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Canned Diced Tomatoes

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    Posted: 16 December 2010 at 01:38

Canned Diced Tomatoes

Published July 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.

When 10 out of 16 brands garner comments like “sour, old, sad,” we just had to ask: What does it take to produce good canned diced tomatoes?

Unlike most kinds of canned produce, which pale in comparison to their fresh counterparts, a great can of diced tomatoes offers flavor almost every bit as intense as ripe, in-season fruit. For this reason it’s one of the most important staples in our pantry. We rely on diced tomatoes for everything from pasta sauce to chili to soups and stews. We even use them to make quick salsa when good fresh tomatoes are in short supply.

Supermarket shelves are teeming with different brands of diced tomatoes, and in recent years most have come out with “petite diced” versions as well. To make sense of the selection, we gathered 16 widely available styles and brands. There was only one way to start the process of identifying the best: Open the cans, pass around some spoons, and hold a blind tasting of plain, unheated tomatoes. When the tomatoes were sampled this way, potential flaws would have nowhere to hide.

To our surprise, nearly half of the brands fell short. And that’s putting it nicely: The lowest-rated tomatoes were flat-out awful, eliciting slams like “mushy, gruel-like texture” and “tastes like wet socks.”

Although we asked our tasters to consider a range of factors (natural sweetness and texture, for example), they homed in on fresh flavor as their primary criterion for loving—or loathing—a tomato. “Nothing tinny here,” wrote tasters about the favorite tomato in this round. The runner-up was similarly praised as “fruity” and “fresh-tasting.”

After the first taste test, we were down to nine brands. For the next round, we used the samples to make a simple garlic-and-olive-oil-laced tomato sauce. Our two favorites from the initial round came out on top again, with comments like “beautiful texture” and “pleasing” tomato flavor. What made the difference between these two and the remaining seven brands, half of which had nothing to recommend them, even when disguised by other ingredients and flavorings?

Hunting for Answers

Rarely have we struggled so much to nail down the reasons for liking what we liked. Appearance, for example, had no bearing on quality: Some tomatoes boasted an appealing bright red color yet tasted stale and washed out. Others, with noticeably more seeds, green pieces, and even cores, tasted quite nice. Did size matter? No. While some brands’ petites scored lower than their regular cuts, others scored higher.

The companies themselves were no help—for the most part, they told us any information was proprietary. It was only when we turned to food scientists, including Sheryl A. Barringer, a professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University, and Diane Barrett, fruit and vegetable products specialist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California-Davis, that we got some answers. According to these experts, great diced tomatoes start with the tomatoes themselves. Some companies experiment constantly to grow not only the best-tasting varieties but also the firmest fruit, with thick “walls” that will stand up to mechanical dicing. Others choose to use thin-walled tomatoes and cook them longer for a softer consistency, which our tasters did not care for.

But even a seemingly perfect tomato may not taste great. “There are tomatoes that come off the vine tasteless, and it doesn’t get better if you process them,” Barringer said. Geography may also be a factor. Our top-ranked tomatoes were grown in California, source of much of the world’s tomatoes, where the dry, hot growing season leads to sweet, complex flavor. The bottom-ranked brands came from the Midwest and Pennsylvania.

How much does the peeling procedure affect flavor? we wondered. Barringer explained that diced tomatoes are peeled either with lye, a caustic chemical, or by exposure to hot steam followed by a drop in pressure, which literally blows the peels off. But the peeling process has little effect on flavor. More important, she explained, is to process ripe tomatoes quickly, before they rot. “This can happen fast in the hot weather,” she noted. Our tasters called some brands “moldy” and “fermented,” reflecting that perhaps processors hadn’t moved fast enough.

After peeling, the tomatoes are machine-diced and canned. The juice is handled separately, heated and treated with calcium chloride (a firming agent), salt, and citric acid (to boost bright flavor and lower pH). The juice is then added to the cans, which are sealed, heat-sterilized, and rapidly cooled to prevent the tomatoes from overcooking. The timing and temperatures of these steps, said our experts, can mean the difference between preserving fresh flavor and boiling it to death.

The additives can also affect quality: We tasted tomatoes that were too sweet or too acidic (from not enough or too much citric acid) or bland from lack of salt. In fact, the tomatoes with the least amount of salt—125mg per serving compared with a chart-topping 310mg in the top-rated brand—ranked last. We encountered tomatoes so unnaturally firm from too much calcium chloride, they were like “chewing on a wet blanket.” Other brands could have used an extra jolt, with fruit so mushy that tasters likened it to “nursing home food.”

Differences in processing and additives (or even tomato variety) could also help explain why our tasters had polar-opposite reactions to products that came from the same company. For example, tasters praised Del Monte Diced Tomatoes for being “firm and meaty” while decrying its sister brand for a “Styrofoam city” tomato texture. A spokesperson from Del Monte confirmed that the tomatoes canned under its various labels (which also include S&W) are “different” but without revealing how.
Another lesson from this tasting is that we can’t count on the results to hold up indefinitely. Our experts told us that companies experiment continually with different varieties and processing methods—so that a canned tomato we like this year might not be the same one we like a few years down the road.

