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Fire-Roasted Tomatoes

From Seafood Specials

How we tested

Fresh tomatoes charred over an open fire possess a sweet, smoky depth that plain tomatoes can’t match. We wondered if canned versions could meet that ideal, so we gathered three nationally available diced fire-roasted tomato products to find out. They certainly all looked the part, with char-flecked tomatoes in every can. But flavor told another story in the case of one product which tasters found had faint smoke flavor at best. While the tomatoes from another manufacturer added decent smokiness to our Cook's Illustrated Red Chile Salsa, they fell to the bottom of the group for having artificial flavors and chewy skins. Our favorite of the three tasted aggressively smoky when sampled plain, but in the salsa that intensity mellowed, providing a smoky background flavor that tasters appreciated. These tomatoes also won favor for having a sweeter, fruitier flavor than the other two products.

To account for the differences, we first looked to processing, but we didn’t get far: One maker told us that it passes the tomatoes under and over a gas-powered flame while another only passes them over the flame. The third manufacturer wouldn’t disclose its method. So we looked to the ingredient lists for answers.

The tomatoes from one company, flagged for weak smoky flavor, contain—no surprise—just tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, citric acid, and calcium chloride (a common ingredient in canned diced tomatoes for firmness). Two other makers bolster those base ingredients with additional seasonings, including onion and garlic powders, yeast extract (which boosts umami), and “natural flavoring,” a catchall phrase that can include any number of naturally derived additives. While liquid smoke does qualify as a natural flavoring, a representative from one maker told us that the company doesn’t include it, and another manufacturer would not divulge if it does. Whether it’s an undisclosed natural additive or a secret in the processing method we weren’t made privy to, both manufacturers obviously found a way to boost smoky flavor. And without the textural drawbacks and off-flavors of the tomatoes by one maker, we had a clear winner.

Still, we had one last question: Is that smoky flavor significant enough to make fire-roasted tomatoes worth using instead of plain diced tomatoes? For two final tests we compared our favorite fire-roasted tomatoes to our favorite canned plain diced tomatoes in both our Cook's Illustrated Red Chile Salsa and our Simple Beef Chili with Kidney Beans. While the difference was less noticeable in chili, likely because of the competing spice flavors, the salsa made with fire-roasted tomatoes was the clear winner, with a complexity and background smokiness that put it above the plain-tomato version. Our winning tomatoes also gave the salsa a markedly more appealing appearance that was a deep brick red compared with the almost candy-apple red color of the version with plain tomatoes.

While fire-roasted tomatoes won’t add much to already complexly flavored recipes, when we want an easy way to add subtly caramelized, smoky tomato flavor to simple dishes like our salsa, we’ll reach for a can of our winner.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*