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Jun 9, 2011 04:24 PM

SAN MARZANO (DOP) TOMATOES. What's the big deal?

Hello Italian Tomato 'Hounds

I remember hearing once about the problem with DOP tomatoes, in that there are restrictions requiring imported tomatoes to be packed in cooked puree, rather than juice.

Puree is apparently made with inferior tomatoes (the ones that don't make the grade for whole tomatoes). So what happens abroad is that superior tomatoes are packed in the inferior puree, and the the beautiful flavor of the San Marzano DOPs becomes tainted with a muddy, cooked flavor.

American tomatoes can be packed in either puree or juice.

I decided to test out this theory. I dropped $4-6 on several cans of DOP tomatoes (reputable brands such as La Valle DOP, A-1, Nina's, etc.) and a can of Hunt's packed in juice.

Tasted straight from the can, there's simply no contest.

Tasted side by side, it's readily apparent that Hunt's tastes MUCH fresher. Bright, clean, crisp. The tomatoes were firm and didn't immediately dissolve apart (which admittedly is not a desirable trait when cooking a sauce). All of the brands of puree packed San Marzanos had that same cooked, muddy flavor and couldn't hold a candle to the fresh flavor of the domestic, juice-packed brand.

I hate to say it, but I think we're being duped. I'd be curious to hear from people who have cooked with canned San Marzano DOP in Italy. Are they packed in juice there?

Were you aware of this drastic difference?

Looking forward to reading your responses.

Mr Taster

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  1. Hunt's--when I have been forced to use them (full disclosure: once in the past ten years, and that was two years ago) were disgusting to my palate (acidic, overly hard fruit.) Obviously, your sense of "cooked muddy flavor" distinguishes your response -- it's just not how I would respond...

    15 Replies
    1. re: penthouse pup

      I believe everybody in this forum is missing the point all together.

      San Marzano Tomatoes can only grow in one place on Earth, that's Naples, near and around the volcano Vesuvius. Anything else grown anywhere else are NOT San Marzano tomatoes. The reason is the following: the soil around the volcano Vesuvius has a unique mineral rich composition that gives the San Marzano Tomatoes a unique flavor that simply cannot be replicated. That's why the European Community has given the San Marzano Tomato the D.O.P. seal (Protected Designation Of Origin). Moreover, the European Community designated little towns near the Vesuvius adhere to centuries old growing techniques: tomatoes trees and therefore its fruits raised from the ground, plus hand-picking. These two last factors alone are enough to justify the 4-5 dollar price tag.

      Let me tackle the argument about the puree. All expert cooks know that the puree is not to be used for cooking. A real Italian tomato sauce uses only tomato pulp, not the puree. When making a tomato sauce, lift the whole tomato from the can and let all of the puree drip away, then, and only then, add the tomato to the sauce pan. Hence, he/she who argues about the puree knows nothing about tomato sauce. The puree is in the tin can only to preserve the whole tomato. Try to believe it.

      Let's tackle the issue about D.O.P. Any tin can that does not bear the the European Community Seal is not a San Marzano Tomato. Period. End Of Story. In this forum I have seen mentioned brands like "la valle" "Cento," Those do not have the D.O.P. seal; hence, they are not San Marzano Tomatoes (maybe the seed is a San Marzano seed; but, that doesn't matter. You can take a San Marzano seed, plant it in Florida, and still not have a San Marzano Tomato).

      For years Americans have been duped by many unscrupulous American Companies that have written on the labels "san Marzano". The Italian government complained for years. But no action was ever taken. Under pressure, some of these american companies started writing: "San Marzano Type - with the word "type" in small characters.

      Of course one can make a tomato sauce with tomatoes grown in Siberia; but then one has that particular tomato sauce, good or bad as it may be. One thing is certain siberian tomatoes will not produce the unmistakable flavor of a Neapolitan tomato sauce made with genuine San Marzano Tomatoes.

      A good reputable brand for real San Marzano Tomatoes is "Rega" They are so reputable that they have two lines of products: "Rega D.O.P." and just "Rega," the second are san marzano seeds planted mostly in Sicily and Apulia and hence do not qualify as "San Marzano D.O.P." I called this honesty....

