When we don’t have time to cut up tomatoes from scratch – or when the winter-season tomatoes at the grocery store are more a tough pale pink than juicy red – we rely on canned tomatoes that have already been processed and packed. While you wouldn’t want to use them when making a fresh pico de gallo or bruschetta, they’ve great for cooking.
In fact, canned tomatoes are one of those rare cases where for certain uses – making sauces or in other cooking applications – the canned version of a fruit or vegetable is actually preferred over the fresh version. Even high-end restaurants will use premium canned tomatoes in cooked sauces, which can’t be said for canned veggies like corn, peas, green beans, etc.
Which is to say there’s no shame in using canned tomatoes when cooking. There are lots of different types of canned tomatoes available, so we thought we’d look at a few of the most common types and what they’re typically used for.
While there really are no rules, it’s always best to use what’s called for in a recipe, especially the first time you make it. If substituting or making something without a recipe, think about what is suitable in size, texture and taste.
Whole Peeled Tomatoes: One of the most popular ways of canning tomatoes, though not necessarily for final use in whole form. They can be chopped or diced further for use in a recipe.
Stewed Tomatoes: At one time, these were used as a side dish, though this is no longer as common as it once was. They are called for in stews, lasagna, pasta dishes and soups.
Diced Tomatoes: The classic canned tomato product, diced tomatoes are used where you’d typically use fresh diced tomatoes. Soups, stews, chili, etc.
Crushed Tomatoes: The pieces are smaller than diced tomatoes, but not necessarily smooth and blended in a pureed way. If you use these instead of diced in a recipe that calls for diced, it can make the dish too acidic.
Tomato Sauce: Not to be confused with pasta sauce, which usually contains other vegetables and is sold as a finished product. Tomato sauce is thinner than tomato puree, and often has seasonings added. It’s used as a base for many other sauces.
Tomato Puree: A very thick liquid, though not as thick as paste. Made with tomatoes that are cooked and strained.
Tomato Paste: The most concentrated canned tomato product. It is cooked for hours to reduce its liquid content. It’s a thick paste (hence the name), and a little bit goes a long way. Because it’s often used in very small amounts, you may only need a tablespoon or three in a recipe. If you have any left in the can, we have a neat video tip on our YouTube channel that shows you how to portion out and freeze the rest.
- Keep an eye out for seasoned versions (with garlic, basil, etc.) that have added spices and herbs for flavour. Most recipes assume the canned tomatoes called for have no added spices unless otherwise noted.
- If you use canned tomatoes with “no salt added,” you can tailor the level of salt to your own tastes. But again, recipes tend to assume you’re using standard canned tomatoes, which tend to contain salt. You may have to tinker with the salt level to bring it up to where it needs to be for optimal flavour.