One of the things I miss most about summer is fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes. Nothing adds flavor to pasta sauces, soups and stews quite like 'em. But when fresh tomatoes aren't available, I'll reach for canned instead of buying those rock-hard, flavorless things that pass for produce in the store. And while all canned tomatoes are not created equal, choosing the best brand isn't hard if you know what to look for.
Two brands of canned tomatoes are tops
Several of our favorite sources have conducted taste tests of canned tomatoes in the past few years, including Real Simple and Cooking Light magazines, SeriousEats.com and the Chicago Tribune. Some sources, like Good Housekeeping, sample only whole tomatoes; others, such as Cook's Illustrated, discuss whole, diced and crushed tomatoes.
Regardless of the source, two brands are mentioned most often: Hunt's and Muir Glen. Hunt's, which is owned by ConAgra, uses conventionally grown tomatoes in their canned products; Muir Glen, owned by General Mills, uses organic produce. In their multiple reviews, the editors of Cook's Illustrated repeatedly cite these two brands as being among the best. Other sources, including Good Housekeeping, Real Simple and the Tampa Tribune, also name these two brands as best in their reviews. Tasters use words like bright, sweet-tart and fresh to describe the products, be they whole, chopped or crushed. The Hunt's and Muir Glen whole and chopped tomatoes are firm -- not mushy -- and hold up well when cooked, reviewers say, while their crushed varieties are meaty and flavorful.
Other canned tomato favorites
Although not named as often as Hunt's or Muir Glen, a couple other canned tomato brands also are praised by reviewers. Whole Foods' 365 brand gets a nod from Good Housekeeping, Real Simple and Cooking Light, although critics don't necessarily test the same type of tomato. Trader Joe's, Progresso and Red Gold also get a few mentions.
A word about BPA and canned tomatoes
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical compound found in hard plastics and other petroleum-derived materials that has been linked to health issues by some scientists. In addition to being found in common kitchen items like certain food storage containers and some water bottles, many food manufacturers use BPA in the interior linings of cans. For some consumers, this is alarming news and cause enough to avoid certain foods like canned tomatoes.
But as Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com notes, the presence of BPA in canned foods is neither new, nor are there many viable alternatives at present. Some manufacturers, such as Eden Organic, have eliminated the use of BPA in some of their canned goods. Other companies, like ConAgra (which owns the Hunt's and Healthy Choice brands) and H. J. Heinz (of eponymous ketchup and tomato fame), are well along in the process of doing so, according to a report by Green Century Capital Management and As You Sow. Other big-name food companies like General Mills are just beginning to use BPA-free cans for some product lines, such as their Muir Glen canned tomatoes.
More about tomatoes, canned or otherwise
If you want to avoid using canned tomatoes -- and you don't mind some hard work -- you can always preserve your own tomatoes. Better Homes and Gardens offers a useful tutorial for canning and freezing tomatoes on their website.
When it comes to choosing the best type of tomato for saucing and cooking, many foodies say San Marzano plum tomatoes, which get their name from the region of southwestern Italy where they were first grown, are the best kind available. But beware -- not all San Marzano tomatoes are created equal, as TheNibble.com points out.
What do you do when a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, and you've only got canned? Fine Cooking magazine offers tips for cooking when fresh tomatoes aren't available.