Unless they’re in season at your local farmer’s market, fresh tomatoes aren’t always the best choice for cooking. In fact, even the on-season fresh ones in chain grocery stores sometimes aren’t in great shape. Canned tomatoes are an excellent choice any time of year because the luscious red fruits are packed at their peak of freshness and stay that way until you crack them open.
Of course, not all canned tomatoes are created equal, and it can be hard to tell which ones you should use for which recipe. Here’s a cheat sheet on what to look for:
Diced tomatoes often have preservatives in them to keep the little squares looking pretty. Great if you want them to keep their shape in something like salsa, but a not-so-great when you need the tomato to melt, such as when you’re making a sauce.
For most of my cooking, I use cans of whole tomatoes, and I use the juices in the can, too. And to cut them up, you can stick a pair of kitchen scissors right into the can and snip away, or be like a professional chef and squish the tomatoes into pieces with your (clean) hands as they slide out of the can.
Crushed tomatoes are often not just whole tomatoes that have been crushed, but the pulpy insides of lots of leftover bits of less-than-perfect tomatoes. Avoid them unless you’re absolutely in a pinch.
Tomato Paste vs. Purée
Tomato paste is a thick, concentrated paste of tomatoes. You add a small amount to thicken and flavor sauces and soups. Tomato purée is more like a soup itself because it’s watered down. Skip the purée; you only want the paste.
If you don’t have jars of your own homemade tomato sauce sitting around and you need a good amount of sauce for a dish like lasagna, plain canned tomato sauce is great. Unlike flavored and sugared-up tomato sauce in jars, the canned variety will allow you to season as you see fit.
You want plain tomatoes. You’ll add the flavoring yourself. Don’t get tomatoes with basil or garlic or any other extras.
No Extra “Ingredients”
You want your can of tomatoes to list just a couple things on the ingredients list, hopefully just tomatoes and sometimes tomato juice. Salt is OK unless you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, and then you should opt for “no salt” varieties and season it yourself. A lot of companies also include citric acid or calcium chloride—some say it’s “naturally occurring”—which are preservatives to keep the food from spoiling. It’s supposedly not bad for you, but you can find options without it. And definitely avoid any cans with high fructose corn syrup or chemicals you can’t pronounce!