Canned Tomato Blues

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Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer
All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer
Homegrown Tomatoes, Guy Clark

As a society, we tend to buy roughly the same grocery store items over and over by reflex. We don’t like change much. What’s the easiest or cheapest to buy? I’ll take it, thank you.

I live in a town of about 34 square miles. If it were a true square, that’d be just less than 6 miles from one side to the other in any direction. I could walk it if I was motivated. And in that space, I have maybe a dozen grocery stores and that’s not counting the box stores and mini-marts that also sell groceries.  We live in a time of staggering abundance. (Yet there are parts of town that are not close to one of these. Boggles the mind.)

 

For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies mentioned here other than I’ve purchased their products. All opinions are mine alone.

 

In the early 1900s, a grocery store had maybe 200 different products for our shopping pleasure and convenience.  And by 1975, it was still less than 10,000.  But today, and still growing, it is up to 40,000 to 50,000 different grocery items!

And some of the new super stores are like day trips where you need to pack extra water and a sandwich to visit. I wear an activity tracker on my wrist that counts my steps during the day and tries to nudge me to walk more and sit less. And I can tell you, it jumps for joy when we go for groceries.

But wait…it gets better…as you go from the grocery store on the corner to the one down the street, you’re going to find different products! Many the same, sure, but not as many as you might think. Or wish.

That’s just plain crazy overwhelming and frustrating and it’s no wonder so many people hate grocery shopping!

grocery shelves with canned tomatoes

Update 4/30/2018: And even more as I visit more stores! It’s almost become a hobby at this point. Notice, they’re like snowflakes, no two alike. It’s overwhelming.

grocery store shelves of tomatoes

 

Once upon a time…

On this particular adventurous day of mine, it made finding a can of good quality, good tasting, and reasonably affordable tomatoes quite the challenge. It brought the whole needle and haystack thing rather forcibly to the front of my mind. To the point where you have to wonder whether they actually want you to buy tomatoes or is it just a ploy to sell more anxiety medicine. Good grief.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened.

A few years ago, I actually spent the time to choose a canned tomato product that made me happy when I cooked. Only two stores in town carried it (same store, two locations, that is). And even though I have a few stores closer to the house, I make the regular trek over to get these particular tomatoes. (Yes, I know 2.4 miles probably doesn’t qualify as a trek.)

Why?

So, nothing beats homegrown or locally-grown-by-a-farmer-you-love tomatoes. Hands down. Don’t even talk to me.

But I can’t get those year-round. And I can’t keep them in the pantry for last-minute meals. I’m too lazy and disorganized to can my own. And frankly, as much as I love to cook, it has to be a barn burner of a meal with special guests invited before I reduce my own tomato sauce or paste as part of a larger recipe.

Grocery store fresh tomatoes? Not usually. Not unless they’re vine-ripened and local, which isn’t too often.  Most are picked and shipped while they’re still green. Then, they’re artificially reddened often using ethylene gas. They’re pretty flavorless compared to the real deal. So unless you have no other choice….

That said, one of my favorite things in this world is a simple pot of pasta sauce on the back of the stove bubbling away. It brings joy to my world. Not to be maudlin, but I know that when my people one day look back and remember me, the smell won’t be a favorite cologne, it’ll be some form of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil.

AND THEN THE STORE QUIT CARRYING IT.

No warning. No closeout. Just gone. Their prerogative, sure, but argh.

I happened to have my oldest child (almost 24 now) in tow on this particular day and he was rolling his eyes something spectacular as we asked for and cornered the store’s product manager and he then spent five minutes poking at his computer (I know my way around a computer and he was poking at it, just saying) to tell me they no longer carried it. Duh.

I went so far as to reach out to one of the owners of the tomato company and ask for help. He was sympathetic but obviously it wasn’t his fault.

I looked online. And yes, I can buy my favorite tomatoes and have them drop-shipped to the house. At a jaw-dropping markup. Like, I could have someone in Italy home-grow and hand-pick a basket and ship them to the house in a handmade quilt-lined container type of markup. So that’s not happening.

