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...
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.
1. Is there much difference between economy and premium canned 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?
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
Use for... Thick pasta sauces, plus they're great on toastPlum 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.
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, Bolognese, casseroles, 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.
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9. Tomato purée
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
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...