Thrifty days are here again. With prices rising faster than wages, belt tightening is the order of the day. For some there’s a sense of deja vu, compounded by Rod Stewart popping up at the jubilee concert. We are sailing… to the 1970s.
Flippancy aside, balancing the budget has never felt more tricky, and for the poorest in society this is not a problem that’s going to be solved by saving a few pence at the checkout. But for the rest of us trying to muddle through, the squeeze is still real.
Simply buying less feels like a straight win, so we need to know what we can do without. Is there a less expensive option that will do the job just as well, or is there a pay-off in quality, or a real environmental or ethical price? In this weekly column, I'll be looking at everything from sun-tan cream to coffee beans - and I’m hoping you’ll all chip in with your tips and concerns.
To kick off, tinned tomatoes are the stalwarts of the cupboard; the basis of everything from a cheeky pasta puttanesca to a Tuscan beef and tomato stew. Supermarket shelves are laden with varieties – chopped, plum, cherry, San Marzano even – at a bewildering range of prices, ranging from 28p up to £3. Some of them aren’t even in tins, but Tetra Paks and jars. Does it matter which ones you choose?
It’s a more relevant question than ever. These larder lovelies, for so long reassuringly good value, have been soaring in price – a report back in February found they’d gone up 29 per cent since the same time last year. More rises are predicted. So, given that they get chucked in the shopping trolley most weeks, it makes more sense than ever to pick the best value.
So what are you getting when you choose the standard versions over the economy range? Having tasted my way through dozens of cans, scrutinising labels as I go, the ingredients are pretty standard: tomatoes, tomato juice and citric acid. More expensive tins have a bit less juice and more tomato – just shy of 10 per cent more. But with prices anywhere from 30 per cent to 300 per cent higher that’s not enough to justify the cost.
There are other differences. The juice that the tomatoes are in will probably be thicker in the standard tins than budget ones, and thicker sauces offer better value, especially when you are after a satisfyingly rich pizza topping or a creamy soup, as they’ll need less cooking down.
Other issues don’t seem to be so price related. Pallid underripe tomatoes could afflict either kind, although yellow patches were more common in cheaper tins. All varieties had a few scraps of skin, but huge strips are just as likely to be a problem in the pricier versions, and there’s no excuse for that.
Those bits of skin aren’t much to worry about if you plan on chucking the lot in the liquidiser, but annoying if you’ve added a tin to a casserole, as they won’t break down completely. The skin on the little cherry tomatoes can actually be a bonus, adding a bit more texture to a rustic chicken casserole, say, or dotted on to half-baguettes of garlic bread and baked slowly to a crisp, crusted tomato-squishy deliciousness.
And, let’s be clear, you are always going to want to cook them. Serving a tinned plum tomato straight from the can is a crime against vegetables. Yes, against fruit too. Even at breakfast. Don’t do it.
Tinned tomatoes need the magic of heat, to soften the flavours and reduce any “tininess”. This is true even for those pricey tins of cherry tomatoes, which can be worth shelling out for, but only where the shape matters: stir them through a casserole for the last half hour and with a bit of luck they’ll keep their shape – this works better with the unpeeled cherry tomatoes, like the Sainsbury’s or Mutti ones, rather than Waitrose’s peeled version. Tinned cherry tomatoes will bob around prettily in a shellfish broth, too, providing you keep the heat low. You can also use them for sauce – like the fresh tomatoes, they are a bit more intense than their larger sisters.
Ah yes – the flavour – that is what it’s all about, after all. The range is surprising: some sweet, others bitter, fruity, savoury and – overwhelmingly – sour. It turns out almost all brands have added citric acid as an “acidity regulator”, to aid preservation and reduce the risk of bugs such as botulism. But some overdo it, making them mouth-puckeringly sharp.
The good news is that there is plenty of room for tweaking, so a cheap but not that cheerful tin can still be cajoled into forming the backbone of a chilli or casserole. Recipes often recommend adding a teaspoonful of sugar to tinned tomatoes – and, while you may baulk at sweetening, it’s an effective boost, just as a pinch of salt will knock back any taste of tin.
One Italian friend of mine stirs in a pinch of bicarb to sauces to neutralise the excess acidity, and a smidge of Marmite or a parmesan rind added to the pan will pump up the umami. Satisfyingly, though, the best brands deliver flavour with the minimum of titivating – and some of them are downright bargains. Tomatoes, but not just any tomatoes.
Four thrifty things to do with tinned tomatoes
- Make a peposo, a Tuscan beef and tomato stew: In a large casserole dish or slow cooker, put 1/2 tbsp crushed (not ground) peppercorns, 1kg cubed beef shin, 1 tsp salt, 5 chopped cloves of garlic, 2 tins of tomatoes and enough cheap red wine to cover. Cover, bake at 180C for 3hours, or slow cook for 6 hours on low. Eat with soft polenta or mashed potatoes.
- Mix a Mexican Michelada: Puree a tin of tomatoes, and season with lime juice, Worcestershire sauce and chilli. Half fill a salt rimmed glass and top up with lager (the only exception to my uncooked tinned tomato rule!).
- For the best pizza sauce, make a “gastrique”: Heat 6 tbsp sugar until it melts to a dark caramel. Carefully pour in 125ml wine vinegar (watch out! It’ll spit) and boil to a thin syrup. Cook a tin of chopped tomatoes until thick and saucy, and season with the gastrique.
- Whip up a quick garlic, chilli and tomato soup: Cook a crushed clove of garlic in 1 tbsp olive oil for 1minute, add a tin of tomatoes and a shake of sweet chilli sauce. Puree with a hand blender, heat and serve.
The Great Tomato Taste Off
The best buys
Sainsbury’s Hubbard tomatoes, 28p
These five big tomatoes have a nice clean flavour, soft texture, slightly thinner juice but nothing to complain about. In fact as they’re a bit less sour I prefer them to the higher- priced Sainsbury’s tomatoes.
Tesco Growers Harvest, 28p
Five very neat, even tomatoes in a thin but not watery juice. One of my favourites for flavour, not too sour and very savoury, and one of the few to remind me of fresh. Better than standard Tesco tins.
Suma organic peeled plum tomatoes, £1.29
One of the only brands that contains no citric acid. These are savoury and fruity, with a good flavour to the tomatoes. Worth splashing out on for a special tomato sauce.
M&S Italian plum tomatoes, 50p
Another broken ring pull, but nice thick soupy sauce and four large toms, plus one smashed. A particularly firm texture – good for chunky sauces – and a fresh flavour.
And the buys best avoided...
KTC tomatoes, 45p
The juices looked weirdly curdled, and clung to the bottom of the tin. The rough texture was noticeable in the mouth, and there’s a slightly tinny, sour flavour to them. One to avoid.
Cirio peeled plum tomatoes, £1
Very sour: you’d want to add salt, sugar and maybe a pinch of bicarb to balance these. Sauce is fruity, tangy and reminds me oddly of strawberries. I may have eaten too many tomatoes.