Canned tomatoes: A comprehensive guide to a pantry staple

Including the best recipes to make with them.

David Klein Editorial Assistant / Chowhound
David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chowhound, CBS Local, Mashable and Gawker.
David Klein
6 min read

During the coronavirus pandemic, we've all been urged to "shop smarter" and, among other things, to stock up on nonperishable goods. So now your pantry is probably jam-packed with industrial-size canned tomatoes

Luckily there is no shortage of ways to take advantage of the world's favorite fruit masquerading as a vegetable. Not every can of tomatoes is alike, however, so be sure to double-check the label.

Read more: The best ways to use all the beans in your pantry

What type of canned tomatoes to buy

The contents will likely fall into one of these categories:

Whole tomatoes

In a 28-ounce can, you're generally going to get about 10 to 12 plum tomatoes that have been previously cooked and peeled. Whole tomatoes offer a lot of versatility -- you can convert them into diced tomatoes (if your recipe calls for that) easily with a knife or crush them with your (washed with soap for 20 seconds, please!) hands. You're also able to better control the thickness and consistency of your dish by adding as much or as little of the juice from the can as you wish.


Some recipes will specify San Marzano canned tomatoes. Though plenty of farmers worldwide grow the variety, real-deal San Marzano tomatoes are grown in the region near Mt. Vesuvius and have protected status due to the unique volcanic terroir of the soil there. We're not saying it's not worth the premium price if you can splurge (they are sweeter and have lower acidity than your standard plums), but there isn't a drastic drop-off in quality if you can't.

Diced tomatoes

No surprises here, these are simply whole tomatoes that have been chopped into small pieces. Some types have an additive to help them keep their shape, which may or may not be what you want depending on the dish. For chilisbarbecue sauces and many Latin American dishes, you may want to seek out cans labeled "fire-roasted." These contain tomatoes that have been (you guessed it) roasted over a fire, which gives them a tantalizing smoky flavor.

Read more: How two top chefs are cooking with canned tomatoes in lockdown

Crushed tomatoes

Equal parts chunky and pulpy, crushed tomatoes are the backbone of pasta sauces, chilisstews and so much more. It's convenient to not have to cut or process whole tomatoes yourself, so it's worth having a few cans or more of these on hand. The standard size is 28 ounces and will generally contribute to a dish that feeds six to eight people at a minimum.

Tomato puree

Canned tomato puree has been skinned, strained and removed of all seeds, then blended to create a thick, velvety texture. Other than salt, that's generally all that's in the container. It's great to have on hand if you want a suggestion of tomato in a large batch dish, but don't need it to be front and center. If you don't have any at home, you can blitz any of the other types of canned tomatoes above in a blender and strain to make your own puree.

Tomato paste

As the name would suggest, this is the thickest of all canned tomatoes, made from tomatoes cooked down for a lengthy period of time and then dehydrated. A little dab'll do ya, which can be frustrating if you have a 6-ounce can and your recipe only calls for a tablespoon. The good news is, it's incredibly easy to freeze the remainder. This saves you lots of time down the road since you can separate it into individual tablespoon portions.

Whether fresh from the can or frozen, be sure to confirm on the label that your paste is not double-concentrated since that will have a major impact on the end result.

Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce is the least pure of commonly sold canned tomatoes. By and large, it contains added ingredients (usually herbs and spices) making it less adaptable for different uses, though it could make for a welcome shortcut depending on the meal you're preparing. The label should clearly state what's in it to help you decide if it's the right choice for your recipe.

Now that you know what you're working with, check out some of our favorite canned tomato recipes below.

How to use canned tomatoes

Here are 13 of our favorite ways to use all kinds of canned tomatoes:

Classic tomato soup


A comfort food hall-of-famer, tomato soup is even better when you make it yourself. It's tempting to substitute milk for the heavy cream in this classic comfort dish, but adding milk to very hot tomato soup will curdle it. (One workaround is to combine the milk and soup when they're both at room temperature and then reheat at a very low simmer.) Don't forget grilled cheese for dipping. Get Chowhound's classic tomato soup recipe.

