A Preliminary Canned-Tomato Taste-Test

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

TL;DR*

We taste-tested 16 different canned tomatoes. Though this tasting is not as scientifically rigorous as it might be, there were some interesting observations. High price is not predicative of good flavor. Second, the "DOP" tomatoes we tasted did not score very high at all. And the top two spots weren't even San Marzano tomatoes from Italy; instead, they were grown in California's Central Valley.

*"Too long; didn't read"

A couple of weeks ago I got this email from Scott Wiener of Scott's NYC Pizza Tours:

Adam,
You asked a couple months back about favorite canned tomatoes and it really got me into exploring different brands and types of tomato. Since it's tomato season, I thought it might be cool to host a tasting party. I've collected a bunch of cans from grocery stores and Italian specialty stores plus a few from restaurant-supply stores that aren't available to the general public. I have the tomatoes they use at John's of Bleecker, Lombardi's, Kesté, etc., and I think it would be fun to do a blind taste test with a bunch of pizza enthusiasts. I have DOP and non-DOP from brands that offer both, so I think it will be pretty revealing. Let me know if you're interested!

Folks, OF COURSE I was interested. So last week, a bunch of pizza and tomato geeks (among them Brooks Jones, Jason Feirman, and Nick Sherman) found themselves in Scott's back yard, seated at picnic tables bedecked in true pizzeria style with red-checkered tablecloths.

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Scott had assembled 30-plus cans of tomatoes, but in the interest of time and to avoid "palate fatigue," we limited this preliminary tasting to 16 of the cans. it was a single-blind test, in that Scott knew the brands but we didn't. He sliced tomatoes directly out of the can, giving us each a little plastic cup containing a half a tomato or so. For palate cleansers, we had water and some bread fresh from the oven at Keste, whose partner and pieman Roberto Caporuscio dropped by for the proceedings.

I'm going to paste in Scott's preliminary analysis from the first round below, but first I'll quote these caveats from Serious Eats food-science geek J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

Kenji says:

I think there are a few things to note in the way the tasting was conducted that will cloud the data and conclusions. Major ones: palate fatigue and the lack of a control. Minor ones: changing conditions (fading sunlight when evaluating color), asking people to score things that are measurable (again, color is something that is empirical, not based on perception, so it shouldn't be included as a category for people to rank).

Thanks, Kenji!

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I've talked to Scott about doing another round of testing with Kenji's measures in place, but the notes that Scott has written up here with some general observations are pretty interesting nonetheless. Plus, we figured we'd open it up to you and see if you had any tomato brands you'd like to see on the list. Speaking of which ...

The List

As I said, we only got to 16 of the cans Scott collected. Here is a full list of the cans (sorry, I couldn't figure out how to embed this Google doc), including price, source, and notes on packing or added ingredients. The cans we tasted in the preliminary round are marked with a letter code to the left of the brand name.

The Data and a Quick Analysis

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Embedded below is the spreadsheet in which Scott tabulated all the scores given to the tomatoes in the various categories. There were 10 of us tasting and scoring.

And here's what Scott emailed after crunching numbers and making interpreting the data:

Thank you all for attending last night's canned tomato taste-test! The results are super interesting, but first I should go over some things we all need to keep in mind. Of course we just tested tomatoes directly from the can with zero preparation. Some tomatoes I pulled out of the cans may have been less than perfect, and I may have made some imperfect cuts, but those are some limitations we just have to deal with. Actually, if tomatoes within a single can are not consistent, it's all just part of what we're examining. We can measure consistency by comparing the raw data on your individual sheets in the "texture" category. So if five people have texture of 4 of 5 and five people had 1 of 5, we can determine that tomatoes within a can are inconsistent. But I'm not giving you the individual sheets (but if you want yours back just let me know) so the averages will have to do.

I went through and double-checked the math and labeling, but if any results seem questionable, just let me know and I'll go through the numbers again. I gave you two columns for TOTAL. The first is an average of your total #s, but the COLOR category was difficult as it got darker outside so those numbers aren't completely accurate. That's why I also provided a total of the averages from the other categories. In most cases, they are a tenth of a point off, but the last four have larger differences because of the omission of COLOR from one sheet. The AVG columns for Cento SM DOP are bolded because their numbers are more off than they should be and I can't figure out why. Actually, the TOTAL category isn't all that important because although high acidity isn't always desirable it would earn more points toward the total score. I'm way more interested in looking at OVERALL.

