What a gift it would be to bottle up summer and enjoy it in the thick of February. Plenty have tried. Sea salt hair spray never quite replicates those natural beachy waves, piña colada hard seltzer won’t transport you to the tropics and that garden vegetable candle just doesn’t stand in for the real thing.
But there’s one product that, when done right, gets unusually close. Hello, canned tomatoes.
Shopping for canned tomatoes can be an affront to the senses. So many options! Too many, you might say. What to use, and when?
Whole peeled tomatoes are harvested at their peak, removed of their skins and packed in tomato juices or purée. They can be blended into soups, roasted or used in long-simmered sauces like classic marinara. (They can also stand in for some of the products below by simply crushing them with your hands or dicing them up.)
To preserve the tomatoes, some brands will include calcium chloride, an additive that can affect how the tomatoes break down when cooked, so check the label. Of the four best whole peeled brands as determined by a Wirecutter and New York Times Cooking collaboration, only one contained the additive.
Calcium chloride is necessary to retain the shape of diced tomatoes. When a firmer texture is the point — like chili! — look no further. But keep in mind that diced tomatoes remain a little chunky, even when that isn’t the goal.
Crushed tomatoes are finer than diced and will spare you the mess of trying to crush whole peeled by hand. Some br ands contain concentrated tomato paste in addition to purée. Some will have a thicker consistency, while others will be practically liquefied. But they’ll cook quickly, so they’re great for quick dishes like pasta alla vodka
Tomato purée is already cooked, blended and strained, so it’s seed-free and more concentrated than the products above. Use it in recipes like stuffed shells, where you already have a lot of assembly work ahead of you and don’t want to labor over a sauce, too.
For a ton of tomato-y flavor in a teeny package, reach for tomato paste, which is made by slowly cooking down tomatoes to extract as much moisture as possible, straining them of seeds and skins, and then cooking them down once more. The result is thick, super concentrated and savory, ideal for seasoning rice, ragùs, beans and so much more.
Red Cabbage Ragù
One More Thing!
Where were you when you realized you can treat canned tomato paste like a Push Pop?
I saw this trick online a few months ago, tried it myself, and, yes, it worked. But I personally didn’t love how much precious paste was left along the edges of the can, which I couldn’t loosen with a bit of water since there was no longer a tin bottom.
Speaking of leftover tomato paste: When you’re stuck with some, be it from a can or a tube, simply scoop or squeeze tablespoons of it onto a piece of parchment paper on a plate or quarter sheet pan. Pop them in the freezer until the portions are solid to the touch, then store them in a container in the freezer for whenever you need a bit of umami. I’d rather not stain my ice cube trays.