Best Bets

For now we can say that two brands stood out for bright, fresh tomato flavor. Our winner boasted a balance of sweet and tart, along with a “beautiful” firm-ripe texture. Our runner-up was a little sweeter, with a slightly less consistent texture. But we won’t wait too many years before tasting diced tomatoes again—just to be sure these two favorites have still got the formula right.

See the Results


Hunt's Diced Tomatoes

Tasters deemed these tomatoes "fresh" and "bright," with a "sweet-tart" flavor and "juicy," "firm-crisp-tender chunks."

Cooks Illustrated 2009 Hardbound Annual

Product Tested Ingredients Sodium Sugar pH Peeling Process Price*
Hunt's Diced Tomatoes

Tasters deemed these tomatoes "fresh" and "bright," with a "sweet-tart" flavor and "juicy," "firm, crisp-tender chunks." When commenting on the sauce, tasters liked the "concentrated," "bright," and "acidic" tomato flavor, "tender, small-to-medium-sized chunks" and "beautiful texture."

Tomatoes, tomato juice, less than 2% of: salt, citric acid, calcium chloride 310 mg 3g 4.01 Steam $1.99 for 28 ounces
Muir Glen Organic Diced Tomatoes

These tomatoes tasted "sweet," "but in a natural way, unlike others," said tasters, with "fruity," "fresh" flavor. They noted a choppy, irregular dice, though pieces were "juicy." In sauce, the tomatoes were "sweet" with a "robust," "pleasing" flavor.

Organic tomatoes and tomato juice, sea salt, naturally derived citric acid and calcium chloride. 290 mg 4g 4.23 Steam $2.69 for 28 ounces
Recommended with Reservations
Del Monte Diced Tomatoes

Tasters said these tomatoes were "firm and meaty with lots of fresh flavor." For some, though, the dice was too big: "the size of Texas." Others said it was a bit "chewy." In sauce, the tomatoes were "bright" with "rich tomato flavor," though some tasters found it "too acidic."

Tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, calcium chloride, citric acid 200 mg 4g 3.87 Proprietary $1.33 for 14.5 ounces
Recommended with Reservations
Contadina Petite Cut Diced Tomatoes

Many tasters liked the "sweet, clean flavor" and "nice, soft texture" of these tomatoes. But a few complained of "uber-sweetness" and felt the dice was "too small" and "stringy." The tomatoes fared better in sauce, receiving comments such as "good chew" and "nice all around."

Tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato puree, salt, calcium chloride, citric acid 250 mg 4g 4.06 Proprietary $1.79 for 14.5 ounces
Recommended with Reservations
Cento Petite Diced Tomatoes

When tasted plain, these tomatoes were called "mealy," "like stewed tomatoes," with "the texture of canned peaches" and a slightly "stale," "chunky-ketchup" flavor. But in sauce, they won praise for "bright flavor," though tasters thought they broke down too much.

Fresh red ripe tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, calcium chloride, naturally derived citric acid 220 mg 3g 4.18 Lye $2.59 for 28 ounces
Not Recommended
Contadina Diced Tomatoes

"These tomatoes received a few positive comments and many negative, such as "too bland" with "very watery and artificial taste." A too-firm texture and too-acidic flavor led one taster to write: "Styrofoam city with citric acid." When describing the sauce, tasters noted "so-so" flavor and "very inconsistent texture.

Tomatoes, tomato juice (tomato puree, water), salt, citric acid, calcium chloride 200 mg 4g 4.16 Proprietary $1.99 for 14.5 ounces
Not Recommended
Hunt's Petite Diced Tomatoes

These tomatoes were "unremarkable," wrote tasters, with "bright flavor at first that quickly dissipates." They also disliked the "overripe texture, like too-ripe watermelon, a little slimy and pulpy." In sauce, these tomatoes "look pre-chewed" and tasted "acidic" with "not a ton of tomato flavor."

Tomatoes, tomato juice, less than 2% of: salt, citric acid, calcium chloride 280 mg 3g 4.14 Steam $1.99 for 28 ounces
Not Recommended
Redpack Diced Tomatoes

Tasters strongly disliked these perfect-looking tomatoes. calling them "watery and bland" and "rubbery and sour." The texture didn't fare much better: "Way too mushy. Chunks are oversized yet still instantly disintegrate in my mouth like nursing home food." In sauce, these tomatoes tasted "sour, old, and sad."

Tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, citric acid, calcium chloride 220 mg 3g 4.01 Lye $2.29 for 28 ounces
Not Recommended
Furmano's Diced Tomatoes

We tried these tomatoes before and after the company cut its sodium content by more than half and switched to sea salt; unfortunately, the taste didn't improve. "A little blah compared to others," was one comment. Tasters didn't like the texture, either, calling it "mealy and grainy." In sauce, these tomatoes were "pulpy," with a "bland tomato flavor."

Diced tomatoes, tomato juice, sea salt, calcium chloride, and citric acid 125 mg 3g 4.12 Lye $1.98 for 28 ounces

*Prices subject to change.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16 December 2010 at 11:02
Hey very nice review~! Though I don't agree with all the findings, this is a great reference post for the forum. Thumbs Up
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