How to Make the Most of Canned Tomatoes

If it's a choice between canned tomatoes or fresh but flavorless tomatoes in the winter, it's often better to choose the canned. (Photo: Bruno Rosa/Shutterstock)

My friend gave me a few tomatoes the other day as I was leaving her house. They are most likely the last ones I'll get from her this season. These tomatoes, grown in her organic garden in the fertile New Jersey soil (Jersey tomatoes are some of the best) have a depth of flavor and a juiciness that you need to experience. They're so good.

Once tomato season is done, the tomato consumption in my home goes way down. There's no point in buying out-of-season tomatoes in the grocery store. They're almost always flavorless, having been grown hundreds of miles away, picked green and artificially turned red by ethylene gas.

If that's the only kind of tomato you've ever had, maybe it's acceptable. But, if you've ever had a Jersey tomato — or any local tomato fresh from a garden — those supermarket tomatoes become inedible.

Out of season, forget Caprese salads, BLTs and the classic tomato-and-mayo sandwich on white bread. They won't be seen until next summer. You don't want to eat them without an in-season, local tomato.

For other dishes, your best bet is to go canned. But how do you make the most of tomatoes in the can? Here are some tips.

Getting the canned taste out of tomatoes

The longer the tomatoes sit in the can, the more chance they may acquire a metallic flavor. It may seem smart to stock up when there's a good sale on canned tomatoes, but if the best quality is what you're looking for, buy canned tomatoes as needed.

If you end up with a can of tomatoes with a bitter, metallic taste there are a few tricks you can try that home cooks use, although none of them is foolproof. Chowhound users suggest adding a little sugar or lemon peel to the tomatoes as they are cooking.

Sometimes, tomatoes can have a metallic taste because of their acid, not necessarily because of the can. The Splendid Table's Lynn Rosetta Casper suggests this remedy for tomato sauce with a bitter taste:

Heat one cup of sauce with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda to neutralize acidity. Taste. Add a little more at a time if necessary to see if it the acidity mellows. If that doesn't work, add a teaspoon of butter. If neither works, toss the sauce or live with the metallic taste.

Go for peeled whole tomatoes

peeled whole tomatoes
No need to buy diced, crushed or pureed canned tomatoes. Buy them whole in the can and do it yourself. (Photo: Moving Moment/Shutterstock)

The best tomatoes end up in the cans of peeled whole tomatoes. If you need diced, crushed or tomato puree, many cooks — including the Food Lab's J. Kenji López-Alt — recommend you buy peeled whole tomatoes and then do the work of dicing, crushing or pureeing yourself.

In addition to whole tomatoes being the best quality, López-Alt recommends using them because diced tomatoes can be difficult to break down. The calcium chloride added to keep them firm in the can means that crushed tomatoes vary in consistency from brand to brand. And tomato puree "lacks the complexity you get from slowly reducing less-processed tomatoes."

When purchasing peeled whole canned tomatoes, look for them in juice, not tomato puree, and check the ingredients for calcium chloride so you can avoid it. One brand the Food Lab recommends is Muir Glen. I've spent some time at Muir Glen's organic tomato farm, and I'm a fan of their canned tomatoes, too.

Organic vs. conventional

Tomatoes regularly show up in the Environmental Working Group's list of Dirty Dozen Produce. The list identifies the top conventionally grown 12 fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide load. There are more than 30 pesticides that may be sprayed on tomatoes, and they can easily leach through the thin skin and get into the meat of the tomato.

If you're concerned about the pesticide load in canned (or fresh) tomatoes, buying organic will reduce your exposure. Additionally, some tests have shown organic tomatoes contain 55 percent more vitamin C and 139 percent more phenolic content than conventional ones, Women's Health reports.

Using canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes a part of the base of classic Minestrone soup. (Photo: Olga Nayashkova/Shutterstock)

Canned tomatoes are versatile and can be used in many recipes, particularly the comfort-food recipes that are enjoyed during the fall and winter months — when canned tomatoes are often the best you can get. Try canned tomatoes in one of these recipes. Remember, if a recipe calls for diced, crushed or pureed, you can buy whole peeled and do the dicing, crushing or pureeing yourself.