The Great Canned Tomato Debate

As you may know from my previous posts on marinara sauce and San Marzano tomatoes, I’ve been obsessing over tomatoes for the last little while.  In order to make good marinara sauce you need good tomatoes, and unless you have a year-round supply of fresh, premium, vine ripened paste tomatoes to draw from, you’re likely going to need to use canned tomatoes at some point in the year.  The reality is there’s nothing wrong with canned tomatoes, and often good canned tomatoes will taste better than the fresh tomatoes you have access to locally, depending on where you live.  So, if you are like me, you’ll need to know what types of canned tomatoes available to you are the best to use.

In particular, I wanted to know which tomatoes are the best for my money.  I’m often willing to settle for second best if it costs a whole lot less than the best and is somewhat comparable in quality.  In terms of canned tomatoes, unless I’m cooking a particularly special meal, the second best tomatoes for cheaper will likely do.  In order to familiarize myself with the different brands available to me, I decided to buy a can of each brand of whole tomatoes I could find (within reason) and try them.  I tried each brand on their own, right out of the can, and I then used them to make marinara sauce and compare the finished results.

I purchased the following brands for this taste test: No Name Whole Plum Tomatoes ($1.29), Great Value Whole Tomatoes ($1.00), Unico Tomatoes ($1.39), Unico San Marzano Type Premium Tomatoes ($1.69), Aylmer Whole Tomatoes ($1.89), La San Marzano Italian Tomatoes ($1.27), and Pastene D.O.P. San Marzano Tomatoes ($4.49).  Of these types, the Pastene tomatoes are the only certified D.O.P. Italian San Marzano tomatoes, and from their price you can tell that I had high expectations for them.  The cheapest of them all were the Great Value tomatoes, which are purchased from Walmart, being a Walmart brand.  I have reviewed them all below in order from worst to best and have a picture of each can so you can quickly identify them in your local supermarket.  There were more brands to choose from that I have not tried yet, and if I do, I will edit this post to reflect any changes in the ranks.

UNICO TOMATOES – $1.39

wpid-CAM01907.jpgThese were by far the worst of the tomatoes that I tried, which was surprising for me as Unico seems to have a reputation for having a great product.  The tomatoes tasted un-ripened, somewhat sour, and the colour of the tomato was not the deep, rich, red that I am looking for but instead was a pale translucent red that did not look appealing.  To make matters worse, the tomatoes did not seem to thicken in the sauce the same way that the other canned tomatoes did, despite me cooking them down for extra time.  I have read that tomatoes contain a certain amount of pectin, a thickening agent, so I assume that these tomatoes simply didn’t contain as much as the others.  Perhaps it was the tomato variety used or perhaps another additive in the can that affected the pectin levels of the fruit, because it’s likely not due to the tomatoes being under-ripe.  Under-ripe tomatoes will contain more pectin than ripened tomatoes so these should have contained enough pectin to thicken properly.  Either way, the bottom line was that these tomatoes were the worst of all that I tried, which was both surprising and educating for me.

UNICO SAN MARZANO STYLE PREMIUM TOMATOES – $1.69

Unico San Marzano Type Canned TomatoesThese tomatoes ranked second worst, only ranking higher in my opinion to their regular counterparts, Unico Tomatoes.  These tomatoes tasted better than the latter, but still didn’t impress.  The fact that they are packed in puree instead of juice gave them a flavour and that I didn’t really enjoy and their colour was on the darker side with a brownish tinge to it, which also knocked their score down.  Overall, I am very disappointed with Unico; for years I would see them on the shelves and purchase their products assuming that their name and slightly higher price than the cheapest brands would translate into a quality product, which seems not to be the case.  At $1.69 these are definitely not worth it, despite being better than the worst.  Also, their usage of the “San Marzano Style” label is confusing.  Do they mean that they are using non-DOP San Marzano tomatoes?  Or are they using Roma or some other hybrid varient of the San Marzano and trying to sell their tomatoes on that basis?  Either way, I would not recommend these unless your only two options are these and the other Unico tomatoes.

NO NAME WHOLE PLUM TOMATOES – $1.29

No Name Whole Plum Canned TomatoesI must say, at $1.29, these tomatoes were pretty good for their cost.  Their flavour out of the can was fairly sweet, meaning that at least they were using ripe tomatoes, likely Roma’s.  The look of the tomatoes was not as pleasant as their taste however, being a little too dark and on the brown side.  One annoying thing about these tomatoes was that the cores were still in tact on most and I also found the odd peel here and there while I crushed these by hand.  For the price, I could see myself recommending them to be used for something other than marinara sauce, as I prefer that rich, deep tomato red for my sauce to make it visually beautiful.  I’m a sucker for looks for sure.  If the colour was there on these tomatoes, they would have scored one or two spots higher and likely placed them third or fourth on my list instead of fifth.  I almost feel a little bad placing them fifth, simply because their taste was good.

LA SAN MARZANO WHOLE PEELED ITALIAN TOMATOES – $1.27

La San Marzano TomatoesI purchased these tomatoes from Costco in a flat of 6 cans, which worked out to $1.27 per can.  The fact that these were imported from Italy caught my attention and a closer inspection of the can quickly showed that the name “La San Marzano” was simply the brand name and did not mean that these were San Marzano tomatoes and furthermore not D.O.P. certified.  Upon opening the can I immediately realized that the tomatoes were packed in puree rather than juice, which I tend not to prefer, as like the Unico Premium tomatoes, it gives the tomatoes a “tomato paste” flavour I do not enjoy in marinara sauce.  The taste of the tomatoes themselves was fairly good, a tiny bit sour but generally good.  The colour was a nice red, not the best I’ve ever seen, but good.  The final sauce flavour was again a bit on the “pasty” side, but good, and the colour more or less maintained a deep red throughout cooking.  The consistency of the sauce was thicker than the others, which makes sense, as the puree that it is packed in what somewhat thicker.  As a result the sauce needed a few minutes less of cooking to thicken to the right consistency.  Overall, these tomatoes are pretty good, not the best by any means, but OK.  Like I said earlier, if the No Name tomatoes were a nicer red colour then they would have ranked higher than these.

