Sometimes, you do. Other times, you don’t. When the recipe isn’t explicit about what to do, here’s how to decide.
Much can be said about the true Italian-American staple: a can of thick, elongated, particularly juicy plum tomatoes. They are peeled, kept whole, diced, or crushed, and then packed in tomato sauce. From this moment on, they become shelf-stable and retain their best quality for 3 to 5 years.
Canned tomatoes are made from plum tomatoes, a type of tomato grown specifically for preserving and making sauces out of. There are many varieties of plum tomatoes, including Roma and San Marzano in Italy, and Big Mama and Amish Paste stateside.
All canned tomatoes have one thing in common: they are packed in tomato sauce. Depending on the manufacturer—and, sometimes, on the batch—some sauces are flavorsome, and others are insipid. Some are thick, while others watered are down.
So, when using canned tomatoes, it’s only natural to ask the question: “Do you drain canned tomatoes, or do you save and cook with the juice?”
When (And When Not to) Drain Canned Tomatoes
When making tomato soup, pasta sauce or pizza sauce, do not drain the canned tomatoes. Instead, add the tomato juice to the saucepan or pot, add salt to taste, and simmer over medium heat for 6-7 minutes, or until it reaches the desired thickness.
Want to refresh yourself with a Bloody or a Virgin Mary on a sultry summer’s day? Put the tomatoes with the juice in your blender, along with Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, and salt and black pepper to taste, and blend to a smooth, watery sauce that you can mix with vodka and pour on the rocks.
If you are substituting canned tomatoes for fresh tomatoes because you have run out of fresh tomatoes or they are out of season, it is probably a good idea to drain the tomatoes of the juice they were canned in. Save the juice for later and use it to make soup or stew; it will keep for 4-5 days in the fridge.
The thing about canned tomatoes—and why we’re telling you all of these golden rules—is that they contain a lot of liquid. In a 14-ounce can, for example, you can have 8.7 ounces of juice and 5.46 ounces of tomatoes. That’s as much as 61.25% moisture content that you may or may not want to add to your dish.
When in doubt, the recipe should be your first guide. As long as it is written explicitly enough to answer your question, and, unfortunately, that’s not quite the case with some recipes.
When the recipe author has left you guessing, consider:
When are you adding the canned tomatoes to your dish? Is it at the beginning of the cooking process so that the tomato juice has enough time to cook down? Or is it just before the end of the cooking time, in which case you probably don’t want to add much liquid?
How much tomato flavor do you want to add to your dish? If the tomato is the main character, you do not have to think twice about pouring out the contents of the juice along with the fruit itself. If the tomato plays a supporting role, the tang from the juice can frankly be overpowering.
Have you ever tried this recipe in this proportion? If the answer is “yes” and it worked out beautifully, by all means, go for it. If it is “no” and you have no idea how your dish will turn out, play it safe. Pour ⅓ of the juice into the saucepan or pot and save the rest in case you need it later.
What Kind of Canned Tomatoes Should I Be Using?
For starters, get a really good can. Canned tomatoes are not a product to be stingy about; the cheapest stuff is tough, under-ripened, and packed in overly salty and/or watered-down sauce that may or may not contain calcium chloride.
The taste-testers at The New York Times’ Wirecutter recommend Bianco DiNapoli, San Merican, and Cento whole peeled plum tomatoes. We not only agree with their picks, but they happen to be our editorial team’s favorites, too; there’s no way to go wrong with any of them.
The above links will take you to Amazon, where you can get a six- or twelve-can supply of any of these picks. Alternatively—and for those of you who want to shop for food locally—you can look for the same brands at the Italian market or a good Italian deli in town. They are highly likely to stock them.
Now that we have settled the brands, the question arises as to which variety of canned tomatoes should be used?
A quick look at the canned tomato varieties in the grocery store shows that there are whole peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes, and—the odd one out—tomato paste. Our guide to each of them, below.
Whole Peeled Canned Tomatoes
Whole peeled canned tomatoes are by far the most common and versatile variety of canned tomatoes on store shelves. They are peeled, kept whole, then canned with juice. If your recipe doesn’t specify the type of canned tomatoes to use, nine times out of ten it was developed with whole peeled canned tomatoes. Remember to not skim on quality and go for a great product from a reputable brand.
