The most underrated canned tomato

No matter the season, my pantry is always stocked with canned or jarred tomatoes. What types, you may ask? Well, there are whole, peeled tomatoes for braises and stews (and Marcella sauce, of course). Diced tomatoes for chili. Passata for quick sauces. Sun-dried tomatoes for salads and pasta (and pasta salads). Tomato paste for too many dishes to count.

But if I play favorites (and why not!), there is one type of canned or jarred tomato that I like more than all the others: canned cherry tomatoes. Not heard of them? Well, I’m referring to the small, sweet red tomatoes that are prolifically fresh in the height of summer, but if prepared and canned, they’re ready to use any time of the year.

Compared to the standard plum tomatoes you’ll find in most cans, these definitely stand out. They’re ultra-sweet and juicy, with a bright, fresh-from-the-vine flavor. And they cook quickly and evenly given their compact size, a godsend when you want rich flavor but don’t have much time. I recently gave my mom 10 cans – that’s how much I love these adorable little orbs.

If you’ve never tried them, they’re absolutely worth seeking out, no matter how many types of canned or jarred tomatoes are already cluttering your shelves. Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know about them.

What’s in the box ?

Canned cherry tomatoes have a short list of ingredients: cherry tomatoes, tomato juice or puree, sometimes sea salt. you won’t find calcium chloride, the preservative added to diced (and sometimes whole peeled) tomatoes to retain their firmness and shape, so they quickly blend into anything you cook. Plus, they come packaged unpeeled, which is a really good thing. Their soft, thin skin lends a nice texture to sauces and soups that you can’t get with other types of canned tomatoes.

Where can you find them?

An Italian market or grocer is always a good bet as canned cherry tomatoes are common in Italian cooking. And they are increasingly easy to find in supermarkets. Over the past year I have found Mutti brand canned cherry tomatoes at several grocery stores in the Washington, DC area, where I live. (If you don’t see any in your local store, ask customer service if they can start stocking them – it never hurts to ask.) You can also buy them online through major retailers – either by individual boxes or in crates. If you have storage space, order a briefcase. . . you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll use them.

How can I use them?

Everything from quick sauces to slow-simmered stews is fair game. They even taste great straight from the can, which I can’t say for many other canned tomatoes I’ve tried. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • No-Cook Pizza Sauce: No stove needed here. Mix a can of cherry tomatoes (with their juice) with good quality extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. This will put standard pizza sauces in a pot to shame.
  • Bruschetta: Roughly chop and pile them on garlic-rubbed toast topped with olive oil and sea salt.
  • Focaccia: Drain and scatter a handful over the top of the focaccia or other pasta before baking.
  • Stuffed sandwiches: Stuff them into paninis, grilled cheese or calzones before baking.
  • Quesadillas, tacos and tortas: Use them as a garnish or as the base for a quick no-cook salsa.
  • Fish and chicken: Scatter them around a nice fillet of fish or chicken thighs you’re about to roast, or use them in place of fresh cherry tomatoes in this baked salmon recipe.
  • Quick Marcella Sauce: Replace the whole peeled tomatoes with an equal amount of canned cherry tomatoes, keeping the other ingredients the same. You’ll have a richly flavored sauce in less than half the time.
  • Recipes that call for diced or whole peeled tomatoes: Substitute an equal amount of canned cherry tomatoes with diced tomatoes and whole peeled tomatoes, especially when you don’t want distinct tomato chunks in the finished dish or have time to cook them whole.

My favorite use of all: this one Pasta with triple tomato sauce 10 minutes, which I do almost once a week. Canned cherry tomatoes make the sauce, with small amounts of tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes to add complexity and umami to every bite. Caramelizing each type of tomato in butter further increases flavor and texture. The sauce is incredibly rich and complex – especially considering how quick it is – and a very good reason to always have a can (or crate) of cherry tomatoes handy.

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Recipe: Pasta with tomato sauce 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 pound rigatoni, penne, or your favorite pasta (use 3/4 pound pasta for a saucier version)
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double strength)
  • 1/4 cup (45 grams) oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, plus 1 tablespoon oil from the jar
  • 1 can (14 ounces) cherry tomatoes (such as Mutti or Cento brand)
  • 3 pinches Calabrian or red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • Finely grated Parmesan, to serve

directions

  1. In a large saucepan, bring 4 liters of water to a boil. Add pasta and 2 tablespoons salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain the pasta.
  2. When the water is close to boiling, start the sauce. In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the tomato paste, stirring to incorporate it into the butter and cook for about 2 minutes, until the paste becomes a little darker.
  3. Finely chop the sun-dried tomatoes and add them to the pan with the tomato oil. (Tip: Use kitchen shears to cut the tomatoes into small pieces in the pan to avoid dirtying a cutting board.) Cook about 1 minute longer, until the tomatoes are lightly charred.
  4. Add the cherry tomatoes (with their juice), Calabrian flakes and a few pinches of salt. With the back of a spoon, gently crush the cherry tomatoes to release their juice. Reduce the heat, if necessary, to maintain a gentle boil and cook, stirring frequently, for 4 to 5 minutes, until the cherry tomatoes break down and form a thick, glossy sauce. Season with salt to taste and more Calabrian flakes (if desired) until you get the balance you want. (If the sauce is cooked before the pasta, turn the heat down to the lowest setting to keep warm.)
  5. Add the pasta and about 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water to the sauce and cook over low heat, stirring well to incorporate and adding a little more pasta water if needed to thin the sauce.
  6. Divide the pasta between plates. Garnish with Parmesan.