Why canned tomatoes are still vital – even in Sacramento kitchens

The sauce for real meatballs and spaghetti is made using canned tomatoes.
The sauce for real meatballs and spaghetti is made using canned tomatoes. Detroit Free Press

What are we doing talking about canned tomatoes? Isn’t Sacramento one of many cities in the Central Valley where anybody with a patch of decent dirt and access to a garden hose can grow their own amazing Early Girls, Big Boys and Brandywines?

Indeed, it is. But even if you read in the Wall Street Journal or Sunset magazine that we’re “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” we’re here to tell you that farm-to-can-to-fork is the often the way to go when it comes to tomatoes.

Canned tomatoes are a processed food – something that many of us of try to avoid – but the processing tends to be gentle and minimal. They’re usually more flavorful and more consistent than grocery store tomatoes, and more readily available than those ripe tomatoes from the backyard or farm stand. At the typical store, the fresh tomatoes tend to be picked while still green so they don’t get battered and bruised on the journey from the field to the produce section. They may ripen to a bright red on the outside, but they are often pink and bland on the inside.

Rick Mindermann, the veteran store director at Corti Brothers, has been making spaghetti sauce for years. He has at least two secrets to the balanced depth of flavor he seeks – finely diced carrots for their natural sweetness and, no getting around it, a can of San Marzano tomatoes.

Even at the height of summer, when fresh tomatoes are everywhere?

“Yes,” Mindermann said of the famed Italian varietal. “It is a very, very good tomato to use for sauce. With my recipe, if I make it with any other tomato, you can tell the difference.”

Corti Brothers, which is known to specialize in so many esoteric or overlooked ingredients, has a relatively large selection of canned tomatoes.

“That’s because they should be in every home kitchen,” Mindermann explained. “If you poke around at all levels of restaurants, you’re going to find a variation of canned tomatoes in every one.”

“The most common use for canned tomatoes is making Italian sauces,” said Steve Rouse, vice president of marketing for highly regarded Stanislaus Food Products. “Italian restaurants almost exclusively use canned tomatoes in their sauces. Almost no one uses fresh tomatoes for their sauces.” The all-tomatoes company sells its premium line of canned tomatoes mostly to mom-and-pop restaurants through the U.S. and Canada.

You don’t have to poke around for long at Masullo Pizza in Land Park to find the canned tomatoes. They’re a crucial component of a pizzeria known to make some of the most authentic and delicious Neapolitan-style pies going, right down to the hand-chopped wood for the 800-degree oven. Proprietor Robert Masullo has for years used Bianco DiNapoli organic whole canned tomatoes grown in nearby Woodland.

The tomatoes are picked and canned within 12 hours, which guarantees the brightest tomato flavor. The Bianco DiNapoli brand is a partnership between Rob DiNapoli, whose family has canned tomatoes for generations, and Chris Bianco, whose Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Ariz., is revered by serious pizza geeks. Masullo has always relied on the consistent quality and flavor of tomatoes in a can.

“We have four good months of fresh tomatoes and then we’d be back to using canned,” Masullo said. “The canned tomato is what I think about as the pizza flavor. That is now the standard, just as electric guitars are the standard for blues even though blues music existed before the electric guitar.”

And why not just go with those bright-red orbs you see at the big grocery stores?

“If you live in Sacramento, you’ll grow a better tomato than anything you’ll ever see in the grocery store,” Masullo said.

Rob DiNapoli, whose main line is the DiNapoli Premium Italian Style Tomatoes, said California produces 90 percent of the canned tomatoes sold in the U.S.

During the process, ripe tomatoes are picked and graded for quality, then washed, steamed, peeled, filled into cans and topped off with the juice made from broken fruit. The seeds are removed during processing, and often a touch of salt is added. Then the cans are seamed and, in DiNapoli’s case, the tomatoes are cooked inside the can for up to one hour, depending on the size.

When you visit the grocery store in search of canned tomatoes for a recipe, you’re bound to encounter a blur of options – crushed, whole, diced, puréed and complete sauces, among others. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of the best-selling “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (W.W. Norton, $49.95, 960 pages), has studied what works – and what doesn’t – in a variety of recipes.

After plenty of tasting and testing, he’s no fan of diced tomatoes, which can be too firm and too bland for most sauces and soups. He said cans of whole tomatoes are often tasty and convenient, though you should watch for the presence of calcium chloride, a firming agent that can make the tomatoes less appealing for sauces.

