There are hundreds of recipes worldwide that call for the use of tomatoes. From soups and sauces to salads and pies, many of these recipes call for the use of canned tomatoes instead of fresh ones. It is easy to see why both chefs and home cooks go for canned versions instead of fresh tomatoes. They’re easy to use straight from the container without any other preparation. Choosing the best canned tomatoes may not be easy, however, because there are so many variants to pick from. Different recipes often call for a specific type of canned tomatoes. Learning to distinguish one from the other is, therefore, crucial to making a delicious tomato-based recipe.
Canned Tomatoes vs. Fresh Tomatoes
There are cooks who prefer canned tomatoes and there are those who still prefer fresh ones. Choosing between the two requires understanding of their unique differences.
- Seasonal vs. Year-Round
The most flavorful tomatoes in their peak ripeness are only available every August. This means that if you want to use the freshest and most sumptuous tomatoes in your dishes, then you have to schedule your cooking for August. You can still use fresh tomatoes in the other 11 months, of course, but do not expect to get the full flavors of this fruit in your dish.
Canned tomato brands always process their products during this time of the year. They harvest ripe and fresh tomatoes in August, making sure they get all the nutrients and flavors from each fruit. During processing, all of the tomato goodness is sealed in BPA-free, food-safe containers. You can then find these products in the shelves of your favorite grocery store or supermarket as canned tomatoes. They are ready for use anytime, guaranteeing all the flavors and nutrients of tomatoes in their peak ripeness.
Fresh tomatoes require some form of processing before you can use them in your dish. You may need to slice it, de-seed it, and dice it, depending on the dish. Some recipes may also call for the removal of the skin. This is not an easy thing to do with fresh tomatoes.
On the other hand, canned tomatoes are ready to use straight from the can. All you need is to choose the right product to use and dump it into the saucepan or pot. That’s it. Of course, the only work you’ll do is to open the can.
In the canned tomatoes vs fresh tomatoes debate, lycopene content is one of the biggest draws of processed tomatoes. All tomatoes contain lycopene which is a phytochemical known for its heart-health benefits. It is an antioxidant that can benefit those with osteoporosis, prostate, and skin problems.
What you need to understand is that canned tomatoes have a higher concentration of lycopene than fresh ones. The secret is in the processing of the tomatoes. The application of heat releases the lycopene from the skin of tomatoes and concentrating them into the resulting blend. As a general rule, the thicker the processed tomato is the greater is the concentration of lycopene. As such, tomato pastes contain 4 times more lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
- Other Nutrients
When it comes to nutrient content, you can expect fresh tomatoes to have the slight edge. It contains more Vitamin A, C, and K. It also contains more folate, potassium, beta-carotene, and lutein. This is not surprising since cooking tomatoes can destroy some of its nutrients.
On the other hand, canned tomatoes nutrition puts more focus on calcium and iron. It also contains fewer sugars and fats. It also has a slight advantage when it comes to calories, being 1 kcal lower than fresh tomatoes. If any, it’s the addition of salt during processing that may worry you. Unsalted canned tomatoes still pack more sodium than fresh tomatoes.
Types of Canned Tomatoes and Their Uses
Now that we have an idea of why canned tomatoes are better than fresh tomatoes, it’s time to look at the different types of processed tomatoes.
- Peeled Whole Tomatoes
If you want a tomato product that retains the nutrient goodness of fresh tomatoes, then peeled whole tomatoes are for you. This product also allows you to enjoy the convenience of canned tomatoes. Peeled whole tomatoes undergo very minimal heating process. Manufacturers only subject the tomatoes to a burst of steam to remove the skin. They then pack the tomatoes in individual cans complete with tomato puree or tomato juice.
This type of tomato product is perfect for making marinara sauces. You’ll get the fresh, clean, and fruitier flavor of tomatoes. You can break up the tomatoes while simmering or you can process them in a blender.
- Diced Tomatoes
This tomato product is ideal for chilies, stews, chunky sauces, and soups. It is like peeled whole tomatoes, except that they are cut into medium-sized chunks. You can still expect the tomatoes to have their seeds. Like peeled whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes do not undergo significant processing except for the blast of hot steam.
Another thing you have to understand about this tomato product is that it also contains calcium chloride. This compound helps ensure that the tomato dices stay firm. As such, you cannot break them down really well during simmering. It is for this reason that diced tomatoes are perfect for recipes that require more texture from tomatoes.
- Crushed Tomatoes
You can look at this tomato product as peeled whole tomatoes that undergo substantial crushing. There is no other extensive processing except for the removal of its skin by steam. As such, this type of tomato product still contains the seeds. It is perfect for those who wish to use whole tomatoes, but do not like the additional task of crushing them during simmering.
Crushed tomatoes are ideal for pasta sauces. You will get all the delicious, flavorful, and nutritious goodness of fresh and ripe tomatoes. You can leave it as is in your dish. You can also mash it and turn it into a puree if the recipe calls for a smoother consistency. For those who are wary of the seeds, they can strain the tomato product through a metal sieve to separate the seeds.
- Tomato Puree
The first three tomato products above never underwent cooking. As such, they provide exceptional value when it comes to their nutrients and full flavors. Tomato puree, on the other hand, is a tomato product that undergoes a cooking process. It starts with the processing of whole tomatoes. Manufacturers also strain the tomato product to remove the seeds. The product then undergoes slow simmering to make it thicker.
It is important to distinguish tomato puree from tomato paste. The latter is the result of subjecting tomato puree to longer simmering times until only 20 percent of the water content remains. It is possible then that there are tomato pastes that undergo reconstitution by adding water. This turns it into a tomato puree. It is unfortunate that water tends to separate from the puree during cooking.
- Tomato Paste
This tomato product is nothing more than a tomato puree with 80 percent of its water content removed. It is perfect for stews and sauces or any other recipe that calls for thick sauce. Since it has less water, you also get more of the tomato flavors.
Tomato pastes provide versatility in cooking. You can add water to make its consistency thinner. You can also add your favorite herbs and spices to make it a tomato sauce. The issue with this product is that you may not use up all the contents of the can. A single tablespoon of tomato paste is often enough to impart flavor in a dish.
- Tomato Sauce
This canned tomato product is like your tomato puree, except that it has a thinner consistency. It also contains seasoning like salt and sugar. Some brands add garlic and herbs, often depending on the flavor they want to produce.
Like puree, tomato sauces undergo cooking and straining. This is good for almost every other recipe that calls for milder tomato flavors, but with the addition of herbs and spices. You can also reconstitute tomato paste to turn it into tomato sauce. You can add water and your favorite herbs, sugar, and seasonings.
- Stewed Tomatoes
If tomato sauce only contains very few seasonings, stewed tomatoes contain additional ingredients. Depending on the manufacturer, this tomato product can contain salt, sugar, celery, onions, bell peppers, herbs, and many more. This is perfect for individuals who may not have the time to prepare all the different ingredients in their tomato-based dish. It’s a real time-saver.
The only issue, of course, is that you do not have control over the ingredients that may be present in the product. It is for this reason that cooks would prefer making their tomato sauce from scratch. This way they can choose the ingredients they want to include in the sauce.
Canned tomatoes offer a more convenient way of making tomato-based recipes. They come in different types. There are those that mimic fresh tomatoes while others undergo significant processing. These are available to you all-year round, making them the perfect addition to your pantry.