What's the deal with San Marzano tomatoes?
Since 1996, there’s been one acknowledged king of the tomato crop: the San Marzano. That’s the year that the European Union certified this special Italian tomato as a DOP product. But there’s a lot of confusion about what makes a San Marzano a San Marzano, and there’s even been some controversy around companies using the name for less-regulated foods. In 2011, the president of the Italian group that regulates San Marzano tomatoes stated that 95% of the tomatoes sold in the U.S. were fakes! To help you shop smarter, we’re here to clear up a few common questions and misconceptions about these delicious canned tomatoes.
Is San Marzano a kind of tomato or a place? Both! There are hundreds of types of tomato plant out there, from giant, palm-sized Brandywines to teeny-tiny cherries, in shades from pale yellow to deep dark purple. Of these, only two varieties can be called San Marzano: either the San Marzano 2 or the Kiros tomato. Both have an even red color, distinctive long plum shape, thin skin, and more firm flesh and fewer watery seeds than other varieties. But to be officially called San Marzano, they must also must be grown in the region of Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, a low-lying valley around the Sarno river in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in Campania. That’s why you might see American-grown tomatoes labeled as San Marzano-style—they’re growing the right plants, but doing so outside of the designated region.
What makes these tomatoes so special? Their meaty flesh and minimal seeds are key for cooking tomato sauces, where water is evaporated out as the sauce simmers. The less water to lose, the more tomato flavor you keep! Since Campania is the home of pizza Napoletana and the historic center of pasta production in Italy, it makes sense that farmers here would be especially focused on tomatoes for sauce. The San Marzano tomato was first bred in the small town of San Marzano sul Sarno, one of the 16 towns that make up the current Agro Sarnese-Nocero region, in the early 1900s, and has been a favorite here for more than 100 years.
Who decides what’s a San Marzano tomato and what isn’t? The San Marzano tomato is DOP-certified, an official government designation that codifies the traditional methods and foods that represent the best of Italian cuisine. (Other famous DOP foods are parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and aceto balsamico di Modena.) The DOP requirements are determined by a local governing body, the Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, and set into law by the European Union.
Somewhat unusually, the DOP designation applies only to preserved tomatoes—there’s no such thing as a fresh DOP San Marzano tomato! The tomatoes must be canned either whole or in filets and stored in glass jars or cans; you’ll never see San Marzano purees, passatas, or crushed tomatoes, nor will you find them in paper tetra paks. The tomatoes must be grown in rows outdoors and harvested by hand between the end of July and mid-September. And a maximum of 80% of a farmer’s yield can be used, ensuring that inferior tomatoes are never passed along to the consumer. All of these rules, along with the relatively small area of the growing region, mean that only about 100 tons of San Marzano tomatoes are produced every year—a drop in the bucket compared to the global canned tomato market, which is estimated at around 1.65 million metric tons.
How can I tell I’m getting the real thing? Unfortunately, because of the global popularity of the San Marzano name and the relatively small amounts that are produced, lots of businesses have come up with some clever ways to make people think they’re getting San Marzanos when they’re not. The aforementioned “San Marzano-style” label is one way; other tricks include American producers using lots of Italian words on their packaging, using vague language like “certified” to make you think they’re DOP-approved, or making “San Marzano” the brand name. Obviously, a real can of San Marzano tomatoes will be made in Italy—there’s simply no way for anything labeled “product of the U.S.” to be authentic.
The absolute best way to verify that the San Marzano tomatoes you’re buying are legit is to look for two things on the label: the official Italian DOP seal and the seal of the San Marzano consortium. You’ll also see the words “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino” and a number issued by the San Marzano consortium. And, unfortunately, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t. You’ll never see San Marzanos for $2/can (as much as we might wish for it!).
If you’re shopping online and aren’t able to pick up the can and look at it yourself, you can ensure you’re getting real San Marzanos by buying them from purveyors you trust. At Giadzy, we’ve met the farmers who grow our San Marzano tomatoes, so we know they’re the real deal!