“For any application where you’re going to be cooking the tomatoes, it’s almost always better to use canned tomatoes,” said Lopez-Alt, whose “The Food Lab” column is a widely read feature on the website Serious Eats. “The problem with fresh tomatoes is they are most often picked underripe. Tomatoes are one of those vegetables that don’t really develop much flavor off the vine, so most supermarket tomatoes don’t taste that great.”

Says Rouse: “You should be looking for a nice, clean tomato flavor. It should have the aroma of fresh tomatoes in the open can. A poorly canned tomato will either smell like nothing or like a dirty sock, which is the presence of mold.”

While Mindermann says he prefers San Marzano, which he calls “the undisputed king of canned tomatoes,” he also likes Bianco DiNapoli and several others. The best way to zero in on what works best for you is to try several kinds with the same recipe and let your taste buds be the judge.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Open a can

In “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” here’s what J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has to say about canned tomatoes:

Do you shudder at the thought of making a fresh tomato sauce out of bland tomatoes? You should. Even at the absolute height of summer, it can be difficult to get a great tomato unless you grow it yourself, which leaves us with canned tomatoes. But what’s the best type to use? You’ll see five versions at the supermarket:

▪  Whole peeled tomatoes are whole tomatoes that are peeled (either by steaming or by being treated with lye), then packed in tomato juice or tomato purée. Those packed in juice are less processed and therefore more versatile (tomatoes packed in purée will always have a “cooked” flavor, even if you use them straight out of the can). Sometimes calcium chloride, a firming agent, will be added to help prevent them from turning mushy, but I prefer tomatoes packed without it. You’ll also see them packed with basil leaves.

▪ Diced tomatoes are whole peeled tomatoes that have been machine-diced, then packed in juice or purée. The main difference here is that, with a greater exposed surface area, the calcium chloride can make the tomatoes too firm: they don’t break down properly when cooking. I don’t use them.

▪ Crushed tomatoes can vary wildly from brand to brand. There are actually no controls on the labeling of crushed tomatoes, so one brand’s “crushed” may be a chunky mash, while another’s is a nearly smooth purée. Because of this, it’s generally better to avoid crushed products, opting instead to crush your own whole tomatoes.

▪ Tomato purée is a cooked and strained tomato product. It makes a good shortcut for quick-cooking sauces, but your sauce will lack the complexity you get from slowly reducing less-processed tomatoes. Leave the purée on the shelf.

▪ Tomato paste is concentrated tomato juice. Fresh tomatoes are cooked, then the larger solids are strained out and the resulting juice is slowly cooked down to a moisture content of 76 percent or less. Tomato paste is great for adding a strong umami backbone to stews and braises, as well as for thickening them slightly.

So diced tomatoes are too firm, crushed tomatoes are too inconsistent, and tomato purée is too cooked, which is why in my pantry, you’ll only see whole peeled tomatoes packed in juice (I prefer Muir Glen and Cento brands) and tomato paste.

Real meatballs and spaghetti

Prep time: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Makes about 24 meatballs

Recipe adapted from for the Detroit Free Press.

For the meatballs:

4 slices white bread, crust removed

1/2 cup milk

1/2 pound ground veal

1/2 pound ground pork

1 pound ground beef sirloin

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 extra-large egg, beaten

Vegetable oil

Olive oil

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon good olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 cup good red wine, such as Chianti

1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, whole or crushed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For serving:

1 pounds spaghetti, cooked per package directions

Freshly grated Parmesan

Place the bread slices in a bowl and pour the milk over, submerging the bread in the milk. Set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, place the ground meats, fresh bread crumbs, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg and egg. Squeeze the bread slices, getting as much milk out as possible. Add the bread to meat mixture. Combine all very lightly with a fork. Using your hands, lightly form the mixture into about 2-inch meatballs. You will have about 24 meatballs. Chill in the refrigerator or freezer for 30 minutes before cooking.

Pour equal amounts of vegetable oil and olive oil into a large, shallow sided skillet to a depth of 1/4-inch. Working in batches, add the meatballs to the skillet and brown them well on all sides over medium heat, turning carefully with a spatula or a fork. Don’t crowd the meatballs. Remove the meatballs to a plate covered with paper towels. Discard the oil but don’t clean the pan.

For the sauce, heat the olive oil in the same pan. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the wine and cook on high heat, scraping up all the brown bits in the pan, until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. If tomatoes are whole, crush them roughly before stirring them in along with the parsley, salt and pepper.

Return the meatballs to the sauce, cover, and simmer on the lowest heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve hot on cooked spaghetti and pass the grated Parmesan.