Diced Canned Tomatoes
At first glance, canned tomatoes may seem like a time saver. Until you read through the list of ingredients on the back of the can—and realize that most of them tend to have extra salt and calcium chloride added.
The higher salt content is self-explanatory. When you dice the tomatoes, the salt helps bring out their aroma and flavor (rather than leaving them to have no smell and taste bland). The extra calcium chloride helps the diced tomatoes stay firm for longer, especially when they are swimming in all that juice. However, it also gives them a somewhat bitter and modified taste, particularly as the can gets older.
It is always and without exception better to buy whole peeled tomatoes and dice and salt them yourself than to use diced tomatoes “for convenience”. The reason behind that is simple: This convenience comes at a high price for the quality of the product. Compared to the extra 30 seconds it takes you to cut the whole peeled tomatoes with a knife, it is just not worth it.
Crushed Canned Tomatoes
Basically, crushed tomatoes are a concoction of tomatoes that have been crushed with a fair amount of juice. They’re perfect for soups, sauces and other dishes that don’t need traditional tomato chunks mixed in.
Crushed tomatoes are crushed, and not canned whole, for a reason. They are of inferior quality or have visual defects that make them unsuitable for canning whole, both of which are solved with the crushing process.
Considering that, you can’t help but wonder… Isn’t it better to buy whole peeled tomatoes, pour the contents of the can in a large bowl, then crush them by hand yourself? I know that’s what I do, and it yields a superior result every single time. Not surprisingly, I recommend that you do the same.
If you do decide to use crushed tomatoes, make sure that when you buy them, you choose a can to which no tomato paste has been added. Tomato paste thickens the end result so much, its flavor becomes dense and overpowering. Use only crushed tomatoes and juice.
Fire-Roasted Canned Tomatoes
Fire-roasted tomatoes are taking the country by storm. Thanks to the smoke from the wood and the caramelization of the sugars from the heat, you get some extra flavors with these pre-roasted canned tomatoes that you are not going to get with any other variety.
Sometimes, you get a little more smokiness. Other times, you get the sweet onion that they’re usually canned with. Or, depending on the brand, you may get a little garlic. At the end of the day, these are all going to add extra aromas and flavors to your dish that are nothing like pure canned tomatoes.
Understand that going in, and you won’t have any problems. Fire-roasting canned tomatoes are simply one of those ingredients that isn’t fit for every recipe.
The Odd Ball: Tomato Paste
Tomato paste is a bit of an oddball in the world of canned tomatoes. That’s mostly because it’s not actual tomatoes. Instead, it is reduced-down, highly-concentrated tomato juice.
Just a teaspoon or two of tomato paste will dramatically ramp up your favorite sauces, your favorite soups, or any other dishes that you are dropping it into. If you are after a big umami bomb, this is the way to go! If it isn’t, stay away from them.
Squeezing Every Bit of Flavor From Canned Tomatoes
Squeezing every drop of flavor from canned tomatoes becomes a whole lot easier when you keep these tips and tricks in your back pocket:
The Juice is a Splash of Umami All on It’s Own
The juice in which whole, diced, crushed, or fire-roasted canned tomatoes are preserved in is almost always going to be a full-bodied and flavorful liquid that can be added to dishes on its own; used properly, it adds complexity.
This is a big part of why you will want to be sure that you reserve at least a little bit of the canned tomato juice you have on hand (keeping in mind that you should use it up within the week). You never know when a splash of this juice can help you take a dish from ordinary to extraordinary.
Even Better with a Little Reduction
If you really want to ramp things up, consider draining all of that tomato juice from your cans directly into a saucepan, seasoning it with a pinch or two of sea salt to taste, and then cranking up the heat to medium-high.
Stir and simmer until you reduce the sauce down into a thick consistency. Spices and seasonings don’t deal well with high heat, so it’s best to add black pepper or Italian herbs after taking the sauce off the heat. Toss with pasta cooked al dente or top your homemade pizza pie with it, and enjoy.
The Perfect Thickener
Finally, if you come across tomatoes canned in thick juice, and you don’t need all of it for the recipe, preserve the leftovers in a jar or food storage container and keep that stuff on hand.
When you need to thicken sauce, soup, or stew—and you want some of that sweet, savory, full-boded tomato taste—the thick juice is a chefs-kiss-worthy ingredient. Instead of adding cornstarch or flour, and throwing the flavors of your dish off, you will get a subtle, salty sweetness that elevates the dish to new heights.