I love fresh tomatoes. I grow a dozen plants every year, post way too many tomato photos on Instagram, and I'm currently working on a tomato cookbook. But I'm also practical, and once fresh tomatoes are out of season, my affections turn to canned.
Unlike most canned fruits and vegetables (think spinach), a quality canned tomato isn't some poor imitation of the fresh version. The challenge is that unlike a fresh one that you can see, smell, even squeeze, a canned tomato is ... in a can. So, how do you know which ones to buy? So many brands, so many forms: whole peeled, with or without basil, garlic, chiles. Diced. Petite diced. Crushed, puréed, stewed — even fire-roasted.
Stick to the basics: You may think it more efficient to select "crushed" because you plan to make a spaghetti sauce or "diced" because you want small pieces in your vegetable soup. But it's best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavorings except salt, and do the shape-shifting yourself.
Working with whole tomatoes can be messy, but it lets you maintain control and avoid surprises, such as "crushed" tomatoes that are too watery, or "diced" tomatoes that remain so stubbornly diced as to never soften and integrate with soup or salsa or chili. This is by design, as most brands of diced tomatoes contain calcium chloride, which keeps the tomatoes firm. I'm sure there are some dishes where unyielding squares of tomato (even "petite" squares) are a benefit, but I generally want mine to soften.
Check the label for calcium chloride and then make your choice. (You may even see it in whole tomatoes.) The one widely available brand that does not add the firming agent to its chopped tomatoes is Pomi, and the texture of their "chopped" is what you'll get if you were to chop your own — slightly sloppy, irregular chunks. Like real food.
My go-to brands: I would love to conduct a full tomato tasting someday, complete with sensory evaluation checklists, but for now I stick with a couple of brands that I like: Muir Glen for basic whole tomatoes and Cento for imported San Marzanos (more on those at right).
Muir Glen is a California company with a wide range of organic canned tomato products, including that fire-roasted line, which has a slight smokiness that's nice in chili.
Cento is a New Jersey Italian-import company with wide distribution and a decent price point. I buy their San Marzanos, which are fleshy, low-seed, low-acid plum tomatoes, traditionally grown in the Sarnese-Nocerino region of southern Italy, near Naples.
About those San Marzanos: Like many traditional European foods, authentic San Marzanos have been granted D.O.P. status, meaning they are allowed to display a special mark certifying they are a specific tomato type, grown in a designated area under strict guidelines for cultivating, harvesting and packing. The D.O.P. system is a way of controlling the quality of the product and its ability to command a higher price.
But anytime an ingredient has legendary status with a higher price, beware. You may see "San Marzano" or "San Marzano-style" on a label, meaning the tomato variety is San Marzano but it's grown elsewhere. It may be just as delicious, but it's not a real San Marzano.
My favored Centos are currently not using the D.O.P. label, though they claim to follow the guidelines. Instead, Cento offers a third-party certification that includes a nifty PAC Traceability (Product Attribute Certification). Enter the code from the can and then zoom through Google Earth to arrive at the exact field where your tomatoes were grown, which in my case was a not particularly bucolic one on the outskirts of an industrial park in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.