Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “The Best Canned Tomatoes, Ranked by Wirecutter and NYT Cooking
The past year has been a rollercoaster. Though most grocery stores are well stocked again, for many of us, the memories of long lines and food shortages are still too close for comfort. Which is to say, sometimes the best canned tomatoes are whatever you can find in your cupboard or on store shelves. So take the ranking below with a grain of salt, especially if the recommended brands happen to be out of stock. Although we liked some brands more than others, most will serve you well in a comforting pot of chili or batch of sauce. If you’re looking for inspiration, try making Marcella Hazan’s perfectly simple tomato sauce, our favorite Instant Pot butter chicken, a bright shakshuka, or a hearty vegetarian ribollita.
Having worked in the food and restaurant industry for a decade, I can tell you that no two brands of canned tomatoes are exactly alike. Some tomatoes are tough, underripe, and insipid. Others are velvety, brilliantly red, and full of flavor. In early 2020, before the pandemic changed everything, I organized a blind taste test with some of my colleagues from the Wirecutter test kitchen and NYT Cooking in an effort to find the best cans of whole peeled tomatoes. We tasted 28-ounce cans from 12 different brands and found a huge range—from tomatoes that were sweet enough to eat straight out of the can to ones that carried a whiff of dead animal. We were also surprised to learn that price didn’t always correspond to quality.
Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t able to assemble a panel of taste testers for our 2021 update, so I retried our top four picks from 2020 on my own (except for Target’s Market Pantry Tomatoes, which have been discontinued). I wanted to see how the new crop of tomatoes compared to when we first tested them. I also tasted two new cans of tomatoes: Target’s Good & Gather Whole Peeled Tomatoes and the Cento Italian Style Peeled Tomatoes. Like our panel did in 2020, I tasted all of the tomatoes twice: once straight out of the can and heated through, and then again made into Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce.
Here’s our updated ranking. You can also find a rundown of our original results from 2020, along with a few more recipe suggestions, on NYT Cooking.
And finally, a note on pricing: We list the online prices of these cans, and acknowledge that some of them are slightly marked up—that’s the cost of nationwide availability and convenience. But keep in mind you may be able to find these tomatoes for significantly less at your local grocery store. (For an explanation of why we avoided regional brands and stuck to cans that could be found throughout the country, read “How we picked and tested.”)
- The Bianco DiNapoli Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($6.50 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) were hands down the best canned tomatoes we tasted two years running. They had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity, with a strong tomato flavor. NYT Cooking’s Julia Moskin said she wouldn’t hesitate to put these tomatoes on a sandwich right out of the can. In fact, she liked them so much she ordered an entire case. I found that their attractive deep red color, slightly thick puree, and semi-firm texture resulted in a rich, velvety sauce. The Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes are sold at some Whole Foods stores or online. Keep in mind that these tomatoes are canned with a sprig of fresh basil, so they lend themselves best to Italian food.
- The San Merican (SMT) Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($5 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) were a close second to the Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes we tested. Though not as brilliantly red, they were well peeled, consistently shaped, and quite meaty. NYT Cooking editor Sara Bonisteel noted their “good mouth texture,” which we all found pleasantly firm without seeming unripe or crunchy. NYT Cooking’s Ligaya Mishan wrote in her testing notes, “I felt like I could eat this on its own without even cooking.” Wirecutter senior editor Marguerite Preston enjoyed the buttery richness of these tomatoes in the sauce. Unlike our other picks, the SMT tomatoes don’t contain basil, so they’ll work for a wider range of recipes.
Better than average
- The Cento Italian Style Peeled Tomatoes (about $2 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) and the Cento San Marzano Certified Peeled Tomatoes ($3.20 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) were about on a par with each other. The Italian style tomatoes have a strong tomato flavor that’s sweeter than the San Marzano ones. The San Marzano tomatoes have a slightly chunkier puree and they’re a bit more acidic. In our 2020 tasting, Ligaya found the Certified San Marzano variety “velvety tasting, but more earthy than bright,” and Wirecutter editor Winnie Yang discerned more tomato flavor in the [juice] than in the solids.” The same was true in my 2021 tasting. Both tomatoes are on the sweeter side but not bad overall. Like the Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, both versions of the Cento tomatoes contain basil.
- The Target Good & Gather Whole Peeled Tomatoes (about $1 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) were packed in a thinner, watery juice that wasn’t quite as flavorful as our other top-rated tomatoes. The tomatoes had a milder muted flavor when tasted raw. They weren’t as velvety when used for sauce and had more of a crushed tomato consistency. That said, these tomatoes made a much brighter, more flavorful sauce than similarly priced brands. If you want to spend under a dollar per can, this is the brand to get. Like the SMT tomatoes, the Target tomatoes don’t contain basil.
- The Hunt’s Whole Plum Tomatoes ($2.40 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity when tasted raw. The tomatoes are quite firm, and they didn’t break apart as easily when used for sauce as our top-rated tomatoes. There were some unripe tomatoes and peel mixed in, which was unpleasant. The sauce we made using these tomatoes was less flavorful, chunky, and not as homogenous as that of others we tasted.
- The Whole Foods 365 Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($1.70 per 28-ounce can, at the time of writing) were serviceable and much better than the non-organic Whole Foods 365 tomatoes we tasted, but nothing special. Winnie wrote that the raw tomatoes “lacked depth, but they’re bright.” Marguerite said the sauce was “a little too sweet and a bit tart.”
