Open up a few cans of tomatoes and what do you get? The answer is--a big surprise. When we did a blind tasting of 10 brands of canned tomatoes, we expected that they would look and taste more or less the same.
We could not have been more mistaken. The tomatoes looked remarkably different: Some were deep-red, firm, and whole, while others were blemished, yellowed and falling apart. The flavors too differed markedly, from sweet and fresh to sour, bitter and acrid.
But all of the tomatoes shared one attribute: None of the tomatoes we tested had a flavor that was remotely close to that of a fine fresh tomato.
For the tasting, tomatoes were removed from the cans, put into glass pie-plates and identified only by number. The eight tasters were: Rose Dosti, Joan Drake, Dan Puzo, Minnie Bernardino, Donna Deane, Ruth Reichl, Laurie Ochoa and Charles Perry.
Progresso, $1.39 (Roma)
The overall favorite, it was chosen as the best by three tasters.
Tomatoes were dark red, in a dark red liquid. Most were of uniform size, although there were some blemishes: a few still had a bit of skin clinging to them.
Aroma was ripe, flavor good.
Merro, $2.39 (San Marzano, packed in Italy, no salt)
Clearly the most attractive of the lot.
Tomatoes were beautiful, with a deep rich color. They were completely uniform in size and had no blemishes.
General consensus, however, was that the flavor was disappointing. "A tomato airhead," said one taster, "all looks and no flavor."
Ferrara, $2.05 (Roma)
The worst-looking of the lot. Some were smashed, the color was only fair, there was great size variation and a great deal of liquid.
Flavor, however, was quite popular. "Recognizable tomato taste," said one taster. "Very sweet and ripe," said another.
There was a slightly metallic aftertaste.
S&W, $1.43 (round)
The tomatoes with the most variation in comments. Two raters placed very high; the rest disliked the flavor intensely, calling it "sharp and nasty."
Color was dull red.
All tomatoes were whole, and most were of uniform size. Some visible skin remained on tomatoes. Texture was soft and mealy.
Paradiso, $1.89 (Roma)
Color: medium red.
Size: uniform, and all were whole. The liquid was very thick.
Flavor comments: "acid," "sour," "hay-like," "metallic."
Hunts, $1.09 (round)
Color: some yellow spots on otherwise bright-red tomatoes.
Size: uneven, some whole tomatoes, several very small pieces.
Flavor comments: "scorched tomato aroma," "quite sour," "not that flavorful."
Del Monte, 89 cents (round). But can was 14 1/2 ounces; the others were all 28 ounces.
Color: medium pale, with some quite yellow ends.
Size: fairly uniform, although some tomatoes were broken.
Flavor comments: "bland," "little flavor," "not ripe--no sweetness."
Vons, $1.09 (round)
Color: light red with visible yellowing.
Size: not uniform, several broken.
Appearance: some worm holes.
Flavor comments: "light," "thin," "standard issue American tomato."
Contadina, $1.29 (round)
Color: very light, with some yellow spots.
Size: very uneven sizes. Some large, some small.
Texture: very mealy.
Flavor: "flat," "thin," "one of the worst all-around."
Fortuna, $2.49 (Roma, packed in Italy, no salt)
The most expensive, and the least popular of the lot.
Color: pale, with some yellow ends.
Texture: falling apart.
Flavor comments: "watery," "flavorless," "bitter," "sour."