 

Rant Over

And that brings me to today. On to the adventure.

I went to all of those grocery stores and scoped out their canned tomatoes. I went online to a few of the larger stores in the country, like Wegmans and Publix for example, that we don’t have here. And I hit the books and papers to catch up on the latest tomato news.

I FOUND WELL OVER 100 DIFFERENT CANS / BOTTLES / BOXES OF TOMATOES!

In a 34 square mile town.

 

empty tomato cans
Some of the tomatoes I tried. To be fair, I didn’t put a “don’t throw this away” sign on a couple others.

Throw Down

And I bought tomatoes. More than a dozen cans, jars, and boxes of them. I didn’t buy them all — who has that kind of money? and in some cases, yuck — but rather the ones that I guessed might have a decent chance in the running. The ones with stray chemicals didn’t even get a start. Read those labels.

I tasted each one several times, comparing them, and taking notes.

 

So many of these products add salt (to boost the taste,) calcium salts (to help preserve the shape and firmness), citric acid (to help regulate acidity), and often basil (which I don’t really understand at all).

If I see a basil leaf floating in there, I toss it straight away.

“Fresh tomatoes readily cook down to a smooth puree, but many canned tomatoes don’t. Canners frequently add calcium salts to firm the cell walls and keep the pieces intact, and this can interfere with their disintegration while cooking. If you want to make a fine-textured dish from canned tomatoes, check the labels and buy a brand that doesn’t list calcium among its ingredients.”

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

Update 4/12/2018: I included the photo below of the DiNapoli label to show the firming agents included. After hearing from Rob DiNapoli, and sending him the picture, I got some great news back. Wow! Thank you for that. We will get that line changed ASAP as we have not used Calcium Chloride in over five years! Thanks again Bill. And a few days later, he sent me a proof for the new labels with ingredients: Sun-ripened pear tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, citric acid, and fresh basil leaf. This gives me joy. Thanks, Rob.

After tasting all the different brands, my favorite tasting was easily DiNapoli. The San Marzano style peeled tomatoes variety, specifically. The brand the store quit carrying was Bianco DiNapoli, organic, by the way. I’d much rather have those organic but….

Only two of the brands I tried didn’t have salt added. And straight out of the can or box, they seemed bland in comparison. But once I added a touch of salt, they were great. Well, one of them was.

 

Bottom Line

DiNapoli San Marzano Style Kirkland Signature tomatoes

#1 When I need the good stuff, I want Bianco DiNapoli Organic.

#2 Barring that, regular DiNapoli San Marzano style (albeit knowing they have Calcium Chloride and/or Calcium Sulfate).

#3 The Kirkland Signature organic series from Costco are my go-to fallback. These are quite good and my kind of affordable. Organic California Roma tomatoes, vine ripened, freshly packed.

#4 I’ll grab a box of Pomì if needed. Nothing added 100% tomatoes — which I love — and they tasted very good. Just a bit pricey.

 

Myself, I prefer a rustic sauce. So my favorite method is to simply squish the whole tomatoes with my hands in a bowl before I start cooking. By the way, puncture each tomato with one of your fingers before you squeeze it or you’ll end up wearing a good deal of decorative tomato.

One of the kids doesn’t like the texture of onions and garlic. The taste is fine, just not the texture. I know, I don’t get it either, but it is what it is. So I often take an immersion blender to my sauce. What Emeril called a “boat motor” and we still do. And all problems pretty much solved. It’s not silky smooth but that’s okay.

 

San Marzano

There is something about the terroir of a true San Marzano tomato that makes it special.

Be aware though, so many canned tomatoes have the words San Marzano on the outside, but that’s not exactly what’s inside.

If you see it followed by the word style, that’s fine, it’s a plum-type tomato with thicker cell walls and fewer seeds, shaped somewhat like an egg, and life is good. Just be aware. Like olive oil and Parmesan, there are unfortunately many fakes out there. See The Fake Rolex of Canned Foods and Apparently Most Canned ‘San Marzano’ Tomatoes Are Fake.

