To taste and cook effectively it’s important to know your raw materials. Just as a sculptor must know the features of the stone she is working on, a good cook must know the flavor characteristics of basic ingredients in order to understand what cooking and adding flavor components will do.
Raw tomatoes that you buy in the grocery store have come under lots of criticism for their lack of tomato flavor. Back in the mid-20th Century when industrial food was getting off the ground, they needed a tomato that was uniform in appearance and would stand up to being shipped long distances. Some of the tomato flavor was bred out of these tomatoes to achieve better transportability. They also have to be harvested when unripe in order to cut down on spoilage. Thus, unless you live in one of those blessed parts of the world where the freshest tomatoes routinely show up at your farmer’s market, you’re better off using canned tomatoes for a sauce. The tomatoes used in canned tomatoes do not have to be harvested unripe or shipped long distances and their appearance and juiciness won’t matter since they will not be eaten raw. Thus, the best canned tomatoes will usually be of higher quality with better structure than your generic supermarket fresh tomato.
Nevertheless we need a sense of the various flavor and texture components of raw tomatoes in order to make sense of how we want to transform them through cooking.
The Taste of Raw Tomatoes:
The best quality fresh tomato available on this cool, rainy January day is the Kumato brown tomato. They are hydroponically grown in greenhouses and ripened on the vine, and thus are reliable throughout the year. I compare it to an ordinary roma tomato purchased at the supermarket and allowed to ripen for 1 week.
In appearance the tomato is brown with red/yellow highlights–an odd color but one that would give a dish a unique color profile.
Smell the tomato first. There is a pronounced vine-like aroma with subtle earth tones. By “vine-like” I mean the smell of a freshly cut vine or stalk. Tomatoes still on the vine have that aroma and good tomatoes retain some of it. The conventional, supermarket roma lacks these viney notes; it lacks much aroma at all, but does have a faint musty odor. Returning to the Kumato, at first bite there is a burst of sweetness and a fruity/floral impression balanced by tartness. This balance is what makes tomatoes so refreshing. The tart flavor provides intensity as long as there is enough sweetness so it doesn’t become sour. This sweet/tart balance is the crucial element in tomato quality. Different tomato types will strike a different sugar/acid balance.
As you chew notice how long that balance persists. Even the Kumato’s flavor begins to fade quickly and you become more aware of the skin and some mealy texture next to it, although the Kumato is quite tender and not chewy. As the sweetness fades, it is replaced by a green flavor almost like bell pepper which persists for several seconds leaving a refreshing aftertaste with very little drying astringency.
The supermarket roma has almost no sweetness up front. The fruity/floral flavors are muted and masked by tart notes. It is less tender than the Kumato and has quite a bit of mealiness and chew. The dominate element is the finish or aftertaste. The aftertaste is mouthwatering and refreshing. It has a long, watery, clean, fresh aftertaste. I suspect it is this moist aftertaste that makes even ordinary tomatoes passable in a salad.
The process of cooking tomatoes will obviously change these flavor profiles
Buying and Tasting Processed Tomatoes
Good canned whole tomatoes are picked at the peak of ripeness and then cooked at a sterilization temperature. They lack the fresh fruit flavor of raw tomatoes but have lots of sugar and the structure to create a good sauce. (Crushed or diced tomatoes will lack the flavor and structure needed for a sauce) There is lots of controversy about the best canned tomatoes to buy. The San Marzano tomatoes, grown near Naples, Italy have the best reputation. If you can find genuine San Marzano tomatoes they are worth a try. But be careful. Many tomatoes sold as San Marzano are grown in the U.S. from San Marzano seeds. Only tomatoes with DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) on the can are genuine. I compared the Cento brand San Marzano tomatoes (non-DOP certified even though “certified” appears on the label but grown in Italy) to a readily available high quality tomato from the U.S.—the Muir Glen Whole Peeled Tomatoes.
Unfortunately, the Cento certified tomatoes are flat and vegetal with little flavor persistence. They have some sweetness but the fruit flavor is not bright or intense and green notes are prominent. The Muir Glen tomatoes were much superior. After an initial burst of bright fruit, the acidity kicks in leaving a mouthwatering sensation
Additional Posts in the Tomato Sauce Project: