It was time for a test. Every blog and every recipe and every TV chef recommends using the San Marzano canned tomato. But really, is it necessary to seek out this special tomato? Is it that much better than any other canned tomato? I wasn’t convinced, so I pulled a classic engineering move – I conducted a quasi-scientific study.
I bought two cans of tomatoes. To be fair, they were different in more ways than one. There was no control group, just two cans of tomatoes cooked in exactly the same way. One can was of the San Marzano variety, of course, which is an Italian variety of tomato that is, supposedly, a perfect tomato for sauce. The other can was organic, but it did not list the variety of tomato – I assume it was a plum tomato or something similar. Both cans were skinless, whole tomatoes – not diced, pureed, or processed in any other way. The big difference, besides the variety, was the addition of citric acid and calcium chloride to the organic tomatoes. These chemicals are firming agents and preservatives – they keep the tomato in that recognizable tomato shape. The San Marzanos I bought did not include these ingredients, though always check the labels because even places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry canned tomatoes that use these chemicals.
For preparation, I used the standard recipe of tomato sauce with onion and butter – I figured, the simpler the better – that way, it’d be easier to clearly taste the differences. Both cans bubbled along for equal amounts of time, with exactly equal amounts of salt, pepper, onion, butter, and garlic. The results were a bit surprising.
I was expecting both tomatoes to taste exactly the same – I really didn’t think there could be that big of a difference. For one, the tomatoes without the citric acid and calcium chloride actually broke down in the cooking process, making for a nice consistency in the sauce. The organic tomatoes, on the other hand, required a blender to achieve the same consistency, as the tough ends of the tomatoes would not succumb to my prodding. That was probably the biggest difference… but what about the flavor?
In short, the flavor was really different. The San Marzanos tasted almost fresh. They were bright red, juicy, and had a great tomato-y flavor. The organic tomatoes, on the other hand, tasted almost a bit tinny – sort of like the flavor I expect in canned tomatoes. It reminded me, in a subtle way, of tomato juice from concentrate. It was also a deeper red color – not nearly as saturated as the San Marzanos.
But I didn’t hate it. In fact, I’d buy them again if I didn’t have the time to make an extra trip to find San Marzanos. And truly, if I weren’t tasting them side-by-side, I’m sure any can of tomatoes will do. And while the addition of citric acid and calcium chloride urk me, there will still be times that I buy canned tomatoes with those ingredients. Of course, if our regular grocery store ever starts stocking San Marzano’s or any other canned tomato without these ingredients, I’ll make the switch in a heart beat.
By the way… I used the sauce on a great caprese-style pizza in the end. Whole wheat pizza crust, sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, and some shreds of Parmesan. Easy.