From Season 13: Great Italian Pasta Sauces
If you believe all the hype from Italian chefs and cookbooks, then San Marzano tomatoes are the best tomatoes in the world. Promoters of the prized crop claim that the climate and fertile soil in the eponymous southern region of Italy where they grow are behind the fruit’s meaty texture, juiciness, and exceptional flavor. Only tomatoes grown in the region from seeds dating back to the original cultivar and according to strict standards may receive the elite Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) label. In the past, San Marzanos were hard to come by in the United States, but that never deterred loyalists, who sought out cans from gourmet markets and online retailers. In recent years, however, San Marzano tomatoes have become easier to find, showing up in regular supermarkets and under different brand names. That’s partly because not all brands labeled “San Marzano” are DOP-certified. These days, some of the tomatoes are even grown in the United States from San Marzano seeds.
Regardless of where they’re from, the wider availability of San Marzanos renewed our general interest in canned whole tomatoes—a product that we frequently prefer to diced or crushed. (Oftentimes, the latter two are selected from fruit that’s been damaged during harvesting and have been more thoroughly treated with firming agents to prevent them from breaking down.) We decided to hold a taste-off: San Marzanos versus everything else. After collecting 10 different brands—three labeled San Marzano, the other seven a mix of Italian, Canadian, and American products—we sampled them straight out of the can as well as simmered in both quick- and long-cooked tomato sauces.
Our questions: Are San Marzanos really the ultimate canned whole tomatoes—that is, bright, sweet, and tangy, with meat that’s plush and soft enough to melt into a sauce but without completely dissolving? More important, would they taste noticeably better than regular tomatoes once they’d been cooked down in a sauce with aromatics and wine?
Surprisingly, the answer to both questions was a definitive “no.” Though each of the three San Marzano samples elicited a few lukewarm compliments here and there—“agreeable flavor”; “nice blank-slate tomatoes”—none of them delivered the bold, deeply fruity taste that we were expecting, nor did they hold their shape well. In fact, these tomatoes scored well below several of the domestic samples, the best of which were deemed “bright,” “complex,” “meaty,” and—as one taster noted in amazement—like “real” tomatoes.
Also remarkable: Whether or not the tomato was a true San Marzano didn’t matter. The DOP-certified brand was actually our least favorite of the three, which debunked the hype over the San Marzano pedigree once and for all. But now we had a more challenging question to answer: What made the other samples taste good?
Sweet and Sour
For starters, sweetness. Scientists gauge this particular quality in tomatoes according to the Brix scale—a measurement of the sugar (per 100 grams) in liquid. Generally, the higher the Brix of tomatoes, the greater the perception of good, ripe tomato flavor.
When we had an independent lab measure the Brix of each brand’s tomato solids, the results were conclusive: Our three least favorite brands (including the DOP-certified San Marzanos) were the least sweet, with tasters panning their “weak,” “washed out” flavor, whether cooked or eaten straight from the can. Conversely, tasters praised the “fruity,” “real summer” sweetness of our two favorite tomatoes, whose sweetness levels were relatively high. However, the sweetest samples of all—which happened to be the other two San Marzanos—landed in the middle of the pack, proving that when it comes to optimal tomato flavor, sweetness is not the only dynamic in play.
The other half of good tomato flavor is acidity—and lots of it. Bright tanginess balances out the sweetness and (like salt) enhances other pleasing flavors by masking bitterness. Sure enough, when we had the lab measure the pH of all the samples, we discovered that the tomatoes with the lowest pH (i.e., the most acidic tomatoes) almost invariably scored the highest, earning tasters’ approval for their “fresh,” “fruity” flavors, while the least acidic tomatoes tanked. The lone exception was our bottom-ranked brand, which boasted a good level of acidity but not much sweetness—a combination that gave it an “unbalanced” flavor that tasters assailed for being “nothing like a summer tomato.”
Salt played only a relatively minor role in our overall preferences. The American samples contained a lot more sodium than did imported brands (at least 20 times more, in some cases), and in the plain tasting some tasters preferred them for it. But sodium levels didn’t influence our preferences in either of the cooked applications, and since canned tomatoes are rarely eaten uncooked, we didn’t factor salt content into our rankings.
In the Flesh
Good balance was the key to optimal tomato flavor, and it was a quality that tasters looked for in the fruits’ texture, too. Overly firm specimens lost points for their “rubbery” bite, while tomatoes that broke down completely were docked for “mushiness.” Our three top-ranking brands boasted a firm but tender bite, even after a lengthy simmer. But what accounted for the differences in texture?
For one thing, calcium chloride. All five American products were treated with this salt, which manufacturers add to maintain the tomatoes’ firmness, whereas the imported brands were not. We figured that for better or for worse, the widespread use of this additive in domestic canned tomatoes couldn’t help but drive our American tasters’ preference for tomatoes that retain a little structure.
While we liked the tomatoes to be somewhat firm, we didn’t like their flesh to be overly thick. In the 1960s, mechanical harvesting replaced handpicking in this country, speeding up the process. Growers then had to breed a tomato sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of machine harvesting, which meant they needed a fruit with thicker walls (known as pericarp). The trade-off was less flavor. The reason? Tomato flesh isn’t where most of the flavor is; it’s in the “jelly” that surrounds the seeds in the fruit’s hollow spaces. When the flesh got thicker, those cavities got smaller, leaving less room for the jelly.
To see if this trend lined up with our results, we took a sample from each can, measured the thickness of its pericarp with a caliper, and scooped out and weighed its jelly. Indeed, our least favorite tomatoes had the thickest pericarp, with tasters describing them as “tough,” “chewy,” and “bland.” The tomatoes we liked best had thinner, tender-firm walls, and their cavities were the largest and most full of flavorful jelly.
As it turned out, the San Marzano hype was all for naught. We didn’t even prefer Italian-grown tomatoes. Rather, we most enjoyed the bold acidity, high sugar content, and firm bite of our favorite all-American brand. Another American brand finished a close second, with tasters particularly admiring their firm texture and pleasing acidity. We’ll be stocking up on both.
When it comes to the best canned tomatoes, is Italian pedigree the determining factor, or do the sweetest, brightest-tasting specimens come from this side of the Atlantic?Watch the Video
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|