced tomatoes, which are fresh tomatoes that have been chopped up into small pieces and then canned. Diced tomatoes are usually packed with tomato juice, citric acid, and calcium chloride. The calcium chloride helps diced tomatoes retain their shape, making them good for dishes where you still want distinct chunks of tomatoes after cooking. If you want the tomatoes to really break down in a sauce, though, skip diced tomatoes.
Diced tomatoes can sometimes have added salt or seasonings, or they can also be fire-roasted before canning for an additional layer of smoky flavor.
3. Stewed tomatoes
Now we move on to tomato products that usually undergo some cooking before the canning process. Stewed tomatoes are tomatoes that have been cut up and cooked, usually with seasonings, like salt, sugar, or spices, before they're packed into cans. You should read the labels carefully here to see exactly what you're getting, as ingredients vary from brand to brand. Also know that stewed tomatoes should not be used in recipes calling for plain tomato products, as the added seasonings will affect the flavor of the dish.
4. Crushed tomatoes in pureé
Crushed tomatoes have a texture between diced tomatoes and smooth tomato sauce. It's usually a mix of fresh crushed tomatoes and tomato purée or paste, and it's generally pourable, but has a thicker consistency with small chunks of tomatoes. Crushed tomatoes still retain a fairly bright flavor and are great for pasta sauces and smoother soups.
5. Tomato pureé
Depending on the brand, tomato purée can also be known as ground tomatoes. It has a texture somewhere between tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, so it's even smoother than crushed tomatoes, but still has a thick viscosity. It generally can be used interchangeably with crushed tomatoes.
6. Tomato sauce
Tomato sauce generally comes in smaller cans, usually eight ounces, and it has a very smooth, pourable texture from being slow-cooked and blended. Tomato sauce can also be made by combining water with tomato paste. Don't confuse tomato sauce with ready-to-use pasta sauces, which are generally seasoned very heavily and may be thicker and not as smooth. That being said, though, read the labels of tomato sauce very carefully, as some may have added spices, like garlic or onion powder.
7. Tomato paste
Tomato paste comes in small cans, usually six ounces each, and they are the most cooked down of all the canned tomato products. It usually contains less than a fifth of the water content that fresh tomatoes start out with, and has a concentrated flavor and much darker color.
Tomato paste is used as a foundation ingredient in dishes like soups, stews, and braises, and although you might not want or notice a fresh tomato flavor in these dishes, the tomato paste adds savory aspects and has great thickening power.
Tomato paste is also available in tube form, which is great since you usually only need small amounts. Should you find yourself with leftover canned tomato paste, though, our favorite trick is to freeze tablespoons of it for future use!
(Image credits: Christine Gallary)