Why You Should Make Tomato Sauce Out of Garden Tomatoes, Not Canned Ones

What to eat. What not to eat.
Aug. 30 2012 8:44 AM

Awesome Sauce

The right kind of tomato to use in your tomato sauce.

Roma tomatoes.
Roma tomatoes are perfect for paste.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

One of the consolations of these miserable dog days of summer is the abundance, in gardens and markets across the land, of ripe tomatoes; a season of suffering, sweating, and involuntary naps seems to be the price nature exacts on us for perfection in her fruits. If you have a garden, even a small one, it can be tough to stay on top of things during the high times. A dozen ripe tomatoes can go to rot with alarming speed, and although stuffing your face to save your tomatoes from decay is about as much fun as sex for the sole purpose of procreation, you may nonetheless find yourself grimly dishing out tomato breakfasts, tomato lunches, tomato dinners; gorging robotically on salsa, salad, caprese, BLTs, cold tomato soup .... There is a better way to deal with your excess, and it's not canning. (Come on—there’s no way you’re going to can all those tomatoes.) It's called “cooking them.”

I don't have any hard numbers on how Americans consume their tomatoes, but I feel safe in conjecturing that by and large we eat the fresh ones raw and cook the canned ones. This at least was one of my best practices, a bit of uninterrogated conventional wisdom that I followed until recently, when my garden produced a sudden glut of Roma tomatoes. I'd always found Romas to be too mealy and bland for fresh eating, so I had no qualms about chopping them up to make a quick, simple sauce. I sliced a couple cloves of garlic—ineptly, with none of the Goodfellas-in-jail precision of Paul Sorvino—started them sautéing in olive oil, added the tomatoes with a pinch of salt and sugar and then, like a bad cook, left the kitchen and went about my business.

When I returned after sending some emails, my bog-standard Romas had been transformed into one of the best sauces I’d ever tasted: a thick, rich paste with a tanginess that set my head vibrating. I hadn't done anything other than leave the room, but the results were superior, in all imaginable ways, to anything I'd ever made with more care and attention (not to mention seasoning) using canned tomatoes. More remarkable than the flavor was the texture, thick and viscous, almost chewy. I turned to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking for an explanation: It turns out calcium salts, an additive that keeps canned tomatoes from being pummeled to a mush during processing and shipping, also prevent them from disintegrating so lusciously when cooked.

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So, yes, you should cook your garden tomatoes, though there is a hitch: Not all of them will respond as magically to heat. But identifying the right ones is easy. For our purposes, there are two kinds of tomatoes: paste tomatoes (the ones you should make sauce out of) and non-paste tomatoes. All the other overlapping categories—determinate, indeterminate; stuffer, slicer, griller; beefsteak, cherry, globe—are irrelevant. Any tomato that is elongated is probably a paste tomato, as is any with plum or (naturally) paste in its name. Romas are paste tomatoes, which explains why fresh ones taste so mediocre, even at their peak of ripeness. Like all paste tomatoes, Romas are simply not meant to be eaten raw. They were created, through breeding, to be cooked.

The parent of most modern paste tomatoes is Italy's long-established San Marzano. Tomato pro Amy Goldman reckons the San Marzano is “the most important industrial tomato of the 20th century,” as its commercial introduction in 1926 provided canneries with a sturdy, flawless subject, and breeders with genes they’d be raiding for decades. The canning industry eventually replaced the San Marzano with blander hybrids that had better resistance to disease and rot and were easier to harvest by machine; meanwhile, the Agriculture Department crossed the San Marzano with two other varieties (one of them itself a San Marzano crossing) and, in the mid-1950s, introduced the Roma tomato.

Pretty much everyone with an opinion on the matter believes the San Marzano is still unsurpassed for cooking, canning, and preserving. This is certainly the position of the country of Italy, which conferred on the San Marzano a “protected designation of origin” status, such as is also enjoyed by Stilton cheese and the sparkling wines of the Champagne region. (This doesn't mean you can't grow San Marzanos in your backyard. You can.) Such reverence for a fruit that tastes unremarkable when eaten raw shows again (as though further proof were necessary) the genius of Italian cuisine. Meanwhile, our own hemisphere, the birthplace of the tomato, has generally been flummoxed by the paste tomato’s split personality. As Goldman recounts in The Heirloom Tomato, an 1886 Burpee seed company catalog reported that the King Humbert, a close relative of the San Marzano, “was liked by many, while by others ... considered 'of no account.' ”