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The Test Kitchen Guide to Packaged and Canned Tomatoes

Stroll down the canned tomato aisle at your supermarket and you’ll see dozens of different varieties. But what exactly are the differences, and when can you substitute one for the other? Mostly it has to do with how processed the tomato is and what else is added to the can. Read on for a guide to the major types of packaged tomatoes.

  • canned whole tomatoes
    Ingredient

    Whole Peeled Tomatoes

    Aside from the few months each year when truly local, just-picked plum tomatoes are available, the best tomatoes you can buy often come in a can. The reason is that tomatoes destined for the canning plant are picked ripe and red (meaning more real tomato flavor), and processed in very short order. Imported Italian plum tomatoes, especially San Marzanos (a specific Italian variety grown in the Campania region), are especially high in quality.

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  • Ingredient

    Diced Tomatoes

    Most canned diced tomatoes are packed with calcium chloride, which helps maintain their shape as they cook. That makes them a good choice for dishes like chili, stews, or even salsas where you want intact “chunks” in the finished dish. But if you're looking for tomatoes that totally break down, start with either whole or finely chopped.

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  • Ingredient

    Finely Chopped Tomatoes

    These tomatoes are crushed or extruded, and sometimes mixed with tomato purée for a sauce-like consistency. The texture is between that of a smooth purée and a chunky dice. They’re good to use for pasta and pizza sauces, and soups that need a little texture.

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  • Ingredient

    Strained Tomatoes

    Aka tomato purée, these are tomatoes that have been cooked briefly and strained, usually without any extra spices or seasonings. The result is a thick liquid that’s smoother than crushed tomatoes, but thinner than tomato paste. It’s perfect to use in pasta sauces, braises, and stews.

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  • Tomato Paste
    Ingredient

    Tomato Paste

    This is a very concentrated purée of tomatoes that have been cooked down to remove all the water, with all seeds and skin strained out. A little tomato paste can add a very deep, umami-packed tomato flavor to your cooking, minus the bright acidity of fresh tomatoes.

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  • Ingredient

    Tomato Sauce

    A very smooth, pourable sauce made of puréed, cooked tomatoes. It tends to be thinner than strained tomatoes. Quality can vary widely among brands; look for tomato sauce made from tomato purée rather than tomato paste and water. It’s generally used as a component in recipes rather than poured directly on pasta or pizza.

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  • Ingredient

    Tomato Juice

    This thin, pourable liquid can be made either from the pulp of fresh or cooked tomatoes, or from tomato paste and water. Their most common culinary use is of course in cocktails, including the classic Bloody Mary. It can be used as a braising liquid or in soups, but keep in mind it packs far less flavor than tomato purée or sauce.

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