We all know nothing beats fresh tomatoes from the garden, grown in summer sunshine and picked straight off the vine. Sometimes, however, such as in the dead of winter (I see you, negative wind chills across America!), canned tomatoes are the next best thing. So, inspired by a recent canned-tomato comparison at The Kitchn, I took one basic tomato sauce recipe and made it with four different brands of cans. Here’s a look at how the different options stacked up!
Listen, it’s hard to beat the convenience of canned tomatoes. They’re available year-round. They can sit in your pantry indefinitely. Even better, they’re cost-effective, priced anywhere from $1.50 on the economical end to $4+ on the high side. But, wait: $1.50 to $4? That’s no small price disparity, at least when what we’re talking about is the same basic ingredient, tomatoes, saved and canned and sold. So what’s the deal? Do some brands of tomatoes truly warrant price tags double the rest? Will buying the pricier option make a difference in cooking, especially when you’re making, say, homemade tomato sauce?
A Canned Tomato Comparison: the Inspiration
In a recent article at The Kitchn, Danielle Centoni ran a blind taste test comparing nine different brands. Results ranked from best (Cento San Marzano, with retail prices between $3 and $4) to worst (Trader Joe’s unsalted, priced at $1.59!), surprising even the testers as they compared the tastes. It’s a fun article, and the idea got me thinking. What if I took the same basic tomato sauce I make every Friday, and used it as a test for comparing different canned tomato brands in my own way? Would narrowing my search to organic or imported brands unveil any new information? How would the various cans compare? And, most importantly, would I notice any real difference between the sauces, or would the flavors of olive oil, garlic and oregano cover over any quality lacks?
The Canned Tomato Test Contenders
After shopping four different grocers and asking for feedback on Instagram, I end up bringing home a total of six different canned tomato options. Every one is either organic or imported; some are diced, some are crushed and one is whole.
Priced low to high, they are the following, tested cans in bold:
- Aldi Simply Nature Organic, Diced, $1.65
- Kroger Simple Truth Organic, Crushed, $1.69
- Trader Joe’s Organic, Diced, $1.99
- Publix Greenwise Organic, Crushed, $2.49
- Muir Glen Organic, Crushed, $2.49
- Cento San Marzano, Peeled, Whole, $3.99
I debate about making six total batches of sauce (more to test and compare!), but end up narrowing my focus to the number of burners on my stove (simultaneous cooking!). This means I drop two options from the list. See ya later, Trader Joe’s and Muir Glen: we’ll try you out another day.
Evaluating the Four Different Brands
To compare the four cans of tomatoes, I use each one in a batch of tomato sauce, cooking all four on the burners of my stove at once. Afterwards, I puree each one in the Vitamix to create a smooth, spreadable sauce. Throughout the process, I note six categories: price, ingredients, standout characteristics, preparation method, color and cooking results. Afterwards, I have my husband blind taste-test to get a second opinion on final batches.
Here’s a look at each one, broken down! You can also scroll down to the bottom of this post to see ultimate conclusions.
1. Aldi Simply Nature Organic Diced Tomatoes
Ingredients: organic tomatoes, organic tomato juice, sea salt, calcium chloride (used to help tomatoes keep their shape, according to The Kitchn), citric acid.
Standout characteristic: This can is the cheapest option. It also has, by far, the highest amount of sodium: 240mg sodium per 1/2 cup.
Preparation method: Diced.
Color: As a finished sauce, this option had the most orangey hue, compared to the other sauces’ deep red color.
Cooking results: As expected from the sodium content, this finished sauce was the saltiest–notably so, even at first taste. The diced tomatoes were also very firm and took the longest of all the canned tomatoes to break down while cooking. This sauce was perfectly fine and usable, but, compared to the others, less enjoyable.
2. Kroger Simple Truth Organic Crushed Tomatoes
Ingredients: Organic tomato puree, organic tomatoes, citric acid, calcium chloride (comparison fact: sodium content is 20mg per 1/2 cup)
Standout characteristic: It’s almost as cheap as the Aldi option, yet it contains far less sodium. Also, this is the brand I personally have bought the most often.
Preparation method: Crushed.
Color: While cooking, this option was clearly red, though a brighter, lighter shade than the Cento brand. After cooking, it had a deep red hue almost identical to the Publix and Cento varieties.
Cooking results: Fresh, tomato-ey taste. Purest flavor after the Cento brand. Probably the best value for the low price.
3. Publix GreenWise Organic Crushed Tomatoes in Tomato Puree
Ingredients: Organic tomato puree, organic tomatoes, sea salt and citric acid. Sodium content is 160mg per 1/2 cup.
Standout Characteristics: This is the moderately priced option, about a $1 higher than the Aldi/Kroger cans, but $1.50 cheaper than Cento.
Preparation Method: Crushed.
Color: Dark red during and after cooking.
Cooking Results: Of all the options, this one tasted the most like a jar of store-bought tomato sauce–creamier and thicker. It was salty and had less of a pure tomato flavor.
4. Cento San Marzano Peeled Tomatoes
Price: $3.99 at Kroger.
Ingredients: San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes, San Marzano puree, basil leaf, naturally derived citric acid and salt. Sodium content is 20mg per 1/2 cup.
Standout characteristics: Product of Italy. The only can that uses San Marzano tomatoes, which are known for being sweeter and a cult cook favorite.
Preparation method: Whole and peeled.
Color: Deepest red hue straight out of the can. Vibrant red color after cooking.
Cooking results: This sauce had the smoothest, cleanest flavor, kissed with sweetness. It was our favorite, taste-wise, though whether it warrants $2+ more than the Kroger brand is debatable.
Final Conclusions, Post Testing
In Instagram Stories, I said I went into this test with the hypothesis that I’d like all the sauces the same and that can brand didn’t matter–that was true and untrue. All the cans made decent, usable, good sauce. I would (and will) eat any one of them. That said, the Cento brand was the clear winner–a conclusion The Kitchn article also came to, testing different cans than the ones in this post. I found this heartening: the higher price tag is deserving, so, if you’re going to spend more on your tomatoes, it’s with good reason here. If, however, you’re on a food budget and you want to save money, the Simple Truth brand from Kroger was a close second. Considering it’s less than half the cost, organic and low in sodium, it’s another great everyday choice.
So will this test change what I buy? If I wanted to splurge on high quality, I might opt for the Cento can, especially if I found it cheaper than $4 (Instagram sources say Costco’s key), but, generally speaking, I will probably keep buying the Simple Truth brand from Kroger. It’s cheap, it’s good and, in my opinion, it’s the next best thing.