No matter the season, my pantry is always stocked with canned or jarred tomatoes. What kinds, you may ask? Well, there are whole-peeled tomatoes for slow-cooked braises and stews (and Marcella sauce, of course). Diced tomatoes for chili. Passata for quick sauces. Sun-dried tomatoes for salads and pastas (and pasta salads). Tomato paste for too many dishes to count.
But if I'm playing favorites (and why not!), there's one type of canned or jarred tomatoes that I love more than all the others: canned cherry tomatoes. Not heard of them? Well, I'm referring to the small, red, candy-sweet tomatoes that are prolifically fresh at the height of summer, but if they're prepped and canned, they're ready to use any time of year.
Compared to the standard plum tomatoes you'll find in most cans, these definitely stand out. They're ultra-sweet and juicy, with a bright, fresh-off-the-vine flavor. And they cook quickly and evenly given their compact size, a boon when you want rich flavor but don't have a lot of time. I recently gave my mom 10 cans — that's how much I love these sweet little orbs.
If you've never tried them, they're absolutely worth seeking out — no matter how many types of canned or jarred tomatoes already crowd your shelves. Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know about them.
What's in the can?
Canned cherry tomatoes have a short ingredient list: cherry tomatoes, tomato juice or purée, sometimes sea salt. Notably, you won't find calcium chloride, the preservative that's added to diced tomatoes (and sometimes whole-peeled) to retain their firmness and shape — so they meld quickly into whatever you're cooking. Also, they're packed unpeeled, which is a very good thing. Their soft, thin skins lend a pleasant texture to sauces and soups that you just can't get from other types of canned tomatoes.
Where can you find them?
An Italian market or grocer is always a good bet since canned cherry tomatoes are common in Italian cooking. And they're becoming easier to find in supermarkets. Within the last year, I've found Mutti brand canned cherry tomatoes in several grocery stores in the Washington, D.C., area where I live. (If you don't spot any in your local store, ask customer service if they can start stocking them — it never hurts to ask.) Also you can purchase them online via major retailers — either individual cans or in cases. If you have the storage space, order a case . . . you'll be surprised at how quickly you'll use them up.
How can I use them?
Everything from speedy sauces to slow-simmered stews is fair game. They even taste good straight from the can, which I can't say for many other canned tomatoes I've tried. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- No-cook pizza sauce: Don't need the stove here. Blend a can of cherry tomatoes (with their juices) together with good-quality extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt. It'll put standard jarred pizza sauces to shame.
- Bruschetta: Roughly chop and pile them on garlic-rubbed grilled bread topped with olive oil and sea salt.
- Focaccia: Drain and scatter a handful on top of focaccia or other doughs before they go into the oven.
- Stuffed sandwiches: Stuff them into panini, grilled cheese, or calzones before cooking.
- Quesadillas, tacos, and tortas: Use them as a filling or as the base of a quick, no-cook salsa.
- Fish and chicken: Scatter them around a nice filet of fish or chicken thighs you're getting ready to roast, or use them in place of fresh cherry tomatoes in this baked salmon recipe.
- Speedy Marcella sauce: Substitute an equal amount of canned cherry tomatoes for whole-peeled, keeping the other ingredients the same. You'll have a richly flavored sauce in less than half the time.
- Recipes that call for diced or whole-peeled tomatoes: Swap an equal amount of canned cherry tomatoes for diced and whole-peeled tomatoes, particularly when you don't want distinct chunks of tomato in the finished dish, or have the time to cook down whole ones.
My favorite use of all: this Pasta With 10-Minute, Triple-Tomato Sauce, which I make on nearly a weekly basis. Canned cherry tomatoes make the sauce, with small amounts of tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes to boost the complexity and umami in every bite. Caramelizing each type of tomato in butter increases the flavor and texture even more. The sauce is amazingly rich and complex — especially given how speedy it is — and a very good reason to always have a can (or case) of cherry tomatoes on hand.
Recipe: Pasta with 10-Minute Tomato Sauce
- 1 pound rigatoni, penne, or your favorite pasta (use 3/4 pound pasta for a saucier version)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double-concentrated)
- 1/4 cup (45 grams) sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, plus 1 tablespoon oil from the jar
- 1 (14-ounce) can cherry tomatoes (such as Mutti or Cento brand)
- 3 pinches Calabrian or red pepper flakes, or to taste
- Finely grated Parmesan, for serving
- In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and 2 tablespoons of the salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente according to the package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.
- When the water is close to a boil, start the sauce. In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the tomato paste, stirring to integrate into the butter, and cook for about 2 minutes, until the paste turns a shade darker.
- Finely chop the sun-dried tomatoes and add to the pan, along with the tomato oil. (Tip: Use kitchen scissors to snip the tomatoes into small pieces in the pan to avoid dirtying a cutting board.) Cook for about 1 minute more, until the tomatoes are lightly toasted.
- Add the cherry tomatoes (with their juices), Calabrian flakes, and a few pinches of salt. Using the back of a spoon, gently smash the cherry tomatoes to release their juices. Reduce the heat, if needed, to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 4 to 5 minutes, until the cherry tomatoes break down and form a thick, glossy sauce. Season with salt to taste, and more Calabrian flakes (if desired) until you get the balance you like. (If the sauce is done before the pasta, turn down the heat to the lowest setting to keep warm.)
- Add the pasta and about 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking water to the sauce and cook over low heat, tossing well to integrate and adding a bit more pasta water if needed to thin the sauce.
- Divide the pasta among plates. Top with the Parmesan.