 

Organic

You know me, I prefer organic food. Poison is poison regardless of the dosage. But I’m also realistic. It’s not always black and white.

And organic doesn’t automatically mean better, though it usually still means more expensive. Organic doesn’t mean it tastes good either. Whatsoever.

Case in point.

Huge disclaimer: I assume every single one of those cans on the shelf is put there by a company who wants to provide us the very best product they can at all times. And that sometimes it’s no more than a difference in taste and palette between us. Like my former boss used to say, “Always assume positive intent.”

But I do not like Muir Glen tomatoes (a General Mills company) and I’m talking only for myself here. I think they’re bland and taste like grocery store tomatoes in a can. I realize that’s harsh and I mean no offense. And to my sadness, my nearest “organic” grocery store has erected what amounts to a shrine to them with every offshoot variety top-to-bottom and virtually no other brand on the shelf.

Your mileage may vary.

 

But, tomatoes are sadly #10 on the EWG Dirty Dozen.

So I reached out to DiNapoli for some help and I learned “the DiNapoli brand tomatoes are delivered by hard-working California farmers who’ve worked the soil for many generations. Farming practices include occasional use of pesticides and herbicides however no tomatoes with detectable levels enter the cannery.” (Emphasis mine.)

I also learned that my favorite “organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes are grown by Scott Park and the soil has been farmed organically for over 20 years.”

So for now, I’m good enough. I can continue to develop recipes that make people happy otherwise unimpeded.

 

tomato sauce containers on a table

All’s Well that Ends Well

I will still keep an eye out for the return of Bianco DiNapoli Organic.

And to my local grocery, be prepared for a regularly occurring product request card in that little box up front by the service desk.

 

If you’re curious, I later made an all-in stockpot-sized batch of pasta sauce that was actually quite good. It was certainly the most complex tasting sauce I’ve ever made with mixed notes of deepness, richness, and watery-blandness with several differing types of basil.

It’s not an approach I’d recommend but, seriously, we enjoyed it. (I froze most of it.)

Thanks for listening. Be well.


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11 thoughts on “Canned Tomato Blues

  1. Oh Bill: I could write a short story to be able to bring up all the points you have raised! To get the simple out of the way: Because of Australia’s climate we can get a huge variety of nice red tomatoes in the greengrocery section all year, tho’ the glut and throw-away prices and sweetest taste naturally come in summer: oh they still do not taste like the ones you grow in your back garden! Of your tinned tomatoes I have seen none on our shelves, which have enough local and so many European varieties but know some of the names from US blogs. Yes, our current supermarkets also resemble football fields – one of the reasons I so love internet grocery shopping late at night, comfortably sitting in my library with a cup of green tea ! Actually the German company Aldi has cut prices and simplified shopping by only offering one or two items from each type of food . . . well, I do like my choice 🙂 ! Being from the medical field my main resistance to tinned tomatoes is quite, quite different – So many people do not realize the huge health problems they face with every tin they use because of the almost inevitable presence of BPA in the walls of the tin: supposedly you increase your chance by 1600% (no error – check yourself) of getting a multiplicity of diseases, led by brain and prostate and other cancers, heart disease, diabetes: need I go on !!! Mr Google will tell you the facts – and that goes for tinned drinks as well !!! I try to avoid ‘the middle isles’ of the supermarket like the plague. Do I ever use tins (cans to you methinks!) – yes, time and availability. living in the country, sometimes dictate . . . but I do my very best to buy stuff in in glass jars and bottles (say passata which I use copiously) . . . . so it is not only the excess salt . . . Interesting topic, Bill – thank you!

    • I absolutely hear what you’re saying, Eha, and couldn’t agree more. And thank you for bringing it up, I definitely should have. The BPA issue has been front and center here in the States for the last several years and I think we’ve made great strides. See https://www.canmaker.com/online/food-cans-in-the-us-are-almost-all-bpa-free-says-industry-body/. I also agree the middle aisles are mostly to be avoided, no doubt, but not completely. We use passata as well, we just don’t call it that. I’d rather see the salt-free options too, but people don’t buy products that way I’ve observed. The different stocks, e.g. chicken and beef, sell better with salt added even though that makes no difference to the underlying quality.