ALYMER WHOLE TOMATOES – $1.89

Aylmer Whole Canned TomatoesTo be perfectly honest with you, I was pleasantly surprised that these tomatoes ranked as high as they did for my taste test.  I’ve always looked at the Aylmer brand as a brand that is likely trying to impress with nice labels but wouldn’t be able to back up the nice packaging and slightly higher than average price with a quality product.  Well, Aylmer proved me wrong.  These tomatoes were actually quite good, and produced a good sauce as well.  Their flavour out of the can was good and consistent with a ripe tomato, they were packed in a light juice rather than a puree, and their colour was a nice red as well.  It also seemed like this can held the most tomatoes to any other of the brands I tried; it was packed full of tomatoes.  When I prepared the marinara sauce with these tomatoes it thickened well but not too quickly, allowing the tomatoes to cook appropriately, and the finished product was good.  It was somewhat velvety and fresh and maintained its red colour, maybe losing only a little bit of its deep colour.  Overall, as I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised by these tomatoes.  Their price was the second highest of them all so one would believe that they should have ranked where they did, in the upper half, but I didn’t expect them to.  These tomatoes have permanently changed the way that I view the Aylmer brand.

GREAT VALUE WHOLE TOMATOES – $1.00

Great Value Whole Canned TomatoesNow, I don’t know where Walmart buys these tomatoes from, nor do I know what type of tomatoes they are, but they have something special going on with these guys.  I was blown away at how good these tomatoes were in every way, honestly.  These were the cheapest tomatoes of all the brands I purchased to test and I would have thought that they would have been one of the worst, if not the worst, based on their price and their generic brand.  Now I know brand isn’t everything, but come on, it has to stand for something, right?  Well apparently it doesn’t mean much in this case.  These tomatoes were a nice, rich red colour; they were packed in a nice light juice that was not too thick; they were nice and sweet to the taste raw; and, there were lots of ripe tomatoes in the can.  The sauce came out great as well; it kept its bright, rich, red colour, it tasted great, and had a velvety texture on your tongue.  The only knock I can have on these tomatoes is that I found one peel and two cores in the can.  I can live with that given how well these tomatoes ranked in every other way.  Honestly, the end result of the marinara sauce made from these tomatoes was not much different than the best tomatoes on my list, the Pastene D.O.P. San Marzanos.  At less than a quarter of the price, these tomatoes fall into that special category of “second best for much cheaper is OK with me.”

PASTENE D.O.P. SAN MARZANO TOMATOES – $4.49

Pastene DOP Canned San Marzano TomatoesWell, I guess the tomatoes that were supposed to be the best ended up being the best, at least in my opinion.  The Pastene D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes ended up taking the win in the end and I can’t say that I’m completely surprised, but part of me somewhat is.  It’s the part of me that cheers for the underdog, the part of me that believes that the biggest brand names are over inflated in price for no good reason, and the part of me that wondered if these tomatoes were simply a pretentious trend that will eventually end up like all other trends and fade away.  Well, simply put, they are the best of all the brands I tried.  I guess that growing tomatoes in the ideal climate and conditions, hand picking only the ripest tomatoes for use and starting with one of the best varieties of tomatoes available makes for the best canned tomatoes.  I have to say though, its the marinara sauce that I was left with in the end that made me decide that these were the best tomatoes.  There was some concern at first however, as they looked somewhat boring out of the can.  The tomatoes were nice and red on their own but the juice was very watery looking, which sort of dulled the rich, red look of them in the bowl.  Also, they didn’t taste as sweet as I thought they would out of the can, they were not sour per se, but a little bland.  One thing to note is that they were the only tomatoes that came with a few basil leaves packed in the can.  My first impressions aside, the resulting sauce was amazing.  The colour was absolutely beautiful and the taste was amazing, being a perfect mix of sweet with a hint of acid.  One thing that stood above the rest was the extremely velvety texture and consistency of the sauce.  It was the best sauce I’ve made yet, and it didn’t last long in our house.  If you want to see the sauce, it is the sauce that I used to make the Eggplant Zucchini Parmesan featured in my previous post. Overall, it would seem that if you want the best you can get, go with D.O.P. certified San Marzano canned tomatoes.

In conclusion, the Great Value tomatoes at $1.00, or $3.49 less than the Pastene tomatoes, will become my everyday tomatoes that I use to make my marinara sauce with.  They were not much worse than the Pastene tomatoes and are the obvious choice for the best value.  One might even say “Great Value” (hardy har).  It really must be Walmart’s buying power that allowed them to offer such a good product for so cheap.  They were probably told that they would have to sell these tomatoes for $2.50 a can to make a reasonable profit but then brought the price down by signing a contract to purchase TEN BILLION TOMATOES A YEAR from their source.  Either way, I hope I didn’t have a one-off can of great tomatoes and I hope that I’m not hyping them up too much.  Perhaps I’ll post about them again a while from now after I’ve gone through 5 or 10 cans of them, letting you know if they were in fact consistently good.

Feel free to comment with your favourite brands or your reviews of any brands of tomatoes you may love or hate.  Obviously, this list of brands will be more specific to people living in Ontario than other parts of North America and Europe, but I would love to hear about other brands that are not necessarily readily available to me.  I hope this guide has given you some useful information and helped you make an somwhat educated choice for your next canned tomato purchase!

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