Pantry essentials: How to choose and use canned tomatoes

It's best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavourings except salt.
It's best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavourings except salt. Photo: Supplied

I love fresh tomatoes. I grow a dozen plants every year, post way too many tomato photos on Instagram, and I'm currently working on a tomato cookbook. But I'm also practical, and once fresh tomatoes are out of season, my affections turn to canned.

Unlike most canned fruits and vegetables (think spinach), a quality canned tomato isn't some poor imitation of the fresh version. The challenge is that unlike a fresh one that you can see, smell, even squeeze, a canned tomato is ... in a can. So, how do you know which ones to buy? So many brands, so many forms: whole peeled, with or without basil, garlic, chillies. Diced. Petite diced. Crushed, pureed, stewed - even fire-roasted.

When life gives you canned tomatoes, make Neil Perry's meatballs braised in tomato sauce.
When life gives you canned tomatoes, make Neil Perry's meatballs braised in tomato sauce. Photo: William Meppem

Stick to the basics: You may think it more efficient to select "crushed" because you plan to make a spaghetti sauce or "diced" because you want small pieces in your vegetable soup. But it's best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavourings except salt, and do the shape-shifting yourself.

Working with whole tomatoes can be messy, but it lets you maintain control and avoid surprises, such as "crushed" tomatoes that are too watery, or "diced" tomatoes that remain so stubbornly diced as to never soften and integrate with soup or salsa or chilli. This is by design, as most brands of diced tomatoes contain calcium chloride, which keeps the tomatoes firm. I'm sure there are some dishes where unyielding squares of tomato (even "petite" squares) are a benefit, but I generally want mine to soften.

How to get the most from your can

- Transfer leftovers directly to the freezer. Canned tomatoes freeze well, so if you don't need the entire can, slide some into a freezer container for later use. Do not put the excess in the fridge - like I often do - thinking you'll use it in a couple of days and then find it a month later, "embellished" with mould.

It's best to start with whole peeled tomatoes, with no other flavourings except salt, and do the shape-shifting yourself.

- Break them up in the can. A slightly awkward move that can save a mess when all you need is to break up the whole tomatoes. Either take a sharp knife and slice through the contents several times or use kitchen shears to snip them ... be sure the hinge of your shears is clean because you'll be submerging them in the tomato juices. Yes, I see what's in your junk drawer.

- For more control, take them out of the can. Do this when you want a uniform chunk or a fine chop rather than waiting for the tomatoes to break down in a long-simmered dish. To avoid too much mess, gently squeegee each tomato with your fingers before placing it on your cutting board.

- Focus on your core. Most tomatoes are soft and will easily break apart during cooking, but sometimes you get a batch with a tough, stringy core and dense tomato stem ends, so chop or crush the tough sections before adding them to your dish.

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- Use a canned tomato more like a fresh one - roast it. Line a couple of rimmed baking trays with baking paper - makes cleanup a cinch. Lift a tomato from the can, open the seed pockets gently with your finger, squeegee off excess liquid, and arrange on the baking sheet with 1cm between tomatoes. Roast at 150C - naked, or drizzled with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a scattering of rosemary, oregano or thyme - until the excess liquid has cooked off and the tomatoes grow chewier, concentrated and lightly browned around the edges, 45 to 90 minutes. Use right away or store in the fridge tightly covered for up to a week.

Ideas for roasted canned tomatoes:

Whole: Use in sandwiches, such as a winter BLT, with the "L" being a wilted green such as kale or rapini. Layer with mozzarella and/or roasted red pepper for a winter caprese salad. Top a pizza or focaccia. Alternate with sliced potatoes and onions, then bake as a gratin. Skip the marinara and use as one layer in your next lasagna.

Chopped: Add to the aromatic vegetables in soups, stews or a pot of beans (add toward the end of cooking, as acid can inhibit the beans from softening). Create an instant pasta sauce with chopped anchovies, black olives, torn herbs, chilli flakes, a splash of pasta water and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Canned tomatoes are not inferior to the fresh version.
Canned tomatoes are not inferior to the fresh version. Photo: James Brickwood

The Washington Post