Is Fresh Tomato Sauce Better Than Canned? (And When To Use)


Pasta with tomato sauce like Marinara is a standby dinner for many of us. It’s easy to open a can of tomatoes like most recipes recommend, but what about those vibrant fresh tomatoes in your kitchen? You might be wondering if you can make a better sauce using fresh tomatoes than canned. Here is what I’ve learned:

Fresh tomato sauce can be better than canned if you have good quality, locally grown tomatoes at their seasonal peak. For most, this is unavailable so use quality canned tomatoes – they are picked and canned at their peak ripeness. Whole peeled plum tomatoes are the best type.

Most fresh commercially grown tomatoes are picked early off the vine so that they can be transported while green without getting bruised. They are ripened artificially later but they never taste as good as those left to ripen on the vine by local or homegrown producers.

Let’s look at when and why you should use fresh tomatoes and when canned tomatoes will be best.

Fresh Tomato Sauce Vs. Canned Tomato Sauce Comparison

Some recipes call for fresh tomatoes, others for canned tomatoes. If you’re wondering what the difference between fresh tomato sauce and canned tomato sauce is then here are some examples.

Taste And Consistency

The most obvious difference between fresh and canned tomato sauce is the freshness. Fresh tomatoes are more juicy and sweet, canned tomatoes are soft and taste more acidic.

Canned tomatoes are processed to give something that looks and tastes a little different. They are steamed to loosen the skins and then peeled. They are then diced or remain whole and added to the can with some tomato juice.

Finally, they are heated in the can to sterilize them. This essentially cooks the tomatoes which changes the texture. They come in different types:

  • whole peeled – least processed and usually the best quality (recommended)
  • diced (aka chopped) – diced up into certain sizes for convenience
  • crushed – further processed to a smaller consistency. The ugly tomatoes go in here.

When you make a sauce with canned tomatoes, it is a few steps ahead as they are already peeled and cooked. Fresh tomatoes take much more preparation as you need to peel them and soften them by cooking before the sauce even starts! Eventually, fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes will make a similar sauce if cooked down for long enough.

If you get a bitter taste with canned tomatoes then check out my post on how to fix a bitter tomato sauce.

Quality Of Tomatoes

There’s no denying that fresh tomatoes are amazing if you can get ripe tomatoes picked at their seasonal best from a farmer’s market or your backyard. The sauce from these tomatoes is excellent.

Otherwise, canned tomatoes are of better quality because they are always picked and canned at the peak of their season. However, you need to choose a high-quality product, such as Italian plum tomatoes.

Note that if you’re buying canned whole tomatoes, you’re getting the best quality – next in the quality row are diced, chopped, and crushed tomatoes.

Canned sauces use the less attractive and poorest quality tomatoes, which can be hidden amongst the additives.

Additives

You’ll know what you’ve put in your fresh tomato sauce, so there will be no unpleasant surprises: you’ve probably only used tomatoes, salt, herbs, and olive oil.

Canned tomatoes and sauces often contain chemicals like calcium chloride to ensure that the tomatoes retain their shape and consistency, preventing the tomatoes from cooking down in sauces. They also contain citric acid as a preservative and colorant.

Bisphenol A is also an industrial chemical used on the interior of some canned foods that have an effect on the brain and other health issues. Take care to choose canned BPA-free tomatoes (most are these days).

Canned sauces can be high in salt and sugar, as poor-quality tomatoes are often bitter and watery. Try to buy the bare whole peeled tomatoes instead.

When To Use Fresh Tomatoes And When To Use Canned Tomatoes

What you’re using your tomatoes to cook is one of the deciding factors in when to use fresh and when to use canned tomatoes.

When To Use Fresh Tomatoes

There are times when only fresh tomatoes will do:

  • Fresh tomatoes are perfect if you need raw tomatoes: a Caprese salad, gazpacho, or fresh salsa. 
  • Use fresh tomatoes to make a spaghetti sauce if you have locally sourced, good-quality tomatoes. Combine with olive oil, garlic, and basil, and you’ll have a great sauce. 
  • Fresh tomatoes make an excellent soup. See which tomatoes are best for soup.