Read moreSix great grilled cheese and tomato soup combos

Eggs in purgatory


This sinful combo of eggs and a buttery tomato sauce will add some heat to a balanced breakfast. It's essentially a spicier, bare-bones version of the classic dish of poached eggs in tomato sauce called shakshuka that's enormously popular around the Mediterranean from Northern Africa to the Middle East. Get Chowhound's eggs in purgatory recipe.

Read more: This spicy Spanish egg dish is Andalusia's answer to shakshuka

Quick Italian sausage Bolognese


While a traditional Bolognese recipe contains some amount of ground beef, this one is pure pork. Italian sausage is accented with fennel, which complements the tomato nicely and gives the dish an added boost of flavor that will have you saying grazie. Get Chowhound's quick Italian sausage Bolognese recipe.

Chicken and andouille jambalaya


This multiple-meat and rice dish can be made with crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce as well as tomato paste. The Cajun classic does require some hard-to-find ingredients (at least beyond Louisiana) so make sure your local stores have everything in stock. Get Chowhound's chicken and andouille jambalaya recipe here.

Read more: The history of jambalaya, a true melting pot of flavors

Beef enchiladas


These cheesy, tortilla-wrapped Mexican favorites based on ground beef are sure to keep your belly full. Be sure to use fire-roasted diced tomatoes for added kick, and if you don't have dried ancho chili, try substituting extra chili powder. Get Chowound's beef enchiladas recipe.

Slow cooker chili


If you are absolutely exhausted by the idea of cooking every night, rip the Band-Aid off and prepare a large batch of thick, hearty, tomato-based chili. Don't feel like you need to eat it for four days straight, either -- it freezes exceptionally well. Get Chowhound's Crock Pot chili recipe.

Chorizo and olive flatbread


Beyond the spicy sausage topping, this pizza cousin is basically a pantry dish. No need to even make a sauce; the diced tomatoes more than suffice. Make it as a snack for a group or cut the recipe in half for an entree for two. Get Chowhound's chorizo and olive flatbread recipe.

Sloppy Joes


If you went to public school, the phrase Sloppy Joes may send a shiver down your spine. This homemade version, however, could change your mind with a potent spice blend and a thick, sweet and savory, tomato-based gravy. Get Chowhound's Sloppy Joe recipe.

Easy spinach lasagna


No meat? No problem. While you will have to track down mozzarella and ricotta to make this dish complete, the rest is a cinch. You can also finally make use of that frozen spinach that's been collecting frost in your freezer. Get Chowhound's easy spinach lasagna recipe.

Chicken tikka masala


Considered to be the national dish of England (by way of India), chicken tikka masala consists of grilled breast meat simmered in a spiced, creamy tomato sauce. Invest in a jar of garam masala -- it will pay dividends down the road when you want to try your hand at other Indian recipes. Get Chowhound's chicken tikka masala recipe.

Read more: Dip into these essential Indian condiments

Italian meatballs


Make this comforting classic dish a weekly ritual in your household. Extra sauce can be refrigerated or frozen for a multitude of other uses. Freeze the meatballs for a space-saving, high-protein, no-brainer, no-hassle meal down the road. Get Chowhound's Italian meatballs recipe.

Slow-cooker ropa vieja

Translated to English, ropa vieja means old clothes, which reflects the shredded texture of the beef when it's ready to serve. While tattered rags may not be the most appetizing descriptor for your dinner meal plan, this Latin staple tastes infinitely better than it sounds and is incredibly simple to make. Get the Slow Cooker Ropa Vieja recipe.

Marinara sauce

Though it's tempting to go store-bought, making marinara at home will result in a better sauce without any preservatives and other unwanted additives. It's sure to get plenty of use, topping pasta, chicken parm, pizza and so much more. Get Chowound's marinara sauce recipe.

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