Not all tomatoes are created equal. This is something that is important to understand when cooking with them. Whether you are using fresh or canned tomatoes you must be sure that they are not going to cause your dish to have any off flavours. I have had a fantastic recipe fail because I used bad tomatoes and I feel that I must address this issue before posting any tomato based recipes.
Most of my life I lived in and around New Jersey. This area, many are aware, is known for fantastic tomatoes. When in season, they are some of the best you can get, and when out of season, I had some really fantastic canned tomatoes I always used. Then, just a few years ago, I moved to Canada and found out the hard way that you can’t take great tomatoes for granted. Just a few weeks after moving here I tried to make tomato sauce using my family recipe that has never ever ever failed. This time, however, it failed. The local fresh tomatoes in my new area are almost all pale and hard, with no flavour, and most of the canned varieties are bitter. I unwittingly used some canned tomatoes from the local grocery store and the sauce I made that day tasted like stomach acid.
I tried every brand of tomatoes that I could find in the area and pretty much all of them were sour, bitter, or just lame. I started reading forums and foodie blogs of people who live in my area to see what they use. I started hearing things about DOP San Marzano Tomatoes. These tomatoes are shipped straight from San Marzano Italy where it is said that the BEST tomatoes are grown. These are, presumably the only tomatoes that “real” Italian chefs will use for their sauce. “Be sure to find DOP on the label!” I was told, to be sure I was getting the real deal ( DOP is the seal of authenticity for real San Marzano tomatoes). I found out where to find them, little mom and pop specialty Italian shops would carry them. I was getting excited. “Not only”, I thought, “will I have tomatoes again, but surely they will be BETTER than anything I’ve ever had!” I went out to a few shops and bought a can of every DOP certified San Marzano brand I could find. After tasting each one individually I was horrified to discover that they all tasted just about as bitter as all the other brands I’ve found. Now to be fair, I never found Cento, which seems to be the brand everyone swears by. Just look up sauce recipes and you’ll see it all over the place. So I can’t speak for that brand in particular but I can say that DOP San Marzano tomatoes are NOT necessarily better than any other brand. I almost gave up completely until one day I tried a type I hadn’t tried before. It was a very cheap looking generic can of tomatoes. I expected them to be bitter like all the others and just planned to mask it with sugar. To my astonishment however, they actually tasted good! The only problem with this variety is that they have a lot of seeds so I always sieve out the seeds before using the tomatoes in a recipe. Tuttorosso, (the brand I used to love when I lived in the USA) didn’t have this problem.
I would like to briefly address the canned vs. fresh tomato debate. My opinions are as follows. Fresh, locally grown, high quality, TRULY vine ripened tomatoes are almost always best whether you want to eat them fresh or to make any cooked recipe. They will give pasta sauces and other cooked tomato recipes an edge that can only come from fresh tomatoes. The problems with fresh tomatoes are; you may not have decent ones available to you all year, or like in my case, at all. Also in many cases they are more expensive pound for pound than are canned tomatoes (though not always). Canned tomatoes have a bad RAP. I often hear complaints that they are too bitter or acidic. Obviously I understand where that sentiment comes from. I think though that is an unfortunate generalization. While, according to my personal experiences, most canned tomatoes are completely horrible, there are a few that are delicious. The best thing about canned tomatoes, once you find a good brand anyway, is consistency. You can pretty much expect the same quality out of the can on a regular basis, unlike fresh tomatoes which can be more hit or miss. Also they have a far better shelf life and can be easily stored all year.
So what is to be taken from all this? Well I’ll restate that when cooking with tomatoes it is of the utmost importance to use the best tomatoes you can find. If you don’t yet have a tomato you love, and are serious about cooking then you owe it to yourself to experiment.
Here is a short list of things to consider when looking for a good tomato to cook with:
High quality fresh tomatoes are best all around.
Low quality fresh tomatoes are usually not worth using .
Many canned tomatoes are no good.
Some canned tomatoes are VERY good. You will just have to taste test as many kinds as you can find until you find something great. I swear by Tuttorosso. I miss those tomatoes so much! If you can find them, USE THEM!
DOP San Marzano tomatoes are rumored to be the best but they are expensive and not necessarily any better tasting than any other kind of canned tomato. (Though I have not tried Cento, one of the most popular DOP brands) *** UPDATE*** I have, now tried Cento. Wow! They are really good! During a recent visit to the States my grandmother was making two batches of sauce to see the difference between Tuttorosso and Cento (I guess cooking geekery runs in the family). I have been noticing that Tuttorosso’s quality has been lacking lately. I think she has too, hence the experiment. Anyway, tasting the two side by side, I definitely prefer the Cento. Unfortunately Cento is really expensive, so it is not an everyday solution, but if you want to put some money into an amazing batch of sauce this is a safe bet! Tuttorosso is still good, though not quite as good as it used to be. For now, I stick with fresh tomatoes when I can find good ones, and, more often, those cans of generic tomatoes that are surprisingly glorious.
When considering canned tomatoes don’t let the decorations on the can or the prices form your opinion. My story gave an example of why those things don’t matter.
The flavour of a tomato should develop as it cooks and become more pleasing. It should not become more bitter as it cooks, or indeed, be bitter at all at any time. If it does than it is not a good tomato. This goes for tomato paste as well. Tomato paste is simply highly reduced tomatoes and if it tastes bitter then it is reduced from bitter tomatoes. Good tomato paste should taste tangy, strong, and tomatoey, and absolutely NOT bitter.
Buy whole canned tomatoes if possible. They pick the best looking and most ripe tomatoes for the whole canned tomatoes and everything else goes into the purees and pastes and sauces.
If you feel the need to add sugar or baking powder or some other neutralizer to your recipe to counter some off flavour in the tomatoes then you have not used good tomatoes and the recipe will not turn out as well as it could have.
Some kinds of tomatoes have more seeds than others; so canned or fresh, take note of how many seeds there are and also if they seems to disappear as they cook. Seeds are bitter and sometimes hard. It is not always necessary but in some cases you may have to remove them before cooking. Experiment!
In each of my recipes that include tomatoes I will specify quantities of canned and fresh tomatoes that can be used. So find your favourite tomatoes, fresh or canned, and cook with confidence!