Sometimes smooth like puree and sometimes chock-full of chunks, crushed tomatoes can be the most unpredictable product in the canned tomato aisle.
How We Tested
Crushed tomatoes are a convenience product. Rather than haul out the food processor to break down canned whole tomatoes (or messily squish them in your hands) for a quick sauce or soup, you should be able to just pop the can lid, pour the tomatoes into a pot, and savor their flavor, which should be sweet and bright. As for texture, they should walk that line between a smooth puree and chunkier diced tomatoes (which don’t break down easily because they’re treated with calcium chloride to preserve firmness) and be topped off by puree or juice, offering both body and fluidity.
When we last tasted crushed tomatoes, we happily discovered that a product from Tuttorosso offered the chunky yet saucy consistency and vibrant flavor we were after. The only downside was that it was sold in a 35-ounce can while most recipes call for 28-ounce cans. That discrepancy wasn’t a deal breaker at first, but when the product also became increasingly hard to find in supermarkets, we decided it was time to reevaluate the options. This time, we gathered eight nationally available products sold in 28-ounce cans (priced from $1.50 to $4.69) and tasted them plain and in a simple tomato sauce, which we tossed with spaghetti. Tasters evaluated each sample on its flavor, texture, and overall appeal.
More than half the samples boasted bright flavor and good body—particularly our winner, which delivered distinct firm-tender chunks that created a sauce that coated the noodles well. Tasters rejected only one product, which double-faulted with a “watery” consistency and “lackluster” flavor. We docked products that tasted “flat” or “metallic,” lacked distinct pieces—to us, “crushed” shouldn’t mean pureed—or were rife with “chewy” tomato skins.
That wide range of textures isn’t due to a mix of tomato varieties: All manufacturers use plum (or roma) tomatoes since the firm fruit is best able to withstand mechanical harvesting. They’re inconsistent because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term “crushed” in the tomato industry, so a product that’s chock-full of chunks and another that’s smooth can both wear the label. Processing is what makes the difference.
Industry experts told us that all tomatoes designated for crushing are pushed through a machine called a Reitz Disintegrator, which breaks the fruit into smaller pieces and catches some of the skin and seeds much like a food mill does. For a coarser product, manufacturers use a disintegrator with wide holes and move the tomatoes through slowly. Speeding up the process and using smaller holes results in smaller, stringier tomato pieces, which we found made stringy, liquid-y sauces. When we strained and measured the contents of a can of each product to examine the size of the pieces, we noticed that the samples with the smallest bits of tomatoes—measuring ¼ inch or smaller—scored low, confirming that our tasters liked a chunkier product. We also noticed that the tomatoes labeled “unpeeled” had unpleasant curls of plasticky skin; we much preferred the other products, which tended to have fewer and less noticeable pieces of peel.
As for the winner’s particularly hearty texture, the package label revealed that it’s a combination of crushed and diced tomatoes. The crushed portion delivers fuller, richer body, and the firm-yet-tender pieces of diced tomato add big chunks that make it stand out from products with smaller pieces.
Good canned tomatoes—crushed or otherwise—also boast fresh fruit flavor that is superior to most fresh supermarket tomatoes since tomatoes for canning are picked ripe and processed quickly. (Most fresh supermarket tomatoes are picked while still green and hard in order to survive shipping and are then sprayed with ethylene gas, which turns them red but does nothing to improve their flavor.) But processing—particularly the temperature—affects flavor, too. All canned tomatoes are heated to remove microorganisms and make them shelf-stable, but manufacturers can heat them either to between 160 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit (called a “cold break”) or to 200-plus degrees (a “hot break”). Cold-break processing hastens enzymatic activity that causes pectin in the tomato cells to break down, thus creating a thinner product—but one with fresher flavor. Hot-break processing deactivates the enzyme, so more pectin is retained and the tomato product is thicker, but it also destroys volatile aroma compounds, so the tomatoes taste more “cooked.” The choice comes down to manufacturer priorities: thickness or fresh flavor.
Most manufacturers wouldn’t tell us if they use hot- or cold-break processing, but we were able to guess when we strained each product and saw the color of the drained liquid. Six of the cans yielded deep red liquid, suggesting that they’d been processed at higher temperatures (heating the fruit releases color pigments and results in darker red fruit and juice). The other two cans yielded bright gold liquid, suggesting that they were processed at lower temperatures. Our tasting offered further proof: Tomatoes in gold-colored juice tasted brighter and scored high marks for flavor, while those in deeper red juice tasted more cooked.
Sweetness and acidity highlight fresh tomato flavor, too, so we asked an independent lab to analyze the pH (a measure of acidity) and Brix (a measure of sweetness) of each product. Our least favorite sample was also the one with the lowest levels of acidity and sweetness—tasters complained that it tasted “dull”—which wasn’t surprising when we noticed that it was the only product in the lineup without citric acid (often added to tomatoes to boost fresh flavor) or salt. The two samples that contained basil were polarizing; most tasters liked it, but some felt that it “overwhelmed” the tomato flavor.
Our only lingering question: What accounted for the “metallic” flavor in one of the other low-scoring samples (from Hunt’s)? Nothing on the label or in the lab tests explained the problem. It wasn’t until we looked inside the can itself that we figured it out: The interior walls appear to be coated with tin rather than glossy enamel, which is used in most cans to prevent acidic foods like tomatoes from interacting with the metal and acquiring off-flavors. Any of our top five products would make a fine base for sauce or soup and save you the trouble of crushing whole tomatoes (though we’re not going to rule out crushing whole tomatoes when we want to drain the liquid out to make a thicker puree). But the particularly “full,” “bright” flavor and tender-firm chunks of tomatoes in our favorite can from SMT made it a standout and our new pantry staple.
Panels of 21 tasters sampled eight nationally available varieties of canned crushed tomatoes served plain and in a simple pasta sauce tossed with spaghetti. Products were selected from among the top-selling supermarket canned tomatoes as compiled by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. An independent laboratory analyzed each product’s pH (a measure of acidity) and Brix (a measure of sweetness); lower numbers indicate greater acidity, and higher numbers indicate greater sweetness. Ingredients and sodium levels were obtained from the product packaging and, when necessary for comparison purposes, have been adjusted to a standard ¼-cup serving size. Information on tomato origin was gathered from manufacturers. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets or online. We averaged the results of the tastings, and products appear in order of preference.