      1. re: enzocapone

        I believe everybody in this forum is missing the point all together.
        It's clear you didn't read the entire forum because some have already made that point. See my reply

        "Porthos Jul 27, 2011 07:20 AM

        It's also important to point out, that though you can get seeds to the same strain of tomatoes, that supposedly it's the volcanic soil and growing climate that make San Marzano DOP so special and tasty."

        End Of Story. In this forum I have seen mentioned brands like "la valle" "Cento," Those do not have the D.O.P. seal;
        That in incorrect. Cento has both DOP and non DOP certified San Marzanos. See link below for Cento DOP certified.

        1. re: Porthos

          Incredible but true only a few hours ago an italian newspaper "corriere della sera" published 80 photos with worldwide counterfeits of italian products. Cento San Marzano DOP is one of those photos. Here is the link to the photos:

          You'll have to scroll through the photos to see the "cento" tomato can.

          Understand that it's not enough to declare "Certified DOP" on a can. The can has to have the European Community Seal. Go to wikipedia to look for an image of the seal. The European seal is the only guarantee for authentic San Marzano. Here is the link to wikipedia:

          Although it may be declared on the can San Marzano DOP, Counterfeit San Marzano Cans don't have the seal. I assume that's because such a seal on a can of tomatoes to market a bootleg product is a serious crime with serious legal consequences.

          Regarding soil and climate I say that microclimatic conditions are essential in determining characteristics and quality of an agricultural product. That's why one cannot grow San Giovese grapes in Sweden or England or maybe even Napa Valley. San Giovese (chianti), the true San Giovese grape, is from Tuscany. End of story.

          I think it's ludicrous to even entertain the idea that one could make "mozzarella di bufala" campana in Canada or Newark new jersey.

          Why is that no one can copy the ipad software (not even the round corners of the encasing) without a legal suit, but it's totally legitimate to copy italian products and then denigrate the very original italian product without breaking moral and legal laws?

          Regarding the puree contaminating the tomato pulp the argument for or against it is readily defeated by the old axiom: "what you put is in is what you get out"

          1. re: enzocapone

            Was there an article to go with the slideshow in Corriere? Some of the pix looked just silly, obvious copycats but not with fraudulent intent. Important point about the European seal.

            1. re: enzocapone

              Re: puree and "what you put is [sic] in is what you get out", it sounds like you are agreeing with me that if you pack good tomatoes in shitty puree, and cook them further in pasteurization process, you're going to get shitty product out.

              Crap in, crap out, that's your argument, right? Unless you're making the argument that the puree is also of equally high quality as the tomatoes? If so, then we are arguing the wrong point.

              Mr Taster

              1. re: enzocapone


                You're misrepresenting again. These tomatoes don't say "Certified DOP" as you state. They merely say "Certified", which means absolutely nothing. (Even those products "Certified" with an Italian flag, which is more deceptive, also means absolutely nothing.) Anyone can "certify" anything. I can certify "enzocapone" is a Chowhound. In fact, I'll do it now.

                "Enzocapone is a certified Chowhound"

                Does that mean anything? Of course not. It's bullshit, plain and simple.

                It's like putting "Natural" on a package of chicken. It's a marketing term that has no legal definition, but marketers use it to boost sales. "Organic" means something legally. "DOP" means something legally. But "certified" or "natural"? Nope.

                Anyone who is even casually familiar with how American product marketing works can tell it's a bullshit term.

                Now, if the label actually said "Certified DOP", there'd be a problem because that's crossed the line from immoral marketing to fraud, and they'd probably be sued for making such claims. That false "Parma" brand seems like a pretty blatant example of outright fraud. It's no longer crafty marketing once a protected logo is stolen.

                Mr Taster

              2. re: Porthos

                And La Valle the same. You have to look for the DOP seal if you want real San Marzano. That's all they used to make but as they got popular over here, they added the non DOP.

              3. re: enzocapone


                I'm not sure who or what you're attempting to clarify here.

                La Valle sells both a DOP and a non-DOP. You can see the two different cans below.


