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It's hard to think of pizza without tomato sauce. But even in Italy, those tomatoes used to make the sauce are likely to come out of can. Good quality fresh tomatoes are available only a few months out of the year.
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Since canned tomatoes are processed at the height of freshness, we find that they always deliver better flavor than off-season fresh tomatoes. But with the wide variety of tomato products lining supermarket shelves, it's not always clear which type you should be reaching for and which brands are best. We tested the most common varieties and brands of canned tomato products to determine the best uses for each one and our favorite brands.
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Whole tomatoes are nothing more than peeled tomatoes packed in their own juice or puree. Whole tomatoes are best reserved for recipes where fresh tomato flavor is a must. Because whole tomatoes are quite soft, they will break down quickly when cooked. We found that whole tomatoes packed in juice rather than puree had a livelier, fresher flavor. Our top‑rated brand is Progresso Italian-Style Whole Peeled Tomatoes with Basil, which has a bright, fruity flavor. Progresso sells whole tomatoes packed in juice and packed in puree, so be sure to read the fine print and buy the ones packed in juice.
Diced tomatoes are peeled whole tomatoes that have been machine-diced and packed in their own juice or puree. Many brands contain calcium chloride, a firming agent that helps the chunks maintain their shape. Diced tomatoes are best for rustic tomato sauces with a chunky texture, and in long-cooked stews and soups where you want the tomatoes to hold their shape. Diced tomatoes may be processed with their juice in a food processor and used in place of crushed tomatoes when called for in a recipe. We favor diced tomatoes packed in juice because they have a fresher flavor than brands packed in puree. Overall, our preferred brand is Hunt's Diced Tomatoes, which tasters liked most for its fresh flavor and good balance of sweet and tart notes.
Crushed tomatoes are whole tomatoes that are ground very fine and then enriched with tomato puree to thicken their texture. Crushed tomatoes work well in smoother sauces. Because they are already fairly thick, crushed tomatoes are ideal when you want to make a sauce as quickly as possible. There are very dramatic differences in texture among available brands. Some are thick as puree while others are downright watery. We prefer chunky and fresh-tasting Tuttorosso Crushed Tomatoes in Thick Puree with Basil. Do not confuse this variety with Tuttorosso's New World Style Crushed Tomatoes, which we do not recommend. Tuttorosso isn't available everywhere, but Muir Glen Organic Crushed Tomatoes with Basil are available nationwide and came in a close second in our testing. If you can't find one of our recommended brands, we suggest crushing your own using canned diced tomatoes and a food processor for a consistent, reliable texture.
Tomato puree is made from cooked tomatoes that have been strained to remove their seeds and skins. While not a substitute for fresh tomatoes, tomato puree works well in long-simmered, smooth, thick sauces with a deep, hearty flavor. We found Hunt's Tomato Puree to be the best with its thick consistency and tomatoey flavor, though most supermarket brands will work just fine.
Tomato paste is tomato puree that has been cooked to remove almost all moisture. Tomato paste lends a deeper, rounded tomato flavor and color to many slow-simmered pasta sauces as well as Italian soups and stews. Our preferred brand is Goya Tomato Paste for its fresh, full tomato flavor.
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