Even during the middle of summer (aka tomato season), you still need a can or three of whole tomatoes in your pantry. You might not be making chili or stew this time of year, but a zoodle pasta situation and homemade pizza on the grill are still contenders.
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, since 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.
The Canned Tomato Taste Test
1. Cento (packed in purée), $5.99 for 28 ounces
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 lacked the brightness of #2, perhaps because of the reduced salt and because they're packed in purée. 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.
2. O Organics (packed in juice) $3.29 for 28 ounces
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.
3. Muir Glen (packed in juice), $3.49 for 28 ounces
Muir Glen consistently ranks at or near the top of tomato taste tests, and it definitely scored high with us for its ripe-tomato flavor. But it was a little one-note compared to our first and second picks. It might've snagged the number-two spot if it wasn't for the too-firm texture of the tomatoes. Some even had large pieces of their skins still clinging to them. As with all of the other brands we tried (except Cento), they're canned with calcium chloride, which is commonly added to help the tomatoes keep their shape (especially diced tomatoes). In this case, maybe the company overdid it.
4. Simpson Imports, $3.99 for 28 ounces
Although these tomatoes had a well-rounded flavor, their texture was borderline mealy. When we revealed the brands, we had an "Oh, that one" moment. These cans seem to be everywhere, with a label that can easily be confused with imported San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. There's some Italian verbiage, the letters "SMT" standing in for any brand name (by the way, the label used to read "San Marzano") and the word "Imports" in the company name. So 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. Domestic tomatoes are just fine by me. I only wish the company offered more transparency about the farms, farming practices, and growing areas.
5. Whole Foods 365, $1.69 for 28 ounces
The overall flavor was reminiscent of tomato soup — in other words, light and bright, but lacking depth. Still, with a price well under $2, they're a solid and tasty bargain.
6. Hunt's, $2.59 for 28 ounces
Overall, these tomatoes looked and tasted watery, and lacked any real flavor. They weren't bad — just forgettable.
7. Signature Kitchens, $2.49 for 28 ounces
This seems to be another store brand, sometimes labeled as Safeway Kitchens. The tomatoes were bland, with very watery juices.
8. Kroger, $1.13 for 28 ounces
Extremely bland and the tomatoes even looked unripe. The stem ends were so pale they almost looked green.
9. Trader Joe's Unsalted, $1.59 for 28 ounces
We were collectively shocked to find out the one sample we all loathed, that some people even spit out, was from our beloved TJ's. But there was no way to overlook the harsh, unpleasant flavor, which had oddly strong clove notes from the basil leaf. The Cento tomatoes also had a basil leaf, but it didn't manage to infuse the contents with any off-putting flavor. We thought maybe it was the lack of salt (my local stores didn't carry whole tomatoes with added salt), but the Cento brand had minimal salt as well, and it was a favorite.
Do you have a favorite brand of canned tomatoes? Was it included in this taste test? Let us know!