Last week, I sat in (but didn’t vote) at the annual tasting. First, we tried seven kinds right out of the can. Four were rejected (too weak, too strong, bland at the end), and the remaining three were carried off to the kitchen to be ground into sauce and tested immediately on an unembellished pie — no cheese or toppings, just tomato and olive oil. All three made good pizza, but we agreed that only one retained its clear, fresh tomato flavor after a turn in the 550-degree oven.
Now a trained taster, I had to replicate the experiment at home.
I blind-tested 10 widely available brands of American and Italian canned tomatoes, mixing imported and domestic, organic and not, salted and salt-free, in purée and in juice. I tasted only whole tomatoes because whole ingredients tend to be less processed, and it’s easy to dice or crush them as needed. (I use a potato masher for the best texture in tomato sauce.)
I did not include true, certified San Marzano tomatoes, since they are at least two to three times more expensive — not what we want for regular weeknight cookery.
I did not miss them.
Among the supermarket brands, most canned tomatoes had the balance of tang, saltiness and sweetness that is the hallmark of good tomato flavor. But four of them were especially high-performing.
Here’s how I found them:
First I carved and tasted each brand right out of the can. Out of 10, I chose four top candidates.
Next, I used those four to make the simplest, most luscious tomato sauce for pasta: Marcella Hazan’s recipe, which calls for a can of tomatoes, a chunk of butter, a peeled and halved onion, and salt. All four were delicious.
Carried away with success, I invented a final, grueling test: The two freshest-tasting specimens were drained, filleted and stuffed into a BLT.
Those two — Muir Glen Organic San Marzano-style and Bionaturae Organic — made surprisingly good substitutes for fresh tomatoes in the sandwich, and in my favorite weeknight minestrone. Rounding out the top four were Cento San Marzano Organic and Simpson Brands San Marzano tomatoes. All four made intensely flavored sauces with good mouth feel.