Sometimes smooth like puree and sometimes chock-full of chunks, crushed tomatoes can be the most unpredictable product in the canned tomato aisle.
Published Jan. 1, 2017. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Indian Feast
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...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.