In the family of canned tomato products, tomato puree is the neglected middle child, often overlooked in favor of whole peeled or diced tomatoes. The reason is clear: While whole and diced tomatoes offer a passable substitute for fresh tomatoes (they are simply skinned and processed), tomato puree is cooked and strained, removing all seeds and all illusions to freshness. That’s not to say that tomato puree doesn’t belong in most kitchens, it’s just more suited to long-cooked dishes where the thick, even texture of puree is important and fresh tomato flavor is not.
Although we haven’t developed many recipes using tomato puree, we do find it necessary to achieve full tomato flavor and a smooth richness in our Simple Beef Chili with Kidney Beans (March/April 2003). But which brand is best? We gathered eight popular brands of tomato puree and tasted them plain. We then tasted the winner and loser of the plain tasting in our chili.
We had a tie in the straight puree tasting, with one being praised for ”layers of flavor,” while another won points for its “strong tomato flavor.” One puree was unanimously faulted as too thin and watery, though a handful of tasters liked the “vegetal” flavor that one taster described as being like “wicked salty V-8.”
For part two of our tasting, we pitted one of the winners against the losing puree in our chili recipe. Although we found it easy to sort out the winners and losers in the straight puree tasting, we wondered how clear the differences would be once the puree had simmered for two hours with a half-dozen spices. The answer: not very clear. While some tasters found one batch ”thicker” and “more full-flavored,’’ some found the other batch “slightly meatier’’ and “fresher and sweeter.’’ Most agreed with the taster who wrote, “I would use either one.’’ Given that most recipes calling for tomato puree involve long cooking times and lots of ingredients, it’s safe to say that one brand is not going to make much of a difference over another in the final dish.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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