They’re already cooked. But does that mean you can eat them without additional cooking? We investigate.
Canned tomatoes, the greatest pantry staple of all time, are a true blessing when you want to cook up quick pasta, fragrant curry, or hearty chili for yourself and the family.
Cheap, delicious, and nutritious, the uses for canned tomatoes in the kitchen are limited only by the imagination and the ingenuity of the cook. But if you want to make gazpacho or some other cold dish with tomatoes, can you add the canned tomatoes directly from the can?
In other words, do you absolutely have to cook canned tomatoes?
Now, I can my own food, but I’m no canning expert. So I poured myself a cup of coffee, rolled up the sleeves of my shirt, and sat down at my desk to do what I do best: stare at the computer screen and scour the Internet for credible information.
After hours of research, I can only say that the Internet is divided on this issue.
Some Say You Can
On the one hand, conventional wisdom tells us that canned foods are already precooked—and therefore safe to eat without additional cooking.
Canning tomatoes involves dipping the freshly harvested tomatoes in a hot bath, peeling their skins, placing them in sterilized cans with tomato sauce, and then cooking them at 250°F (121°C). This cooking technique kills bacteria, inactivates enzymes, and forms a vacuum seal.
The cans are shelf-stable, which means you can store them in a cool and dry place, such as in a cabinet or in the pantry, and they will keep for a really long time. Opened, canned tomatoes should be refrigerated and used up within 3-4 days.
With that in mind, I wasn’t surprised to come across what I’m about to share with you below.
When asked on Amazon if Organico Bello canned tomatoes can be used in a sandwich or salad, the manufacturer, Cucina Antica Foods, replied, “Yes, you could use these in a sandwich or salad.”
Mutti, another Italian tomato brand, says that its crushed tomatoes can be used in any recipe calling for crushed tomatoes, including “for a fast tomato sauce, gazpacho, or even bruschetta.”
And it isn’t just caners.
Some of the cookbook authors I read—and whose opinions I value highly—also don’t seem to mind using canned tomatoes without cooking them.
In his book, How to Cook Everything, which should be on the bookshelf of every home cook, American food journalist and former columnist for The New York Times Mark Bittman says, “Canned tomatillos are a decent substitute for fresh.”
In the same book, in a recipe for fresh tomato salsa, Bittman recommends looking for canned tomatillos if and when fresh tomatillos are not available, even though the end result will be less crunchy.
Finally, in a recipe for gazpacho, he says to use “2 pounds tomatoes roughly chopped, or one 28-ounce can.” (Add the juice, he says.)
The notes to a recipe for tomato salsa in Techniques of Healthy Cooking by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) state, “Although fresh tomatoes are the best choice, good-quality canned plum tomatoes may be substituted.”
Others Say You Shouldn’t
If you ask canners and cookbook authors, canned tomatoes can be used right out of the can and don’t necessarily need to be cooked. Ask Internet food personalities and culinary writers, however, and you will get a different answer.
Bon Appétit’s Sarah Jampel leaves little room for interpretation in her answer. In an article titled, All of Your Canned Tomato Questions, Answered, she writes: “Um, no. Canned tomatoes should always be cooked and have no place in a BLT or salsa fresca.”
The Spruce Eats’ Danilo Alfaro seems to agree. He says that canned tomatoes are no substitute for fresh tomatoes and that you shouldn’t use them in salads, uncooked salsas, or as a condiment on your sandwiches.
The thing about canned tomatoes, which Jampel and Alfaro are definitely right about, is that they tend to take on a slightly bitter, somewhat tinny taste.
The only way to get rid of this taste is to cook the canned tomatoes so that they meld with the flavors of the rest of the ingredients (and the seasonings) of the dish.
That being said, if you buy really good canned tomatoes, the kind that cost a dollar or two more than the cheap ones from the grocery store, you will hardly notice a bitter, tinny taste.
Store-Bought vs. Home-Canned Tomatoes
All of the above applies to store-bought canned tomatoes. So is the situation any different for home-canned tomatoes?
By the looks of things, it is. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that high-acid home-canned foods should be boiled for 10 minutes before using (low-acid home-canned foods should be boiled for 20 minutes, or twice the time).
The federal agency doesn’t specify exactly which foods are covered in its recommendations, so I assume it means all foods canned at home. Since tomatoes are naturally acidic, canned tomatoes fall into the high-acid category.
The Bottom Line
Do you have to cook canned tomatoes?
As long as you buy high-quality canned tomatoes that taste almost as good, if not better, as their fresh counterparts, it doesn’t seem like you have to. They are, as one of the authors I quoted in this post likes to say, a “decent” substitute for fresh tomatoes when the latter are not in season.
But if you canned the tomatoes yourself, food safety experts recommend that you do.