      • Huge thanks for the link which I have quick read and which, together with other info re this which must be available, I would like to peruse carefully in a later read. My scanning of Mr Google did not bring this up and I just hope that the situation has improved here in Australia also. Here the salt-angle is so well known that people ask about it first, oft little realizing that sugar also enters the picture . . . properly salted stock is bought by very few and there is a noticeable move towards making one’s own. As half of our TV programming is made up of foodie shows that is seen and heard by most of the population multiple times a night!

  2. Although Sweden has a few Mega-Grocery stores, we avoid them as much as possible. I actually hadn’t thought about it sense moving here, but we used to shop in a huge Kroger an one side of one whole isle was devoted to tomato product. I must also say, none of which we used unless desperate. I always stopped at a grocer (Jungle Jim’s) when passing through Cincinnati and buy a case of our preferred canned tomato (Sapori di Corbara).
    Here in our rather small but efficient market we have three choices for canned tomatoes and they are all good. No Sapori di Corbara, but we have every form of Mutti canned and jarred tomatoes. And, on a pensioner’s budget, Mutti is just fine.
    Great informative post.

  3. Oh this is one great post!!! Thanks for all of this information. I was familiar with some of it, but certainly not all. Like San Marzano-style????? That’s just nuts. That would describe every Roma tomato??? As much as I dislike summer, I’m counting the days till my first tomato ripens and I don’t have to think about canned products.

    • I think so many people are surprised at the quality difference between two more-or-less affordable cans. Having tasted so many on that day, I know even I was a bit. A few I’d eat with a spoon out of the can but too many others were, as nicely as I can put it, off-putting. Thanks for stopping by, Mimi.

  4. Great article Bill. So much information packed in your post.
    Supermarkets make it difficult and expensive to maintain shelf space, especially in trying to market across the US. We are hopeful Amazon style home shopping can help niche food companies like our deliver consumers nation wide.
    Our Bianco DiNapoli have a special flavor because they are grown by a remarkable NoCal organic farmer named Scott Park who has been nurturing his grown with mulch and a four crop annual rotation for over 20 years. Dispite receiving interest across the US, supermarkets are quick to drop items whose sales velocity don’t meet ‘national brands’ nor have the funds to advertise.
    Thank you for the kind words about our ‘conventional’ DiNapoli San Marzano style tomatoes. We keep the citric acid to a minimum, top the peeled tomatoes with a lightly concentrated juice and add a bit of salt and a couple of fresh basil leaves. As good as Italian imports and made in America!
    Bill, please double check our DiNapoli label regarding Calcium Choloride salts as we don’t use them on either of our peeled tomato brands.
    Keep up the great articles as there is so much more to learn about the food we eat.
    Rob DiNapoli

    • Thanks for the kind words, Ron. I stand by my opinion as to you and Chris’ products — they are my favorites. I also appreciate the callout to Scott. You can tell when a farmer honestly adds in the love.

  5. Hey, great article! I really loved it. I used to live in a rural area, and on Saturdays, I’d travel to nearby towns just because I knew of some shop there that carried something I loved. Now I live in Chicago, and although now all I have to do is go from one neighborhood to another looking for great food, it ironically takes about the same amount of time. Anyway, amen to all the tomato advice. I admire canners, but you know you can freeze them, too. Half the work. I also agree with you about the tremendous difference in quality. Night and day. You’ve got to get a good can. Like you, I also squish them by hand, which is the best part of the process. I find that if you fully submerge the tomato in the sauce before squishing, you can also avoid the hysterically funny spatter.

    • Hi Jeff. We make the 30-40 minute drive to a Costco every month or so. Otherwise, I try to shop as local as I can. (And by local I mean the closest I can get something that is of the quality I want.) And I have an amazing cadre of nearby farmers who make life fantastic during the growing seasons. I haven’t lived in Chicago since I was maybe 4 or 5. Not too many memories except for the 1967 blizzard — that was great fun! Thanks for the comments.

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