                So does Cento, as porthos clarified just minutes before me... (stole my thunder!)

                As for the muddy tasting problem, I never cook with the puree, but the muddy tasting problem persists. Unless you're asserting that DOP San Marzanos have some sort of barrier that protects them from the months or years of being cooked (pasteurized) in terrible tasting puree and then marinating for months or years on shipping vessels and store shelves, I don't see how there's any way a DOP San Marzano is going to emerge untainted by that violent process.

                Mr Taster

                1. re: enzocapone

                  You are quibbling about terminology. There are aspects of the tomato varieties used for "San Marzano" tomatoes which distinguish them from other plum tomatoes, and when those varieties are grown elsewhere is is perfectly legitimate to identify them in some way as being of the same variety as "San Marzano D.O.P." "San Marzano Style" is one way, which should mean the same type of tomato packed in the same way. The designation "D.O.P." suffices to identify the genuine article, for those who care.

                  Whether the soil makes a difference in the taste or not is arguable. The climate is likely as important as the soil. In order to prove that the soil mattered, you would have to do a controlled study, growing the identical variety of tomato at the same latitude in San Marzano and somewhere else with a nearly identical climate. The growing, packing, and storing would have to be controlled as well. Finally, you would need a blind test. I think it's just marketing hype, myself, but if there is an objective scientific study showing the superiority of tomatoes grown in San Marzano soil, I'd like to see it.

                  1. re: GH1618


                    The closest thing to what you describe (that I know of) was a lab test and tasting done by Cooks Illustrated in March 2012.

                    They taste tested 10 cans of whole tomatoes:

                    Italian DOP
                    Italian non-DOP

                    They used lab tests to measure both pH and the sweetness on the Brix scale, which is a measure of the sugar (per 100g) in liquid. Lastly, they caliper measured the ratio of jelly to skin ("pericarp").

                    They tasted the tomatoes straight out of the can, as well as simmered in both quick- and long-cooked tomato sauces.

                    Although a tasting panel is by definition subjective, trends emerged that correlated with empirical data.

                    Tasters preferred brands that had a good balance of acidity and sweetness (these preferences were backed up by the lab numbers- tasters of course didn't know the lab numbers going into the tasting panel). Brands that were not acidic enough fell to the bottom of the list. Acidic tomatoes were described as having “fresh,” “fruity” flavors.

                    What they also found is that tasters preferred a good balance between sweetness and acidity. And the panel actually found the DOP San Marzano was near the bottom of the list. The reason? Low sweetness. (again, backed up by lab data). They tasted "weak" and "washed out". I can personally vouch for having exactly this experience with the expensive DOPs.

                    Lastly, they measured the ratio of jelly (where most of the tomato flavor comes from) to skin (or "pericarp"). Turns out, tomatoes with the thinnest skin (and therefore the largest amount of jelly) were at the top of the list. (Thick-skinned tomatoes are a recent invention, meant to withstand modern mechanical harvesting.)

                    And there was a mention of firmness, as the American brands used calcium chloride which kept the tomatoes intact during pasteurization and shipping, etc. They acknowledged perhaps an American cultural bias towards firm tomatoes, whereas an Italian person might prefer the non-treated ones as they will dissolve more evenly into the sauce. I can understand this.

                    Interesting that they did not mention the juice vs. puree debate, which they had done in one of their prior canned tomato tastings.

                    It's an interesting article. The winner of the tasting was Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes (which had both high acidity and high sweetness). 2nd place was Hunt's Whole Plum Tomatoes (which had moderately high acidity and moderate sweetness).

                    Pastene DOP was near the bottom of the list, having moderate acidity and low sweetness.

                    I still would love to know if anyone has actually eaten canned DOP tomatoes IN Italy. I'd be very curious to know whether an Italian domestic product is superior to their exports. I highly suspect it would be.

                    Mr Taster

                    1. re: Mr Taster

                      I'm sure if the lab test was carried out in Italy by Italian testers, the result will be different??!!!

                      1. re: Charles Yu

                        Well, the lab test wouldn't be different, but perhaps the tasting panel would have preferred different levels of acidity and sweetness, etc.

