Cooking with Canned Tomatoes

Crushed, diced, whole, stewed, tomato paste and sauce -- there are so many canned tomato variations lining the market shelves. Here are some tips for which to use and a few reminders on why you should always check the labels.
canned tomatoes

Crushed, diced, whole, stewed, tomato paste and sauce -- there are so many canned tomato varieties filling market shelves. Here are some tips for which to use and a few reminders on why you should always check the labels.

Basic Tips

I always keep cans of diced, whole and crushed tomatoes in my pantry. Muir Glen Organic and Sclafani are two of my favorite brands. I also started buying tomato paste in handy tubes. They’re easy to store in the refrigerator after opening, and while they're a bit more expensive than the 6-ounce cans, they're worth it if you only need to use a little paste at a time.

Using canned tomatoes is a huge time saver (have you ever tried peeling, blanching and canning your own?) and conveniently keep well (store them for 12 to 18 months in your cupboards or pantry). However, you can’t always interchange canned and fresh in dishes -- you won’t get the same texture or flavor. Since canned tomatoes are quickly cooked before canning, they're best for recipes that require longer cooking like sauces, soups or simmering stews and chilis.

Nutrition Facts

Canned tomatoes are low in calories and free of fat and cholesterol. The protein, fiber and vitamin C content varies from brand to brand, so you'll need to check your labels. The canning process, which involves quickly steaming or boiling, does break down some of the fiber and vitamin C. On the flip side, canned tomatoes have higher lycopene content than fresh ones ( Learn more about lycopene’s antioxidant benefits).

Common Additions

Canned foods often get criticized for being too salty, but this isn’t always the case (check out Toby’s post on buying the best canned foods). Canned tomatoes typically contain anywhere from 100 to 300 milligrams of sodium per serving -- that’s about 4 to 13% of your daily recommended amount. If you opt for “No Salt Added” versions, you can reduce the sodium by a third and control the seasoning yourself.

Along with salt, preservatives like citric acid and calcium chloride go into some products. Citric acid is there to preserve color, while calcium chloride acts as a firming agent to help keep diced tomatoes from getting too mushy. Both these preservatives are considered safe.

Manufacturers also often add some sugar to canned tomato sauces to enhance the flavor, but there are many brands that come without it. Jarred spaghetti sauces famously have added sweeteners. Check your label -- you might even see high-fructose corn syrup listed.

Some cans may also contain other veggies and herbs for extra flavor. Stewed tomatoes occasionally have peppers, onions or celery added to the mix; you’ll also find basil, garlic and/or oregano-enhanced sauces.

What to Do With Canned Tomatoes

Diced tomatoes are perfect for quick pasta or fish dishes. I use crushed tomatoes for recipes that require longer cooking -- marinara sauces especially. Whole tomatoes give you the freedom to choose; you can dice them up or give them a quick puree in the blender.

Tomato sauce or puree are good for adding smoothness to sauces and soups; tomato paste, meanwhile, has a more concentrated flavor that can give your dishes an extra tomato punch (a little goes a long way). Both canned sauces and pastes work well for thickening.

Of course, canned tomatoes are must for semi-homemade pasta or pizza sauces, but they're not just for Italian food -- chili, curry, soups, paella and even jambalaya often feature them.

For more on the specific types of canned tomatoes, check out the Food Network’s Canned Tomato Guide.

    Recipes to try:

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