When To Use Canned Tomatoes

Reach for canned tomatoes in these cases:

  • If you don’t have access to good-quality, fresh tomatoes, canned will taste far better than forced, watery specimens.
  • Canned tomatoes are fine if you’re making a dish where tomatoes are the supporting act – chili, bolognese sauce, lasagna, or a casserole.
  • For speed: fresh tomatoes need peeling and cooking to break down. Canned tomatoes are ready to use and taste great.
Long plum tomatoes are good for sauce as they have fewer seeds

Why Are Canned Tomatoes Better For Pasta Sauce?

Canned tomatoes are recommended for pasta sauces because most people don’t have access to quality in-season fresh tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are picked at their prime and canned to preserve all year round. The tart flavor of canned tomatoes compliments rich dishes like meatballs.

Canned tomatoes are also convenient. They are peeled and partially cooked so that you can make a delicious sauce within 20 minutes. Fresh tomatoes need to be prepared and softened for longer. Tomato skins can be slimy and unappealing.

The best canned tomatoes are plum tomatoes from Italy, which have a rich, tangy, concentrated flavor. Try to find the San Marzano variety which is the gold standard.

Canned tomatoes are also densely packed, and cheap so you get a lot of tomatoes – a great pantry staple.

Is It Healthier To Make Your Own Tomato Sauce?

It can be healthier to make your own tomato sauce, especially if you keep the skins on and use organic tomatoes. Tomatoes contain antioxidants such as lycopene and flavonols – the skins have more of these and provide dietary fiber. Canned tomatoes and sauces also might have additives.

Lycopene is known for its ability to fight cancer, reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and stimulate blood circulation. Cooking tomatoes makes lycopene more accessible to the body.

The commercial canning process, while capturing the flavor and color of fresh tomatoes, can reduce the amount of lycopene because the tomatoes are peeled. As they are cooked, this does provide a benefit over raw tomatoes.

Canned tomatoes can also contain chemical additives and high levels of sugar and salt. As a result, they have more calories and carbohydrates than fresh tomato sauce.

How To Substitute Fresh Tomatoes For Canned

If you’re lucky enough to have a tomato glut over summer, you can substitute them in any recipe calling for canned tomatoes.

  • To substitute a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, use two pounds of fresh tomatoes (10-12 tomatoes) or four cups of fresh tomatoes.
  • For a 14 ½ ounce can, use a pound of tomatoes (5-6 whole tomatoes) or two cups of chopped tomato.

Fresh tomatoes will also take longer to cook than canned, as the commercial canning process involves boiling the tomatoes. You’ll need to let the fresh tomatoes reduce for longer than if you use canned tomatoes.

Remember that canned tomatoes are usually peeled and contain tomato puree. For the same effect, you’ll need to go through the peeling process (blanch them in boiling water to peel them off) and consider adding some tomato puree to your dish to achieve the same flavor intensity.

Many canned tomatoes are flavored with garlic, herbs, celery, salt, and sugar. Check what kind of tomatoes the recipe calls.

Conclusion

Pasta sauce made from fresh tomatoes can be tastier and healthier than a similar sauce of canned tomatoes if your fresh tomatoes are locally grown, ripe, and at their seasonal best. Canned tomatoes can contain additives, sugar, and salt, making them high in calories.

However, good quality canned tomatoes are perfect if you can’t find excellent fresh tomatoes, as they are full of flavor, stand up to lengthy cooking, and are very convenient. Try and find some good-quality Italian plum tomatoes.

Tom

Hey, I'm Tom. I set up Boss The Kitchen to start answering the thousands of questions people have while cooking. For me, the kitchen is my happy place and I hope to help other people with the knowledge I've gained along the way.

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