A Tomato Test

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.

Picnik collage

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.

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‘The Best Pasta Sauce’ Reinvented

No excuses here – I’ve been lazy. I’ve cooked quite a few tasty items in the last few weeks, but I’ve had no motivation to edit photos and write about them. Mostly, I’ve been a wee bit obsessed with planning our upcoming honeymoon. We have the itinerary almost finalized, and I successfully looked up and priced out seventy different airlines’ flight routes. I then organized them in Excel separately by price and destination and experimented with different itineraries. Yes, I’m that nerdy about it.

Right now, looks like we’re doing the following:

Bangkok -> Hanoi, Vietnam -> Halong Bay, Vietnam -> Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia -> Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -> Kota Kinabalu and Malaysian Borneo -> Bali -> Bangkok and Thai islands. Whirlwind, that’s for sure. A month is not really enough time for this itinerary, but we’re going to make it work and make sure we see everything we want to!

Ok, back to food. This tomato sauce has been all over the blogosphere. It is delicious as is, but of course I had to spice it up. Tossed with some pasta (whole wheat, of course), a super fresh mozzarella from the farmer’s market, and fresh spinach – boom, a meal.

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The Best Pasta Sauce
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking

1 large can, 28 ounces whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzano is what all the bloggers recommend, but I used a different brand from the store – still tasted great)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (or, like I used, Earth Balance spread)
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
2 tablespoons cumin (this is the secret ingredient)
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion, cumin, and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Simmer over medium-low heat for 40-50 minutes, slowly breaking down the tomatoes as the heat through. Remove from heat and take out the onion, then add salt to taste.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta al dente. Toss with the pasta sauce, fresh spinach, and fresh mozz.
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