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[Top photograph: Joshua Bousel. All others: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Winner!

Muir Glen Organic Diced Tomatoes

The number of times I use canned tomatoes during the year versus fresh is at least 20 to 1. Why? For cooked tomato applications, canned tomatoes are not only easier (they save you the trouble of having to skin fresh tomatoes), but are in fact better, as canned tomatoes are allowed to fully ripen and develop in flavor on the vine before being picked and processed. They pack a flavor punch that fresh tomatoes rarely achieve, especially when we're not in peak tomato season.

Point is, I go through a lot of tomatoes, and am constantly looking for better options. The two brands I turn to most often—Muir Glen and Cento—are both nationally available, consistently sweet and acidic, and reasonably priced. Muir Glen is organic and grown and packed in the USA to boot.

Recently, Muir Glen introduced a series of "2012 Reserve" canned tomatoes, produced in limited quantities (apparently they are grown on only 13 acres), and available at Whole Foods. In their words, the Reserve series "represent the pinnacle of the tomato season each year." They're available in both regular and "fire-roasted" form.

Are they worth seeking out?

The Tasting

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We tasted both forms of Reserve tomatoes against Muir Glen's regular tomatoes both plain and in a simple pizza sauce with olive oil, salt, and a touch of garlic. The tomatoes were tasted blind by a panel of tasters and rated on fresh tomato flavor, tartness, sweetness, and overall impression. The can of regular tomatoes we were provided for the taste test were "No Salt Added," so we made sure to weigh out and stir in the correct amount of salt to bring it in line with the rest of the tomatoes in the taste test.

The Results, Plain Category: Muir Glen Diced Tomatoes

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Despite the Reserve's limited availability and high-end branding, we found the regular Muir Glen Organic tomatoes to actually be superior. In our scale, blind tasters rated the standard tomatoes as nearly twice as sweet as the 2012 Reserves. Whether this is consistently the case from can to can we can't know for sure.

Additionally, we found the Reserve tomatoes to be highly acidic; Our tasters gave them an average score of 8 out of 10 for acidity. (For scale, the next highest acidity average was a 5). Acidity is a good thing in tomatoes—it makes them taste fresh and bright—but without sweetness to balance it out, they come across as bracing, rather than full-flavored.

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Our recommendation for the plain tomatoes? Stick to the standard Muir Glen Organics—no need to go on a special mission to find the Reserves.

The Results, Fire-Roasted Category: Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes

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As with the plain tomato taste test, tasters once again found the Reserve cans to hold tomatoes that were too acidic with not enough sweetness to balance them out.

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In this case, the differences weren't so obvious—the Reserves scored nearly as highly as the regular. But there was still an overall preference for the slightly sweeter profile of the standard tomatoes over the Reserves.

We still heartily recommend Muir Glen as a top choice brand for canned tomatoes at the Supermarket, but the tough-to-track-down Reserve line? Don't worry about seeking them out; you'll do just fine with the regular cans.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

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