11 things to know when buying and cooking with tomatoes

There's now a huge choice of tomato products available in supermarkets. We talk you through the options, which tomatoes to use with which recipe, and ask whether posh chopped tomatoes are really worth it...

Different types of tomatoes

We're big fans of canned food for certain dishes, and there's no more common sight in our recycling bin than an empty tomato tin. We have hundreds of recipes containing them and aren't afraid to pay respect where it's due. Alongside cans of fancy cherry tomatoes and stoical whole plums, there's a ruddy mire of pastes, purees, preserves and passatas to get your head around. Food writer Sara Buenfeld explains the options, and advises which recipes they're best for in our 11-point guide to buying and cooking with tomatoes.

The basics:

1. Is there much difference between economy and premium canned tomatoes? 

Can of tomatoes
Many cooks say they can’t tell the difference, but the tomatoes are usually a less regular size, in thinner juice, or a little less sweet than the premium range. This is easily fixed with a squirt of tomato purée, or a sprinkling of sugar or bicarbonate of soda to neutralise the excess acidity.

2. Are Italian varieties always best?

Close up of Italian tomatoes on vine
The central and southern regions of Italy have the ideal growing conditions for producing sweet and juicy tomatoes. So if they are from Italy, it is a good indication that the tomatoes will be full of flavour, but that’s not to say that tomatoes grown in other countries won’t be as good.

3. What are the health credentials of tomatoes?

Cooked tomatoes are even better for you than fresh. Cooking them for 15 minutes breaks down the tomato’s cell wall, which releases the valuable antioxidant lycopene, claimed to reduce the risk of certain cancers and treat conditions such as high cholesterol and heart disease. The effect of lycopene on osteoporosis is currently being researched.

Then, know your varieties...

4. Canned chopped tomatoes

Use for... Their chunky texture, ideal for long simmering

These tomatoes are picked at their ripest – meaning they are full of flavour – and canned in their own rich juice. The tomato pieces will break down after 30 mins or so of cooking, but will still retain more texture than passata. Many contain added flavourings such as garlic, chilli and olives. I use chopped canned tomatoes in pasta sauces, curries, tagines and casseroles.

5. Canned cherry tomatoes 

Use for... Quick pasta sauces

They have a wonderful sweet flavour, but don’t use them in dishes that require too much cooking as their plump, round shape disappears as they simmer.

6. Canned plum tomatoes

Plum tomatoes in a bowl
Use for... Thick pasta sauces, plus they're great on toast

Plum tomatoes are prized for being fleshier than their round counterparts (which are usually used for the chopped varieties), with less watery seeds. However, weight for weight, you generally get more tomato flesh from canned chopped tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are great on toast or chopped into a salsa. If you want a really thick pasta sauce, simply drain the tomatoes and add to your pan, mashing with a fork once they are tender.

7. Passata

Passata in bowl
Use for... Its smooth texture, ideal for sauces and topping pizza 

Passata is simply puréed, sieved tomatoes. The smooth sauce-like consistency is ideal for using in chilli, Bolognesecasseroles, sauces and soup instead of canned tomatoes – especially if your children don’t like the chunks in the canned varieties. I like passata for batch cooking as it comes in large jars or cartons, and I dilute it with stock or water at the start of cooking to stop the thick texture spitting as it simmers. Passata is also excellent spread straight from the bottle onto a pizza dough base before topping. Like canned tomatoes, passata can come with added flavourings, so check the labels. 

You can make your own passata at home too, but is it worth the effort? We put homemade and shop-bought versions to the test

8. What is soffritto passata?

In Italy, soffritto – finely chopped onion, celery, carrot and garlic cooked in olive oil – is the base for a great variety of dishes. Adding soffritto to passata gives it a more substantial texture and flavour.

9. Tomato purée

Tomato puree on measuring spoon
Use for... Enriching sauces and casseroles. 

Also known as paste or concentrate. This adds an intense richness to dishes. It is also useful as a gravy thickener for casseroles, or to enrich the colour of a pale-looking dish. You will find it in varying strengths, in tubes and small cans. It lasts well in the fridge.

10. Sundried tomatoes

Sundried tomatoes
Use for... Making bread dough, pasta bakes or stews

Normally, Italian Romas that have been cut, seeded and salted, then left out on raised trays to dry in the sun. The tomatoes lose a huge amount of their original weight so it can take up to 14kg of fresh tomatoes to make 1kg of dried. Available plain or preserved in oil with herbs, their intense, rich taste makes them great in veggie dishes for adding layers of flavour, as well as in breads, stews and risottos.

11. Sunkissed (or semi-dried) tomatoes 

Use for... Adding to a salad or antipasti platter

Also dried, but for less time, so they are not as chewy, dark and intense, but much sweeter. Use these in salads and sandwiches, as well as starters and to top pizzas.

Do you love tomato products as much as we do? We'd love to hear your recipe suggestions and buying tips... 


Comments, questions and tips

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31st May, 2017
Nice explanation, thanks. I'd add -for just a little for more clarity- that passata is uncooked where the paste is generally cooked to reduce it, and that the puree is produced from whole tomatoes so includes the seeds where they are sieved from passata.
Michelle in New...
16th Feb, 2017
Here's my recipe for a fantastic tomato sauce: My Red Sauce Recipe by Michelle in New Orleans, LA (USA) 4 oz. pancetta OR 4 slices good bacon, chopped Extra virgin olive oil (if necessary) 2 yellow onions, chopped in food processor Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 to 3 large cloves garlic, chopped in food processor Three 28-oz. cans good quality whole Italian tomatoes, such as San Marzano 2 bay leaves 1-1/2 cups good red wine Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper Good sized pinch red pepper flakes One generous teaspoon Better Than Bouillon Beef Base (or more) 1. If you made meatballs, put pan drippings from browning the meatballs in large heavy stockpot and heat drippings. If just making red sauce without meatballs, heat olive oil in stockpot. Add pancetta or bacon and cook on medium-high heat until brown. 2. Add chopped onions, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. 3. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes. 4. Add canned tomatoes and using potato masher, mash tomatoes well in bottom of stockpot. Add red wine. 5. Taste, and add salt and pepper and bay leaves. 6. Add beef bouillon base and stir well. 7. Continue to cook on medium-low heat for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally to ensure sauce is not sticking. 8. If thinning is necessary, add more red wine. 9. If adding meatballs, you can add them after sauce has cooked about 1-1/2 hours; allow meatballs to cook one hour after adding to sauce. Hope you have the chance to try this!
Michelle in New...
16th Feb, 2017
I heartily recommend buying whole San Marzano canned plum tomatoes made in Italy instead of regular canned tomatoes. They cost a bit more but the flavor is noticeably better.
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Michelle in New...
16th Feb, 2017
In my experience, you NEVER put fresh tomatoes in the refrigerator, as it ruins the flavor permanently. Store on the counter or island with STEM SIDE DOWN. They tend to last a bit longer if you store them with the stem down. Try it!
24th Sep, 2014
Don't refrigerate fresh tomatoes as the flavour is poor or at least bring them back to room temperature before using