                        Also, they might well be tasting better quality San Marzanos, packed in juice, pasteurized at lower temps, etc. Who knows? I'd love someone with actual knowledge of this to chime in.

                        Mr Taster

                        1. re: Mr Taster

                          Thanks for the report. I've also been disappointed in some DOP San Marzanos, which goes to show that seals and certificates aren't everything. There are good packers and not. But some general notes: packing anything in a puree muddles acidity and even sweetness: I've enjoyed Rienzi and Cento non-DOP whole tomatoes packed in juice over a number of DOPs packed in puree. Alsdo, the thin-skinned San Marzanos show best when cooked briefly, even, alas, with a touch of wine vinegar/sugar (very traditionally Italian American) to achieve the sweetness-acid balance desired. Many years ago, my mom would buy Luigi Vitelli "San Marzanos" (before DOP) packed in juice; they were indeed that--not the plump, somewhat stodgy romas and other varieties more commonly found and redolent of acid and sweetness. I must say I've never developed a taste for the sharply flavored Muir Glens.

                          1. re: bob96

                            Well, as I've noted before, we are all assuming the the tomatoes from a given maker are the same season to season. They are not. The fields are not lab-controlled conditions. While a given maker may have better or worse processing, the most fundamental ingredient is variable in quality.

                      2. re: Mr Taster

                        Mr. Taster, many of us would be grateful if you reported the order of finish of the tomato cans tested.

                2. Do people actually eat canned tomatoes directly out of the can without cooking? If so, why? If not, why does it matter what they taste like out of the can if the finished product is to your liking?

                  I have no dog in this fight, as I don't often use whole canned tomatoes in my cooking. It just seems an odd criterion, unless this is actually something people do.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                    I always taste them first--that's not very odd is it? But Hunt's--yeecch...had to use them and regretted it. End product sauce lacked flavor...medicinal in taste (despite olive oil, herbs etc.)

                    1. re: penthouse pup

                      I taste the tomatoes from each can before using in sauce. Even if each can was bought at the same time, same place. I used to buy Tuttorosso all the time, but I've found that their quality seems to be diminishing and I've taken to buying a case at time of the SM just to have them on hand.

                    2. Well, calcium chloride makes for firmness in canned tomatoes. It's not desirable for anything that you don't want to keep chunky.

                      As you may know, Italian tomatoes, even SM DOP brands, can be packed in a puree that does not help. POMI is, at least, just tomatoes, period.

                      Finally, taste test reviews of tomatoes are only as good as the crop from which they were packed and your liminal benchmarks of goodness for tomatoes. So results can vary.....

                      3 Replies
                        1. re: Karl S

                          I have just tried Pomi for the first time and the difference was so apparent that for most things I will be purchasing it instead of canned.

                          To the OP, Hunts is vey much a last resort due to the hard acidic tomatoes.

                          1. re: Karl S

                            Yep, and that calcium chloride will keep the Hunts tomatoes from ever cooking down into an acceptable sauce. If I want firm chunks of tomato, I'll start with fresh, thank you. No need to buy a processed product artificially treated to make it that way.

                          2. We're not in Italy to see production, but their tomato industry has very high standards, especially with DOP designation. My guess is the puree is made from ripe but blemished tomatoes that won't look good as whole fruit, but the sunny Italian flavor is still there.

                            The OP has raised an interesting questiom, and I'm sure many of us will do a little more tasting out of the cans.

                            1. Sorry, I hated the flavor, artificial texture and green butts of Hunt's tomatoes so much I wrote a letter of complaint to the company. One of less than a handful of times I've done that in my whole life.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                Of the garden variety grocery variety, Hunt's is the worst, IMO. In the past, I've used Redpack (I notice Ina Garten does, too) and Progresso, then Progresso got very bitter years ago and I tried Muir Glen for a while, but their tomato products all seem too bitter to me, just an off taste. Del Monte diced are good, haven't bought whole ones in a long time from them. I love Pomi and San Marzano in juice the best.

                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                  They are not consistent, for sure! Try to find a brand by looking at ratings. Ratings will and can change from time to time.