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The Best Crushed Tomatoes
Sometimes smooth like puree and sometimes chock-full of chunks, crushed tomatoes can be the most unpredictable product in the canned tomato aisle.
Top PicksSee Everything We Tested
What You Need To Know
Crushed tomatoes are a convenience product. Rather than haul out the food processor to break down canned whole tomatoes (or messily squish them in your hands) for a quick sauce or soup, you should be able to just pop the can lid, pour the tomatoes into a pot, and savor their flavor, which should be sweet and bright. As for texture, they should walk that line between a smooth puree and chunkier diced tomatoes (which don’t break down easily because they’re treated with calcium chloride to preserve firmness) and be topped off by puree or juice, offering both body and fluidity.
When we last tasted crushed tomatoes, we happily discovered that a product from Tuttorosso offered the chunky yet saucy consistency and vibrant flavor we were after. The only downside was that it was sold in a 35-ounce can while most recipes call for 28-ounce cans. That discrepancy wasn’t a deal breaker at first, but when the product also became increasingly hard to find in supermarkets, we decided it was time to reevaluate the options. This time, we gathered eight nationally available products sold in 28-ounce cans (priced from $1.50 to $4.69) and tasted them plain and in a simple tomato sauce, which we tossed with spaghetti. Tasters evaluated each sample on its flavor, texture, and overall appeal.
More than half the samples boasted bright flavor and good body—particularly our winner, which delivered distinct firm-tender chunks that created a sauce that coated the noodles well. Tasters rejected only one product, which double-faulted with a “watery” consistency and “lackluster” flavor. We docked products that tasted “flat” or “metallic,” lacked distinct pieces—to us, “crushed” shouldn’t mean pureed—or were rife with “chewy” tomato skins.
That wide range of textures isn’t due to a mix of tomato varieties: All manufacturers use plum (or roma) tomatoes since the firm fruit is best able to withstand mechanical harvesting. They’re inconsistent because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term “crushed” in the tomato industry, so a product that’s chock-full of chunks and another that’s smooth can both wear the label. Processing is what makes the difference.
Industry experts told us that all tomatoes designated for crushing are pushed through a machine called a Reitz Disintegrator, which breaks the fruit into smaller pieces and catches some of the skin and seeds much like a food mill does. For a coarser product, manufacturers use a disintegrator with wide holes and move the tomatoes through slowly. Speeding up the process and using smaller holes results in smaller, stringier tomato pieces, which we found made stringy, liquid-y sa...
Everything We Tested
Our favorite tasted “very bright and sweet” with “full tomato flavor”—no surprise, given its high levels of sweetness and acidity. Added diced tomatoes, though nontraditional in crushed products, contributed a firm, tender texture that impressed our panel. Although the letters SMT bring to mind the famed San Marzano tomatoes of Italy, the tomatoes are grown domestically and the manufacturer declined to disclose the exact variety.
With the right balance of sweetness and acidity, our runner-up earned praise for its “complex, tomatoey flavor.” The pieces were crushed to a slightly smaller size than in some of our other high-scoring products, but these tomatoes still made a “good building block” for pasta sauce.
Besides praising its “sweet tomato flavor,” tasters appreciated this sample’s relatively large pieces, which helped make a hearty sauce that “coated the pasta nicely.”
Even after they were cooked in sauce, these firm yet tender crushed tomatoes tasted pleasantly “fresh.” Although some tasters thought that the basil flavor was a bit strong in the plain tasting (one can had a whopping 11 leaves), many on our panel thought it was a welcome addition in sauce. The fairly large pieces of tomato lent the sauce a “chunky” texture that tasters liked.
With “bright,” “fruity” flavor and meaty pieces, these tomatoes would have had it all, except for one flaw: The fruit wasn’t peeled. The “tough” skins were unpleasant in the plain tasting, though they were much less noticeable in pasta sauce.
Recommended with reservations
Large, chunky tomato pieces appealed to tasters, particularly in the pasta sauce. But while the ample sweetness, acidity, and salt should have highlighted the fruit’s bright taste, the dried basil flavor was so overwhelming that panelists compared this product to pizza sauce.
These tomatoes are crushed fairly small, so the resulting sauce was thinner than with our top scorers, but it still coated pasta well. Loose peels were fairly prominent. Several tasters noticed a slight “metallic” taste that might be due to a tin (rather than enamel) can lining.
Update: April, 2017: Hunt's has transitioned to BPA-free cans in its American and Canadian facilities. The cans now used to package Hunt's Crushed Tomatoes have a glossy interior similar to the other products in our lineup.
Without citric acid or added salt and with the lowest sweetness level by far, it was no wonder we found these tomatoes “bland” and “dull.” Even onions and garlic weren’t enough to save them when cooked in tomato sauce. Plus, the small pieces of tomato practically disappeared when cooked, resulting in a “watery” sauce.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.