Recognized all over the world as the best of the best, San Marzano tomatoes and Italian food go hand-in-hand. In fact you might assume that tomatoes have been a part of Italian cuisine since Roman times. If you love to cook like I do, then you probably already know that a recipe can vary in flavor so much depending on the quality of ingredients you use. When flavor matters in a recipe, you want to get the best quality ingredients possible.
(Disclosure: I was supplied authentic San Marzano canned tomatoes and educational materials by Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP and ANICAV All opinions are my own.)
San Marzano tomatoes are one of those ingredients. Once you’ve done a side-by-side comparison between ordinary canned tomatoes and San Marzano DOP tomatoes, you’ll know why they are considered the very best canned tomatoes.
What’s so special about San Marzano DOP tomatoes?
There are a number of factors that make San Marzano DOP tomatoes special. First it’s the variety. While San Marzano tomato varieties can be grown anywhere in the world, that’s only one factor. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco and tasted sour dough bread, and then wondered why it doesn’t taste the same when you make it at home, you’ll understand the second and third factors.
The location is another factor in these superb tomatoes. Let’s head south to Agro Sarnese-Nocerino area of Italy. Back to the sourdough analogy; San Francisco sourdough is made from the same starter that’s been used for over 100 years. The climate, fog and fermentation process contribute to its unique flavor. The same can be said for Culatello produced at Antica Corte Pallavicina in Emilia-Romagna.
The third component is the soil composition, which ties in with the location. Located less than 10 miles from Pompeii, the soil surrounding San Marzano is fertile volcanic soil. It’s also rich in potassium and phosphorus. Over the last 200 years the variety has been perfected into the distinctive tomato we recognize today.
Picking and Processing
The San Marzano variety produces throughout the growing season, which means that the tomatoes ripen on the same vine at different times. Because of this, they must be picked by hand.
This is another factor that contributes to their cost. Before the tomatoes can be processed, they must go through quality control. The processing plant also must be thoroughly cleaned and readied for the DOP packaging and labels.
Where are San Marzano tomatoes grown?
The Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region can be found in Naples, Salerno and Avellino, but most are grown in the town of San Marzano. Only San Marzano tomatoes grown within this area can be considered for DOP status. To read more about San Marzano tomatoes, here’s the I Love San Marzano website.
What does “DOP” mean?
“The protected designation of origin (PDO) is a type of geographical indication of the European Union and the United Kingdom aimed at preserving the designations of origin of food-related products. The designation was created in 1992 and its main purpose is to designate products that have been produced, processed and developed in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region concerned.” (source wikipedia)
You most likely have seen the initials DOP on other Italian products such as olive oil, Balsamico di Reggio Emilia (balsamic vinegar), Parmigiano Reggiano, culatello (prosciutto) and even Mozzarella di Bufala, which unlike most American “mozzarella” cheeses is actually made from the milk of water buffalo.
These and many more region specific products carry the DOP label. DOP or “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” (Protected Designation of Origin) ensures that the products that carry the seal have met the highest standards from soil to shipping.
Why is DOP so important?
In addition the location and variety, processing and packaging are also a factor. Testing and inspection on all DOP products is another factor which guarantees you’ll “get what you pay for” which purchasing a product with the seal. The stringent rules for any DOP product means you’ll be getting the highest quality.
Aren’t all San Marzano tomatoes DOP?
Unfortunately not. Any company outside of the EU can call its tomatoes “San Marzano” with no recourse. Of course they can be planting the San Marzano varietal, but growing them in California or Mexico. While many tomato brands can have “San Marzano” on the label, the only way to ensure you’re getting the real deal is the check the label. A lot of canned tomatoes try to capture the consumer by using clever phrasing like “San Marzano style“. They’re hoping that the words “San Marzano” will convince you to grab the can off the shelf.
How can you tell the whether canned tomatoes are DOP?
The first thing look for is the red and gold seal. That’s the DOP seal. You should also see the the red and green label which tells you a bit more information about where they are grown; Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino. There will also be the prominent words “Product of Italy” as well as a serial number unique to each can of San Marzano tomatoes. Watch out for San Marzano “style” tomatoes as they most assuredly are not authentic.
Their long slender shape is distinctive and authentic San Marzano tomatoes will only come whole peeled, not diced or pureed.
If you have a recipe that requires diced tomatoes, use a pair of culinary shears and cut them in the can or bowl.
Dicing a whole can of tomatoes takes less than a minute using a knife.
Why canned over fresh tomatoes?
San Marzano tomatoes were chosen for canning nearly 100 years ago for their firm and juicy flesh and thin, easy to remove skin. They also have fewer seeds than other tomatoes. The canning method ensured the tomato retained its shaped during the canning process. Unlike food in the US which is readily available year-round, Italians (and most Europeans) eat seasonally. They understand that a strawberry, or tomato will taste completely different in season than if it’s been flown half way around the world. Out of season fruits and vegetables are far more expensive as well. So if Italians want to enjoy the most delicious and freshest tasting tomato sauce they rely on canned San Marzano tomatoes.
What are some San Marzano brands?
Some authentic brands of San Marzano tomatoes that are available in the United States can be found on Amazon.
Another good place to find authentic DOP San Marzano tomatoes is your local Italian grocery store. You will also find other authentic products like balsamic, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano.
What are some recipes using canned San Marzano tomatoes?
This creamy Tomato Basil Soup with goat cheese is a great way to feature the fresh flavor of San Marzano tomatoes.
Next time you go into the supermarket, take a look at the canned tomatoes and see if your market carries authentic San Marzano DOP tomatoes. If not, encourage the manager to order them!