Head over to the canned food section in your local grocery store and the chances are high that the isles are fully stocked with a wide assortment of canned tomatoes. From whole tomatoes, to crushed/diced, there is a ton of variety to chose from.
But which one is best?
Canned tomatoes are generally affordable and versatile to use for cooking and making home made sauces and soups, and they can often help save time instead of prepping fresh tomatoes from scratch. Want to make a homemade pizza? Canned tomatoes are a perfect option. And when it comes to canned tomatoes, one type seems to loom larger above the rest: San Marzano tomatoes.
But why? What makes San Marzano tomatoes so special and are they really worth the hype?
We decided to find out and what we uncovered even shocked us.
What are San Marzano Tomatoes?
Freshly grown San Marzano Tomatoes
As the name implies, San Marzano tomatoes hail from the small town of San Marzano, Italy. A type of plum tomatoes, they’re revered for a sweet and powerful flavor. These tomatoes generally grow longer and thinner than most common varieties of tomatoes, and are shaped almost like a chili pepper.
San Marzano tomatoes are juicy and meaty but have few seeds, and they have been lauded for their unique taste by chefs and tomato aficionados alike for decades. In fact, they are are almost universally recognized as the perfect tomato to make a sauce with.
Geography plays a key role in their exceptional taste, and the town of San Marzano helps explain why these tomatoes are so highly coveted. In close proximity to Naples and at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, San Marzano has a unique and rich, volcanic soil that is perfect for growing sweet plum tomatoes that have very little acidity.
Great and painstaking care is taken to grow these tomatoes, and the tiny parcels of land that are available to adequately grow them lend to their uniqueness and infamous lore. Handpicked after the growing season, these tomatoes are harvested in late August and September, leaving an extremely small window of time to collect them when ripe. The flavor of San Marzano tomatoes is truly one of a kind, and an absolute pleasure to enjoy in a variety of meals and sauces.
That all sounds pretty good, right? Which begs the question – Just why should everyone be careful when purchasing canned San Marzano tomatoes for themselves?
Brands such as San Marzano are actually labeled “Grown Domestically in the U.S.A.” confusing consumers.
First things first, these tomatoes usually retail for about 2 times as much on average as standard canned tomatoes that are found in most supermarkets. While most people will gladly dole out money for top quality, there are some incredibly delicious canned brands that may not have the San Marzano reputation, but still pack a powerful punch in terms flavor.
The canned food section of most stores are also filled with brands that claim to be from San Marzano, but are actually knock-off versions. Most tomatoes from the region will be stamped with a label of authenticity shown as DOP (Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino D.O.P.). So keep an eye out for that label, as a lot of brands claim to be Marzano tomatoes, but don’t actually have that real seal of approval. Each year, thousands of cans are confiscated for pretending to be the real deal, when in fact they are mislabeled in order to mislead consumers.
All things considered, it’s also a little bit fishy to think that supermarkets around the world can be so flush with brands claiming to be authentic San Marzano tomatoes. In reality, it’s simply impossible that a town so tiny can produce enough tomatoes to consistently stock almost every market in the world, year round.
Research has shown that most cans that show up in supermarkets are fakes, and a lucrative scheme has emerged around peddling normal tomatoes and marking up the price to meet public demand. In fact, it’s even estimated that almost 95% of tomatoes presented as San Marzano are fakes! Pretty crazy, right?
How to Know if the Tomatoes are Authentic
True tomatoes from the San Marzano region are only exported in cans, either whole or in fillets, so jarred tomatoes or those that are labeled “puree,” “chopped,” “diced,” “sauce,” or “organic” can be deemed a fraud.
Also as mentioned, it’s important to take note of the DOP label on most brands. Look for the words “”Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino D.O.P.” and the symbols of the Cosorzio and the D.O.P., the latter of which identifies European regional food products that are protected by law. While these can be forged, it’s difficult to do, so you can feel somewhat comfortable that if that label is printed on the can, it’s the real deal.
A lot of well regarded brands, including Cento, have been slapped with lawsuits for fraudulently claiming to be authentic, so it’s a little difficult to pinpoint specific companies to keep an eye out for.
Sometimes all that you can do is check for the DOP label, pay the high price, and hope for the best. Lucky for us, most tomatoes are delicious, so even if you don’t have the real thing, chances are high that your dish will still turn out tasty!