Substitute Canned Tomatoes for "Fresh" Tomatoes

Laura: Your Italian Sausage and Tortellini Soup calls for 3/4 of a pound of chopped fresh tomatoes.
Dan: Nope. Substitute a can of diced tomatoes instead.
Laura: A 15-ounce can?
Dan: Yep. There, I just saved you two bucks. And you're no longer hostage to tomatoes decomposing in your fridge.

The next time you're preparing a recipe that calls for fresh tomatoes, consider using canned tomatoes instead. It's an easy, money-saving substitution.

Remember the key insight from Tomatoland: those out-of-season tomatoes sitting in your grocery store's produce section aren't just tasteless and overpriced. They're also likely to be grown under questionable labor and environmental conditions.

Most of North America's canned tomatoes, however, are grown in California under far better conditions. Better still, canned tomatoes are shelf stable: if you decide to postpone cooking your tomato-requiring recipe until next week or next month, you can. With fresh tomatoes, you're held hostage: you have to cook your recipe before those tomatoes spoil.

Most importantly, canned tomatoes actually taste better than out-of-season tomatoes. Remember, out-of-season tomatoes are picked green, ripened artificially with ethylene gas, and arrive at your grocery story tasting like... nothing. At least canned tomatoes taste like tomatoes. Why? Because they're canned at peak ripeness rather than picked green.

Finally, you can buy a small can of unbranded diced or whole tomatoes for 60c to perhaps a dollar. Larger cans cost even less per unit. In stark contrast, out-of-season tomatoes could run you as much as $3.50 a pound.

What kinds of recipes are best for a canned-vs-fresh tomato substitution? In my view, canned tomatoes work best with soups, stews, chilis, casseroles and stir-fry dishes--essentially, recipes where the tomatoes get cooked down.

Fresh salads, however, are an entirely different matter: canned tomatoes most likely won't work as a fresh tomato replacement. The texture just won't be right.

But wait: who says a fresh green salad with fresh tomatoes is some kind of obligatory meal element? An alternative solution here would be to employ antifragile thinking to your diet and ditch out-of-season fresh salads entirely.

The next time you prepare a recipe calling for tomatoes, forget those tasteless, overpriced "fresh" tomatoes in your grocery store's produce section. Use canned tomatoes.

There. I just saved you two bucks.

Readers! What's your take?

Related Posts:
The "Don't Buy" List For A Low-Budget Kitchen
Where Going Generic Works... And Where It Doesn't
Is Organic Food Healthier? Or Just Another Aspirational Product?

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chacha1 said...

Tomatoes are one of a few canned things I consider staples. Cooking with fresh tomatoes ... as you point out, the fresh ones from the supermarket typically don't have a great flavor. I use canned tomatoes (and tomato paste) in chili, paella, sauce for non-pasta, pot roasts, etc.

When I get some in my produce box they are great (organic and ripened on the plant), but they also have to be eaten within two days. So that's when I run out for some basil and mozzarella and make a caprese. :-)

Autumn said...

A year or so ago Costco had a BOGO on canned tomato "cases" or an 8 pack of organic canned diced tomatoes. STEAL! I still have 40 cans or so to go, but I don't worry they will go bad and they are always ready to go when I"m ready to cook. I've even done some bruchetta style toppings with them, and while not as good as in season vine ripened organic heirloom varieties, it goes get me though a mid winter blues moment

Anonymous said...

What do you think about the risks of BPA in canned goods? Mark Sission did a post about it a while ago:

Daniel said...

Anonymous, I think I'll try and address your question on BPA in an upcoming post. But for a preview of what I'll talk about, let me just say that there will never be a shortage of things to worry about, yet most of us worry about all the wrong things. I don't worry about BPA in the slightest.

Chacha, you're right: the flavor is a big part of what pushed me away from "fresh" out-of-season tomatoes . I just got to a point where I couldn't bring myself to pay EXTRA for a tomato that tasted worse.

Autumn, thanks for your comment! How long will it take you to get through 40 cans? I'd say that would last us maybe one winter. :)


Wet Coasters said...

I always have cans of tomatoes in my pantry to use in place of fresh tomatoes. In salads, you can use red peppers or strawberries to get that nice red color. They taste much better too!

Sally said...

With the occasional exception of the purchase of cherry or grape tomatoes, I haven't purchased a fresh tomato out of season in years.

I've purchased a few national brands of canned tomatoes for years, but recently have switched to one that is more locally grown (within 200 miles) and processed. They're about the same price as the unbranded tomatoes you mentioned and they're very good.

I used canned tomatoes for everything that doesn't require fresh -- sometimes even when tomatoes are in season.

NMPatricia said...

I hear you on the salads in off season. However, if I can't get tomatoes, I will use oranges or tangerines instead.

Anonymous said...

Canned tomatoes don't last indefinitely and I've learned that the hard way. I opened a forgotten can of diced tomatoes that was probably 3 years old and the contents hit the ceiling. Now I check dates diligently.

At the risk of sounding as if I have a pantry full of old tomato products, I've also found that Pomi boxes need to be used promptly as well.

Autumn said...

I think I've used about half of the original 80 cans in a year. Our CSA was a little tomato crazy last year, as in I was almost sick of heirloom tomatoes and I stewed and froze a bunch of them, which put a small dent in my consumption.

Sally said...

I also omit salads in the off season. I have a family member who is a fresh tomato hater, and have substituted red bell peppers (either fresh or roasted) in some pasta dishes, salads and so forth.

KW said...

I use canned tomatoes all the time- in spaghetti (meat sauce), chili, etc. Also my go-to way of cooking fish is a simple recipe with canned tomatoes: lay the fish out in a baking dish, spread dijon mustard on top, sprinkle with dill, and cover with italian-style canned diced tomatoes. Then just bake for about 20 minutes. Yummy with salmon, catfish, and basically any kind of fish.

Anonymous said...

I understand I can substitute 2 pounds of tomatoes with a 28 ounce can of peeled whole tomatoes. My question is: do I drain the canned tomatoes for that exchange or do I leave the liquid in?

Daniel said...

Great question Anonymous.

I'd say it will depend on the needs of the recipe. If you want extra liquid in the recipe, say in a sauce or a soup, go ahead and include the liquid. If you want a drier, less watery source of tomatoes, you'll want to drain them.