Bob Radcliffe’s Tomato Test
Note from Peter: Many of you have read Bob Radcliffe’s entire Pizza Quest series on his search for the perfect tomato pie, and some of you have even been to his extraordinary tomato pie events at Lynch Creek Farm in rural North Carolina. You can see some of the testimonials as you read through the Comments section of his articles (most of the articles are further down on this home page, or can also be found in the Guest Column archives). For more details on Bob’s Ben Franklin Society and the BreadWorks events at Lynch Creek Farm (seating is limited and it’s a hot ticket!), check it out at: www.BenFranklinSocietyNC.org or write to Bob at bob@LynchCreek.com (you can also check out his bio in the Contributor’s section). You can also find him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BenFranklinSociety
As always, we are once again grateful to Bob for this latest contribution in his never ending quest, fueled by a passion that many of us share — but few have Bob’s tenacity. Bob did send along a number of photos to help tell the story but, while the website is undergoing renovation, we are still unable to load them, so I will just run the story now and we’ll add the photos later. I didn’t want to delay getting this out now, as both the information and Bob’s writing is really excellent. So, enjoy Bob’s Tomato Test!
Bob’s Tomato Taste Test
I cannot believe it’s been more than six months since I concluded my “Tomato Pie, Rocky Ford and Me” series for Peter Reinhart’s Pizza Quest. Well, I’m back with another story, about a taste test I conducted to determine which canned tomatoes have the best flavor for a tomato pie. I must admit, now that I’ve done it, I’ve learned it’s a lot harder to conduct an unbiased taste test than I ever imagined.
The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” rang true for me. After two failed attempts, I finally managed to complete a Tomato Taste Test. My first attempt was at an outdoor BreadWorks Event (Aug. 23, 2014) that a thunderstorm washed out. My second attempt (Sept. 13, 2014) was stymied when some of my prepared tomatoes inexplicably molded, and most certainly could not be used. At last, the stars must have aligned. During a holiday open house for the Ben Franklin Society on Dec. 28, 2014, success! Christmas was certainly an unlikely time of year for a tomato taste test, but I had promised Peter and Brad English. So, I guess folks will eat a good Tomato Pie anytime you are willing to prepare one.
I selected three different tomato brands for this Tomato Taste Test. Here’s what I used, along with my comparison commentary:
1. Rob DiNapoli’s – California Bianco brand – one 102-ounce, unlined can of Whole Peeled, Vine Ripened Organically Grown, California Plum Tomatoes with Basil. Medium to large fruits (3” or larger). Noticeably dense and seedy. Ample basil leaf. Thick sauce.
2. My imported Philadelphia favorite – Rosa brand – three 35-ounce lined cans of San Marzano Italian Peeled Tomatoes, All Natural with Basil Leaf in Tomato Puree. Medium to large fruits (3” or greater). Less dense with some seeds. More basil leaf. Thick sauce.
3. An imported New Jersey rival – Cento brand – to challenge my belief they were similar to Rosa – three 28-ounce lined cans of Pomodoro San Marzano Certified Peeled Tomatoes with Basil Leaf. Small fruits (2” or larger). Little density, mushy and few seeds. No noticeable basil leaf. Thinner sauce.
I prepared each of the sample tomatoes identically. Just as I described in my article, “Try It, You’ll Like It.” I sugared each sample individually to even out the sweet/acid balance of each product. The prepared tomatoes were refrigerated overnight, brought to room temperature, then tasted again, and adjusted if needed, to ensure an even balance between brands before using them in the Taste Test. Surprisingly, each uncooked sample looked and tasted quite different, even though they all were plum-type tomatoes. Because the Tomatoes cook on the pie, and I add no other seasoning to the tomatoes, when baked, their taste is enhanced by evaporation to reveal their distinctive tomato flavor.
Each sample piece had both tomato, cheese, mushroom and sausage on it. Making those rectangular pies for me was a struggle. Quite a challenge. You know I cannot make round pies. Keeping the crust thickness and applying the toppings uniformly was tedious.
Each tray was labeled as either Sample “A,” “B,” or “C.” I baked the pies in an electric oven with a pizza stone (not my outdoor, wood-fired oven) – so the samples lacked that smoky aroma. After serving, I asked each person to take one piece of each Sample “A,” “B,” and “C,” and rank how the tomatoes tasted – with no hint of which tomato brand was used. I asked them to fill out a form to serve as a score card. Everyone was free to sample more Tomato Pie, but this was not a typical buffet-style Tomato Pie Event where I bake 40-50 pies in my wood-fired oven.
About 45 folks attended, and some couples submitted only one score card. I asked everyone to rate the tomatoes on each of the three samples, and write comments as well. Here are the raw data findings from the twenty-one score cards completed:
Tomato brand 1st 2nd 3rd
Sample A (Rosa) 11 2 8
Sample B (Bianco) 8 6 7
Sample C (Cento) 2 13 6
When conducting a Survey, you hope a clear winner emerges. In this case, one did not. Here’s my take on the results – based upon the scores above, along with anecdotal remarks at the event, comments written on the forms, and practical considerations important to me:
1. The Biancos were rated as being “earthy with a full, plum tomato taste.” The fruits were large and fibrous, but somewhat harder to cut into pieces.
2. The Rosas were rated as “sweeter.” The fruits were large and meaty, not fibrous, and easier to prepare.
3. The Centos were obviously good with 13 votes for 2nd place, but not great with 2 votes for 1st place. The fruits were very small and stringy with a lack of pulp.
I recommend the Bianco brand
I prefer to continue using the Rosa brand
I would not recommend the Cento brand
4. Unlike the Taste Test, from my cost perspective, the winner was clear-cut:
Rosa $0.10 per ounce
Cento $0.15 per ounce
Bianco $0.30 per ounce
The Bianco brand is readily available in California and may be purchased online, but shipping costs are prohibitive. East Coast availability may be limited. These are a Made-in-the-USA product and are not imported. They are a plum tomato, and would say they are not, a San Marzano – but they are delightful nevertheless.
I am unsure of the availability of the Rosa brand tomatoes nationwide. I believe they are only imported from Italy into the Eastern port cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore. Kerry, my wife, actually buys and picks-up Rosas in Philadelphia at the Rosa Grey’s Ferry warehouse – when she regularly travels to work in our old Spring Garden neighborhood.
The Cento brand is broadly available at most food stores and big-box grocery retailers. The price varies, but is marketed as a premium product. I was disappointed in the fruit size and lack of texture and pulp. The fruit size in all three cans I purchased was uniformly small. I found them difficult to work with when preparing the product as I do.
Well, this Tomato Taste Test may not be the END-ALL of taste tests. I do hope I’ve added some value to the process of choosing the best tomatoes to use when making a Tomato Pie. I don’t claim that Rosas are superior, but on a taste, cost and availability basis, they remain my preferred choice.
If a better brand emerges, rest assured, I will happily begin using it for my BreadWorks Dining Events at Lynch Creek Farm in rural North Carolina.
Until my next Taste Test, or other food-worthy experiment . . . Happy trails! – Bob
Recent Articles by Bob Radcliffe
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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