When To Use Canned Tomatoes Instead Of Fresh, According To An Expert

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When it comes to whether fresh or canned tomatoes are better, the answer is always the same: It depends. While it may seem like fresh tomatoes should always taste better and canned tomatoes should be a matter of convenience, the reality is that either one can lead to a better-tasting meal, it just depends on when you're using them and what you're making. Canned tomatoes are one the most essential pantry staples out there, and often have a better flavor than mealy, fresh tomatoes, but a wet, peeled tomato from a can isn't the most appealing thing to eat raw either. So Tasting Table reached out to a true tomato expert, Danny Freeman, author of the cookbook "Danny Loves Pasta," to ask when he prefers to use canned tomatoes over fresh.

For Freeman, the answer came down to texture as much as taste. "I would not recommend putting a canned tomato on a sandwich or hamburger — the fleshy texture of a canned tomato is nothing like the crispness of a fresh one!" he said. He added that "the texture of canned tomatoes [is] really best for cooked recipes like sauces and soups." That said, if you are staying in the uncooked or lightly cooked territory with a pasta salad or panzanella, Freeman always uses fresh tomatoes. And making the best choice often comes down to what time of year it is as well.

Getting the best tomatoes

For flavor, Freeman told us, "Unless it's summer and you're getting freshly picked tomatoes, canned ones often have a better taste." Tomatoes have a notoriously short time when they are good and fresh, being in season from May to October, but often only being at their best during the heights of the hottest summer months. Canning, however, preserves that flavor, and since tomatoes that are packaged are done so at the peak of the season, you are getting a better tomato from a can 10 months out of the year.

Whether it's canned season or fresh season, you want to make sure you are getting the best version because both tomatoes can vary wildly in quality. Fresh tomatoes should be plump, yielding slightly to a squeeze without being mushy, and have a uniform color and a nice sheen. Smaller varieties like grape or cherry tomatoes tend to have a less watery texture and more concentrated flavor because of their size. As for cans, you can't check inside them without buying them, but we can, so we ranked 16 different canned tomato brands for you.