Amid everything else that Covid-19 brought with it, it felt like a time of endless at-home meals that usually included a high-rotation of bolognaises and cacciatores. But if your tomato sauce has been lacking, you might need to look a little more closely at the tins you’re buying. Because whatever’s nearest or cheapest – or simply in stock – is not always the best.

That’s what Broadsheet discovered when we asked Otto Brisbane’s Will Cowper to road test six popular brands of tomatoes. As head chef of one of the state’s very best Italian restaurants, Cowper works with tomatoes every day and his preference is for whole, peeled Italian tins – for the restaurant he orders 2.5-kilogram tins of Solania San Marzano whole, peeled tomato DOP.

Given his preference for Italian we decided to stick to them for this road test so we could compare like-for-like as much as possible. Cowper says the San Marzano variety of plum tomato, in particular are the best, on account of the country’s Mediterranean climate and rich volcanic earth, and the tendency for growers to let the fruit ripen on the vine. It adds up to a tomato that’s sweet and light on seeds, with a bright red flesh.

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We gathered together six popular brands that can be purchased throughout Australia – Mutti, Annalisa, Macro Wholefoods Market, Coles, Woolworths and Aldi’s Remano brand – and gave them to Cowper to cook with alongside his preferred Solania San Marzanos. He then spent a couple of weeks applying them to a bunch of different dishes prepared both for himself and for staff at Otto.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this wasn’t a full-blown scientific test, but a quick, real-world spin with each tin of tomatoes. Still, Cowper has a keen eye for quality and kept fastidious notes as he went along.

Among his discoveries, one supermarket brand underperformed, while another punched well above its weight. And did anything knock Solania off its number-one placing perch? Read on to find out.

Mutti Whole Peeled Italian Tomatoes
Sample price: $2.30 at Woolworths
Listed ingredients: Peeled tomatoes, tomato juice

Mutti is the tomato you buy when you want to impress your mates. You can find these fancy looking cans in the supermarket, but usually on the top shelf and they tend to be a touch more expensive than other brands.

As far as Cowper’s concerned, they justify the price. The Muttis were larger than most of the other tomatoes, had softer flesh and barely any seeds. Cowper tested them by splitting a pot of bolognaise, finishing the second portion using a tin of Annalisa tomatoes.

“The Muttis started breaking down as soon as you put heat to them,” he says. “Some people blitz their tomatoes before cooking but if you have a good tomato, you shouldn’t need to do this – it will just break down during the cooking process. The juice was on the watery side, but the tomatoes themselves weren’t watery and cooked out amazingly. In terms of taste, they were sweet and not really tart.”

Score: 4/5

Annalisa Italian Peeled Tomatoes
Sample price: $1.70 at Woolworths and Coles
Listed ingredients: Peeled plum tomatoes, tomato juice

Even if you don’t use them yourself, you probably recognise Annalisa’s peeled tomatoes by their striking blue tin and rustic branding. Annalisa has been popular in Australia for years, with both major supermarkets stocking numerous lines of its tinned tomatoes, beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Cowper used his tin to complete the second pot of bolognaise. Compared to the Muttis, the tomatoes were smaller and the sauce was thicker – almost like tomato paste, “which isn’t necessarily a good thing,” he says. Once he started cooking them down, though, he noticed more liquid in the tomatoes, which had a slightly harder flesh than the Muttis and a few seeds.

“They weren’t as sweet as the Muttis but, again, they broke down really beautifully,” he says. “Either way, we’re talking about minuscule differences here – the kind that I’d notice as a chef but I’m not sure the average home cook would.”

Score: 3/5

Remano Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Sample price: 69c at Aldi (not always in stock)
Listed ingredients: Whole peeled tomatoes (60%), tomato juice (39.9%)

Is there someone in your life who’s constantly banging on about how great Aldi products are? Because it turns out they might have a point. Cowper was impressed by the German supermarket chain’s Italian tomatoes, and says that despite the tomatoes themselves exhibiting a touch of yellowness and being tarter in flavour than he’d like, they immediately struck him as being a quality product.

