In the test kitchen, we've often avoided using crushed tomatoes because the differences among leading brands are so dramatic. The textures vary from watery and thin to so thick you could stand a spoon in it. You might get peels or no peels; plentiful seeds or none; big, rough-cut chunks of tomato or a smooth, sauce-like consistency with no chunks at all.
Why is it that manufacturers can't seem to agree on what crushed tomatoes are? Simple. The United States government regulates the appearance and consistency of other types of canned tomatoes, but not crushed tomatoes. As a result, each brand offers its own definition of "crushed." Our solution to this problem has been to crush our own tomatoes by pulsing whole or diced canned tomatoes in the food processor, but purchasing a can is a lot easier.
So Long, Food Processor
We bought ten varieties to test alongside our preferred brands of whole and diced tomatoes (which we pulsed in the food processor). We started by tasting them all uncooked. Then we reduced them on the stove to a thick, spoonable consistency, adding olive oil and garlic, per our recipe for Quick Tomato Sauce for Pizza. A panel of 20 tasters rated the tomatoes, both cooked and raw, on their freshness of flavor, sweetness, acidity, and overall appeal. The good news is that we can put away the food processor. Our tasters liked some brands of crushed tomatoes more than the diced or whole tomatoes pulsed in the machine, which fell into the middle of the rankings.
So what makes a great can of crushed tomatoes? We knew texture would be very important. To get to the bottom of this, we investigated how much solid tomato—as opposed to liquid—you get in each can. The differences were dramatic: Tomato solids in the different brands ranged from a high of 71 percent to a low of 50 percent. But did more tomatoes equal better crushed tomatoes? Surprisingly, no. The thickest samples were criticized for having a "tomato paste" consistency, while the top two brands were 51 percent and 57 percent tomatoes, respectively. We prefer our crushed tomatoes chunky, not thick like tomato paste or smooth like tomato sauce. The ideal can of crushed tomatoes contains actual tomato pieces and a fair amount of liquid.
Hot and Cold
Fresh tomato taste is another essential. Canned tomatoes can actually have a fresher taste than supermarket tomatoes, as those tomatoes in the produce section are picked green and hard in order to survive shipping, then sprayed with ethylene gas—which, though it turns them red, can't do much about their undeveloped flavor. By contrast, tomatoes destined for the can are picked ripe and processed quickly. But which of these brands did the best job of preserving that vine-ripened flavor?
How they're processed makes a big difference, experts say. Generally, the fruit that will become canned crushed tomatoes is harvested by machine, if they are to be peeled, this is done either by steam or with a lye bath. The tomatoes are sorted to remove those with "yellow shoulders" (parts that are not red), blemishes, and, if the product is to be peel-free, any peel still attached. The tomatoes are crushed by a machine called a disintegrator, then heated to remove microorganisms, either at a lower temperature (between 160 and 185 degrees) for a longer time or a higher temperature (over 200 degrees) for a shorter time.
Here is where the flavor is most affected. Typically, you'll have a better-tasting tomato if it's processed at a lower temperature. Lower temperatures preserve an enzyme called lipoxygenase, which is vital to the formulation of the volatiles that contain tomato flavor. So why the high temperatures? For texture. Heating tomatoes over 185 degrees, a process called "hot break," deactivates enzymes that would break down the pectin binding the cells together in the tomatoes. Though heat will give you a thicker product that won't separate, you'll lose tomato taste.
In the next step of processing, the cans are topped with tomato puree or juice, according to manufacturer preference. Puree must be cooked for a long time to break down the tomatoes, and therefore imparts a more cooked—rather than fresh—taste to the final product. Indeed, the lower-ranking crushed tomatoes in our lineup generally featured tomato puree as the first ingredient on the label, while the top four all started their ingredient lists with tomatoes. What's more, manufacturers often disguise less-than-perfect tomatoes with puree, which imparts a deeper red color to the contents of the can. The lesson? A fresh-tasting can of crushed tomatoes won't list puree first on the ingredient list.
Sweet and Sour
While sugar levels differ from brand to brand, no sugar is added. Manufacturers do add salt to boost the flavor and help preserve the contents. Some added salt is a good thing, as it makes the tomatoes taste sweeter. Manufacturers may also add calcium chloride to maintain a firm texture, but if add too much and you'll have a metallic taste and give a "rubbery" texture to the tomato pieces. In our lineup, three of the four lowest-ranking tomatoes contained calcium chloride, while none of the top-ranked ones did. Finally, citric acid appeared in every brand except our lowest-ranked. It's there to correct the acid level of the tomatoes.
Our results? We found two brands that brought all these desirable attributes together.