Since taste buds grew fatigued as the night went on, I identified the Round Number (1 through 4) so you'll know what went up against what. This way, you can re-sort the data and there will still be an indication of the context in which you are each tomato. I should note here that we drank only water and seltzer during the tasting, with fresh bread available to cleanse the palate. We also took a break after round 3 for a lemon ice palate cleanser.

That Scott is a class act. The lemon ice break really was a nice touch. Oops! Sorry ... back to Scott ...

Now for the analysis:

Price

We tasted tomatoes that ranged from 99¢ to $12.80 a can. Cost per can did not have any impact on flavor. In fact, the lowest overall rating was awarded to the highest priced tomato. One of the top-performing tomatoes actually carried the second-lowest price tag! But there isn't an inverse relationship, either, because mid-priced tomatoes jumped around quite a bit with regard to their OVERALL ratings.

Sweetness

Top performers were Stanislaus Alta Cucina, Trader Joe's, Cento (both varieties of Cento we tried) and Tuttorosso (the blue label Tuttorosso).

Acidity

The least favorite of the night, Di Casa Barone, wins for highest acidity. This was the only tomato that was canned with the skin still on. Next on the list is Stanislaus, Bionature (Whole Foods), and Trader Joe's. Whole Foods, Stanislaus, and Trader Joe's had high OVERALL scores, so high acidity didn't necessarily mean we didn't like the tomato, we just didn't like it when the acidity wasn't balanced with anything else. Both Stanislaus and Trader Joe's scored high for both sweetness and acidity.

Color

Once again, Stanislaus and Trader Joe's win, but Di Casa Barone is right behind. Color was a pretty close race across the board, so I guess the global tomato industry has gotten pretty good at preserving that angle of the product.

Texture

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and La Valle were right up at the top. Again, most scores were pretty good in this category. Stanislaus, Ciao, Bionature, and Muir Glen were all within close range of the top spot.

Overall

This is the big category. Regardless of acidity and color, overall flavor tells us if we actually enjoyed eating the dang thing. The winners are Trader Joe's and Stanislaus. These two popped up in most of the other categories, and they just so happen to be extremely reasonably priced. Trader Joe's is $1.49 and Stanislaus is $4.53. Only problem is Stanislaus isn't available at retail unless you belong to Restaurant Depot, which only requires a business license to join. No membership fee or anything! Also of note, Stanislaus comes only in large #10 size cans so you're getting even more bang for your buck. Trader Joe's clocks in at about 5¢ per ounce, and Stanislaus is about 4¢ per ounce. Both of these tomatoes were grown in California's Central Valley.

All the winners were not part of one particular round, so that means you were being true to yourselves and your taste buds. For the most part, high OVERALL scores correlate with high AVG scores. So high levels of all these factors result in tasty tomatoes!

DOP

None of the top 4 (OVERALL) spots were won by DOP tomatoes. In fact, the top two spots aren't even San Marzanos. Looking at the OVERALL ratings, there is only one DOP in the top 11 spots. The top two rated tomatoes are grown in California's Central Valley.

I'm going to stare at the results with all the cans in front of me to see if any other patterns appear. I still have 14 cans left, so let me know if you want to do another round sometime. Thanks again for coming!

Some Great Tomato Books

Ripe by Arthur Allen
The Tomato in America by Andrew F. Smith
Pomodoro! by David Gentilcore

Ripe is more about tomato science and genetics. Pomodoro is a really good history book.

Yours in pizza,
Scott

Wow. Thanks, Scott! Fun and informative survey.

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Along with Kenji's tweaks, I thought it would be nice to get some of the more popular canned tomatoes you can find at grocery stores. In my area (Queens/NYC), you often see Sclafani and Luigi Vitelli along with the Cento, Tuttorosso, and Muir Glen brands Scott had already assembled. Are there any brands in your area that you don't see here on the list or in the photo just above?

Here at Slice/SE HQ we also talked about possibly narrowing down the top tomatoes and putting them to the test on pizzas. Tasting them straight is one thing, but seeing how they interact with crust and cheese would be especially revealing.

So ... any thoughts?

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