“Towards the bottom they were slightly unripe,” he says. “But otherwise they had a glossy redness and a thin flesh. It’s a good tomato that they perhaps picked just a little bit early.”

Cowper used the Remanos for a chicken cacciatore staff meal and says the tomatoes were a similar size to the Muttis and cooked down well.

“I’d almost give it 3.5,” Cowper says, “but I marked them down half a point just because of that tartness.”

Score: 3/5

Solania Pomodoro San Marzano DOP Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Sample price: $16.90 for a 2.5kg tin from a specialty food supplier
Listed ingredients: Whole peeled tomatoes, tomato juice

Also counting against Aldi’s Remanos was that they were sharing cacciatore duties with Cowper’s prized Solanias. So how did the superstar tomatoes compare to the supermarket brands?

“In terms of liquid, the Solanias sat in the middle. It wasn’t thick, it wasn’t watery, just a really good consistency,” Cowper says. “The tomatoes were about the same size as the Annalisa – not massive – the flesh was super soft, and they were bright red. They were sweet, but they did have a small amount of seeds.”

Where they stood out, Cowper says, was in the thinness of the flesh, which broke down smoothly and consistently during the cooking process.

“It creates this beautiful sauce,” he says. “It comes out almost like this silken glaze. It was the same process as the Remanos, but the end result was so much richer.

“That’s why they’re the go-to. You open a tin and you know you’re going to get a consistent product – soft flesh and a sweet tomato.”

Score: 5/5

Macro Wholefoods Market Certified Organic Peeled Italian Tomatoes
Sample price: $1.80 at Woolworths
Listed ingredients: Organic tomatoes (60%), organic tomato juice

Macro is Woolworths’s in-house line of organic products, which offers everything from chia seeds and cashew nuts, to packs of free-range chicken thigh.

The Macro peeled tomatoes were the last Cowper used on the chicken cacciatore, so perhaps they suffered in comparison to the Solanias and Remanos, but he found them relatively hard to work with. The tomatoes varied in firmness, had more seeds than he liked, and some still had their skin on.

“These ones scored pretty low for colour, which was a light red,” he says. “The tin was very, very watery, which meant I had to cook them down a lot. Also, the skin – there’s nothing worse than having to pick skin out of the pan. This was the last [tin of tomatoes] I used on the cacciatore and even after baking, it was still watery. That’s not good because you lose the flavour of the tomato. All you’re tasting is the acidic wateriness.”

Score: 2/5

Woolworths Peeled Italian Tomatoes
Sample price: $1.10 at Woolworths
Listed ingredients: Tomato (60%), tomato juice, acidity regulator (citric acid)

Maybe it’s the price, but this brand of tomatoes is immensely popular. Just finding a tin for this story involved visiting four different Woolworths supermarkets across the Brisbane inner suburbs.

Cowper, though, recommends you dish out a little bit of extra cash and opt for a different brand – he ranked Woolworths’s own peeled Italian tomatoes last out of the entire road test. Using the tomatoes to create a pasta alla Norma, he found them floury and relatively acidic.

“There were three large tomatoes in the tin and they were seedy and very soft,” he says. “I sautéed off the onion, and then added the tomatoes to make the sauce. But they were so floury, they turned to mush. I had to add a lot of sugar and salt to try to save the dish.”

Score: 1/5

Coles Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Sample price: $1.10 at Coles
Listed ingredients: Whole peeled tomatoes, tomato juice, acidity regulator

Woolworths’s major competitor prices its in-house Italian peeled tomatoes at the same low price of 80 cents a tin, but they performed better when Cowper used them to cook the second portion of his pasta alla Norma.

“The juice in this one was too thick, almost like a tomato paste, and the tomatoes were a little bit tart and bitter,” Cowper says.

Once in the pan, though, the soft flesh of the tomatoes and their relative lack of seeds shone through.

“It cooked out to a really red tomato sauce,” he says. “It was an okay result. It made a nice puree, and when I cooked it in the pasta it worked out well. But I had to add sugar, or at least more sugar than I would like.”

Score: 2.5/5

This article and its headline were updated to clarify the testing methodology and explain why Australian-grown tomatoes were excluded. This article was also updated on October 11, 2023 to reflect changing prices.