I Tried Every Brand of Canned Tomatoes I Could Find — These Are the 3 I’ll Be Buying Again
Even during the middle of summer (aka tomato season), you still need a can or three of whole tomatoes in your pantry. So you can imagine that by the time winter comes around (and it is coming!), we’re definitely going to suggest you have some on hand. The chili! The stews! The homemade sauce! Etc.!
That just leaves one big question: Which brand is best?
Supermarket shelves are loaded with choices, from the preparation (diced, crushed, and stewed) to the variety of the tomato itself (roma, San Marzano, San Marzano-style). Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to know if the contents inside are as good as the pictures on the label: Open them up and give them a try. Or maybe there’s a second way: Read this detailed taste test.
How We Picked and Tested the Canned Tomatoes
I hit five supermarkets and picked up an array of brands that are sold in regions around the country. I focused on whole peeled tomatoes, because if you have a can of those, you can easily turn them into diced, crushed, or stewed tomatoes if you wanted. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that only the best tomatoes are canned whole. All except one were grown and processed domestically.
I asked my industrious middle school-aged neighbor to come over and set up a blind tasting for me, and then I invited a bunch of friends to come by and help me taste. Sampling the brands side by side was eye-opening. Sure, they all taste like tomatoes, but some were clearly deeper in tomato flavor than others. It’s like the difference between a ripe and unripe tomato. And textures ranged from mealy to way too firm.
Most brands add salt, and all had a little citric acid, which ensures the tomatoes reach the correct acidity level for safe canning. All but one (Cento, the Italian import) had calcium chloride added to help the tomatoes retain their shape. This is standard practice for diced tomatoes, but it seems it’s standard for whole tomatoes grown and processed in the States too.
In addition, all the domestic brands were packed in juice. These had a bright, fresh tomato flavor in comparison to the imported one packed in purée, which seemed much more rich and saucy — and perfect for tomato-forward, long-simmered dishes like Bolognese. For a light vegetable soup, the tomatoes in juice might be a better fit.
I also noticed some labels touted “steam-peeled.” What’s this all about? Turns out processors either peel tomatoes by giving them a dip in a lye bath (more efficient and cost-effective) or by steam-peeling (easier on the environment). Lye is used in the processing of many different foods, including olives, and apparently it poses no health issues for consumers. But it’s worth noting that organic brands have to use the steam method to keep their organic status.
Got it? Okay, onto the test! These are the canned tomato brands I will be buying again and confidently recommend for you!
1. Cento San Marzano Peeled Tomatoes
These had a rich and earthy tomato flavor with a natural sweetness. One taster swore that there had to be added sugar. Nope. And they were even packed with far less salt than the other brands (20 milligrams per serving versus 220 milligrams or more, with the exception of the unsalted tomatoes). They weren’t as bright as #2, perhaps because of the reduced salt and because they’re packed in purée, but these are the real winners. These are San Marzano-variety tomatoes, grown in the same area in Italy as certified San Marzanos, but these aren’t, actually, certified by the Cosorzio San Marzano.
Buy: Cento San Marzano Peeled Tomatoes, $3.48 for 28 ounces at Walmart
2. O Organics Whole Peeled Tomatoes
This was a very close second, although for some tasters it was number one. We all loved the bright, well-balanced, ripe, fresh tomato flavor. When we found out it was a Safeway store brand, we were floored. Keep in mind, however, this one had a whopping 220 milligrams of sodium per 1/2 cup serving — more than any other brand.
Find in stores: O Organics Whole Peeled Tomatoes, $2.79 for 28 ounces at Safeway
3. Simpson Imports San Marzano Tomatoes
These tomatoes, which seem to be everywhere, have a well-rounded flavor. What’s actually in the can? A San Marzano variety of tomato, which the company has trademarked as “San Merican” (read the teeny-tiny fine print), grown in the United States. Which means they are domestic tomatoes. While I do wish that was a little more transparent, you likely won’t notice the difference. Stock these in your pantry and you’ll be a-okay.
Buy: Simpson Imports San Marzano Tomatoes, $5.69 for 28 ounces at Walmart
Do you have a favorite brand of canned tomatoes? Tell us in the comments below!