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Canned Whole Tomatoes

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?

Published Mar. 1, 2012

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What You Need To Know

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.

Are San Marzano Tomatoes the Only Way to Go?

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?

Verdict: San Marzano Samples Fell Short of High Expectations

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.

Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) Isn't E...

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