Cooking with Canned Tomatoes

Canned tomatoes are the ultimate in home-cooking convenience. In this guide, we explain when to use which.

Published May 14, 2021.

Haven’t made plans for dinner? Canned tomatoes are an easy grab-and-go staple for home cooks everywhere, used in an array of dishes from simple spaghetti sauce to shakshuka. Here’s a guide to our favorite canned tomato products—what to look for, when to use them, and which ones to buy. 

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Canned Whole Tomatoes

Canned whole tomatoes are versatile. You can dice, crush, or puree them for an infinite range of applications, including soups, stews, and sauces. Fancier isn't necessarily better. In our last tasting, we actually found that we preferred sweeter, more acidic domestic canned tomatoes to imported San Marzano tomatoes. The best-tasting tomatoes also had thin walls and plenty of jelly—the flavorful material that surrounds the tomato seeds. Our favorite canned whole tomatoes have bold acidity, a high sugar content, and a firm bite.
ATK Recommends: Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($2.99 for 28 ounces)

Canned Diced Tomatoes

We love using canned diced tomatoes in pasta sauce, soups, stews, and chili—even in salsa when fresh tomatoes aren’t available. In our tasting, size didn’t matter; we liked some “petite” diced tomatoes and disliked others, though not because of how small they were cut. We prefer diced tomatoes that keep their shape even when cooked. As a result, the products we liked best actually use the kinds of tomatoes we disliked in canned whole tomatoes: firm, thick-walled ones that don't turn to mush during the dicing process. 
ATK Recommends: Hunt's Diced Tomatoes ($1.99 for 28 ounces)

Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes

Fire-roasted diced tomatoes have a smoky, sweet flavor that is great for dishes where you want a little charred flavor, including salsa, chili, tacos, and soups. Our favorite product is assertively smoky and has a warm, intense tomato flavor.
ATK Recommends: DeLallo Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes in Juice with Seasonings ($2.50 for 14.5 ounces)

Crushed Tomatoes

Crushed tomatoes walk the line between smooth purees and chunkier diced tomatoes. We use them in quick-cooking sauces and soups where their sweet, bright flavor can shine. Our highest-ranking crushed tomatoes were chunky, with relatively few pieces of unpleasant, plasticky skin left in. They were also processed at lower temperatures than many of the products we tried, a technique that helped better preserve their fresh flavor. Our favorite has full tomato flavor and a chunky texture made even more appealing by the addition of diced tomatoes. 
ATK Recommends: San Merican Crushed Tomatoes ($3.50 for 28 ounces)

Tomato Puree

We use thick, completely smooth tomato puree in slow-cooking dishes where fresh tomato flavor isn’t important: lasagna, sloppy joes, meatballs, and chili, to name a few. We’ve found that because these dishes are cooked for such a long time, it doesn’t really matter what brand of tomato puree you use for them. In the end, we’ve found that they all taste pretty much the same.

Tomato Paste

Tomato paste is a versatile, inexpensive flavor powerhouse that’s great for adding concentrated tomato flavor and savory umami to sauces, soups, and pastas. We’ve found that it doesn’t really matter what kind of tomato paste you buy. Whether it’s regular tomato paste or “double-concentrated” paste, American or Italian, all tomato pastes taste pretty much the same once they’re cooked. There are, however, a few crucial distinctions when it comes to the way the pastes are packaged. Tubes of tomato paste are easier to use and last longer in the refrigerator. But they’re four times as expensive as canned tomato paste. Ultimately, your choice depends on convenience and cost. If you’re willing to spend a little more, go for the tubes. Otherwise, stick with the cans—you can always freeze whatever you don’t use immediately.


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