The huge variety of canned tomatoes at the grocery store can be daunting. Some recipes even call for more than one style, and each one is called for a particular reason. While crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce may seem pretty similar in the can, they're vastly different products with different purposes.
Consistency is the biggest difference between crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce. Cans of crushed tomatoes consist mostly of small chunks of tomato flesh in tomato juice. A few large chunks of tomatoes and a little bit of tomato skin remain for texture. Despite the large pieces, crushed tomatoes tend to be soupier than tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is a smooth puree without any large pieces, but it's thicker than crushed tomatoes.
The methods used to prepare canned tomatoes accounts for most of their differences. Tomato sauce is made by cooking tomatoes down until the fruit becomes thick and concentrated. The tomatoes are then strained to remove any seeds or chunks of flesh. Crushed tomatoes are made exactly how they sound — whole tomatoes are crushed by a machine called a disintegrator. The tomatoes are then heated and combined with either tomato juice or puree. Crushed tomatoes packed in juice have a fresher, brighter flavor than those packed in puree.
Crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce impart two very distinctive flavors to dishes. Crushed tomatoes are minimally cooked, leaving them with the fresh flavor they achieved on the vine. They are sometimes processed with a bit of salt, garlic or basil, but for the most part, the flavors are left alone. Since tomato sauce is cooked longer, the tomato flavor is less fresh and more subdued. However, tomato sauce is slow cooked with herbs and spices, adding a bit of extra flavor to the mix.
Thanks to their flavor and consistency, crushed tomatoes are best used for pasta sauce. Simply sauté onions and garlic in olive oil, then add a can of crushed tomatoes and bring it to a simmer. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and fresh or dried herbs and dinner is ready. Don't cook the crushed tomatoes for too long — you'll ruin their fresh flavor. Tomato sauce is better suited for slow cooking or heavily seasoned dishes. Chili, stews, casseroles and Tex-Mex dishes are perfect dishes for tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is also ideal for homemade pizza.