- The Rega Rega San Marzano Tomatoes ($5.30 per 28-ounce can) were the only ones we tested that were certified DOP. They were acidic, not too sweet, and had a pleasant tomato flavor. They also had a soft, velvety texture and a deep red color. But the sauce was pretty sour, and it received only average marks.
- The Organico Bello Premium Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($5.30 per 28-ounce can at the time of writing) were not well balanced. The word sour came up again and again in our tasting notes. Sara wrote that the raw tomatoes “smelled like bones—that whiff you get when walking through the woods when you know you’re passing a dead animal. Astringent.” The tartness didn’t mellow with cooking, either, and it dominated the sauce.
- The Bella Terra Organic Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($6.50 per 28-ounce can at the time of writing) had an off flavor discerned by several tasters. NYT Cooking editor Alexa Weibel wrote, “Tastes like chemicals, a flavor that should not exist in nature. Vile.”
- The Whole Foods 365 Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($1.40 per 28-ounce can at the time of writing) tasted notably different than their organic counterpart’s tomatoes. These tomatoes were flat, bland, and poorly peeled—a cardboard cutout of a tomato, if you will. The sauce was both bland and overly tart, with very little tomato flavor coming through.
- The Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes ($3 per 28-ounce can at the time of writing) had a surprising amount of peels left on and a dull, predominantly sour flavor. Several of our testers also sensed an off, chemical fragrance emanating from the tomatoes. And the sauce was overly acidic.
- The Contadina Whole Roma Tomatoes With Basil ($2.50 per 28-ounce can at the time of writing) were the most repulsive ones we opened. The addition of dried Italian seasoning overpowered the flavor of the tomatoes and the sauce, flooding the kitchen with the smell of oregano. On top of that, these tomatoes were cloyingly sweet and had a doleful, muddy-brown color. Julia summed this can up in two words: not good.
How we picked and tested
With countless canned tomato options to consider, I first polled Wirecutter employees living in 10 different states across the country to get a sense of which brands were available in their area. I wanted to test tomatoes that would be relatively easy for most people in the US to find at major grocery store chains or online. We intentionally avoided regional supermarket brand tomatoes, such as those sold by Safeway or Winn-Dixie, since they’re difficult to find outside the area they’re sold. That’s not to say supermarket brand tomatoes are better or worse than national brands, so if you’ve found a can you like, keep using it.
I also spent some time examining ingredients and labels. If you’re browsing canned tomatoes in the store, it’s helpful to be familiar with a few terms and ingredients:
- San Marzano and DOP: These terms are sometimes conflated. San Marzano tomatoes, which are prized for their mellow flavor, can be grown anywhere. Certain San Marzano tomatoes are certified DOP (or protected designation of origin), which guarantees that they’ve been grown, processed, and canned in a specific geographical zone in Italy. As our tests show, neither term is necessarily an indicator of flavor or quality.
- Calcium chloride: Many US brands include this additive in their ingredients. It gives the tomatoes a firmer texture and prevents them from breaking down as readily, so if you prefer tomatoes that have a softer texture for, say, putting on pizza, look for ones without calcium chloride (of our top five picks, only the SMT and Target brand tomatoes contained calcium chloride).
- Added flavors: I generally steered clear of tomatoes with sugar or “natural flavors” (read: dried herbs) among the ingredients. I made an exception for Contadina tomatoes because the seasoned version was so widely available (and the unseasoned version wasn’t), but I regretted it. The one flavor addition we didn’t mind (besides salt) was fresh basil. In fact, three out of our five favorite brands included it.
For our 2020 blind taste test, I enlisted the palates of a few members of the NYT Cooking team: writers Julia Moskin and Ligaya Mishan, and editors Sara Bonisteel and Alexa Weibel. I also included three editors from Wirecutter’s kitchen and appliance teams: Marguerite Preston, Marilyn Ong, and Winnie Yang. The panel tasted each can of tomatoes twice: once straight out of the can and heated through, and the second time used in Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce (which I cooked in advance, using a teaspoon of kosher salt and 195 grams of onions each time, for consistency). I also decanted one can from each brand into a quart container, for testers to examine the contents whole. I repeated these tests on my own for our 2021 update.
In 2020 I had each panelist evaluate the sweetness, acidity, texture, color, flavor, and overall appearance of the canned tomatoes; between tastings they cleansed their palates with water, saltine crackers, and Italian bread. (In 2021, I evaluated all of the tomatoes using the same criteria.) We were largely in agreement on our favorites. We’ve found the quality of each brand to be consistent from one can to the next, and from year to year. However, that could change in the future, so we plan to revisit our favorites to see whether there’s much variation in next year's crop (and test some new options) once we return to our test kitchen.
What to look forward to
When our test kitchen is fully operational again later this year, we plan to do another round of testing with more brands, particularly those from big-box stores like Walmart and Costco. We’d also like to test Contadina (sans dried Italian seasoning), Contadina San Marzano Style, Pastene, Sclafani, and Red Gold (other brands sold under Red Gold include: Red Pack and Tuttorosso, which use the same tomatoes as the Red Gold brand according to the representative we spoke to). We’ve had requests for tasting DelMonte tomatoes. But we’ve had a hard time locating these online and in stores, which is why we didn’t include them in our initial roundup. But we’ll look for them again for our next taste test.
Source: The NY Times
Keyword: The Best Canned Tomatoes, Ranked by Wirecutter and NYT Cooking