Canned tomatoes flew under my radar until I was about 12 — and then, somehow, they just seemed wrong. Canning something that was so perfect raw, let alone stewing and then canning it, just seemed to make no sense. Except for tomato sauce — that was different. Oh, and ketchup, of course. And tomato soup.
My views have evolved since then, and now canned tomatoes are something I try to keep in the house all the time. For one thing, I’ve found that canned tomatoes have their own intense, delicious flavor — though they can’t take the place of fresh tomatoes, they’re good in their own way. For another, they’re just so handy.
Let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of tomatoes you’ll find in cans in your supermarket. These all typically come in 16- or 28-ounce cans. Word to the wise: Read the labels carefully, as they tend to look alike. More than once I’ve come home with crushed tomatoes when I wanted diced.
Stewed tomatoes, the original type, are still whole, but have usually shrunken in the cooking process. They’re packed in a thin tomato juice and may be flavored with anything from peppers to garlic. If your dish would look better topped with round tomatoes, this is your best option. Be sure to drain off the juice unless the recipe says otherwise. You can save it to use instead of water when you’re cooking condensed tomato soup, or rice, or anything that needs liquid and could use a little tomato taste.
Diced tomatoes are just what they sound like — and since they come in smaller pieces, they’re generally easier to cook with than stewed. They also come seasoned, to get you started on typical tomato-based dishes from pasta with sauce to chili. You can also drain them and mix them, straight from the can, with fresh-cooked pasta for a quick topping. Or you can add them to commercial salsa to make it milder.
Crushed tomatoes are in liquid form — a thick liquid. They don’t usually come with any seasoning, even salt, but that leaves you free to decide on your own. Once you’ve added your seasonings, you’ve pretty much got your tomato sauce. Of course, if you like it chunkier, you can add drained diced tomatoes.
Tomato paste comes in small jars because a little of it goes a long way. Both the taste and the texture are very concentrated. Try combining it with diced tomatoes (including their juice) for a quick sauce.
You can see now why I’ve come to depend on canned tomatoes.