What is tomato paste?
Tomato paste is a thick, super-concentrated tomato sauce, made from tomatoes that have been cooked down to remove almost all of their water content. This leaves a rich, intensely-flavoured concentrate that can be used to add flavour to various dishes, including sauces, soups and meats. It is an important pantry staple in Mediterranean cuisine, and Italian cooking in particular.
Because it is so concentrated, a little tomato paste goes a long way. You may have seen it being sold at your local store in tiny little cans, but trust us, those little cans can last for a long time. It can be used in sauces and soups, but it’s also great for recipes that could use that intense hit of tomato flavour without a lot of liquid, so you can add it to your favourite meatloaf recipe without making the mixture loose and sloppy.
Tomato paste vs tomato purée
Tomato paste is sometimes confused for its less concentrated cousin, tomato purée, with some people tending to use the terms interchangeably. Despite their similarities, however, tomato paste is noticeably more concentrated, so if you confuse the two you can end up with a dish that is either under-seasoned or too overpowering.
Tomato paste is made by cooking tomatoes on the stove for a long time, so they have very little water content. The skins and seeds are then removed, and the paste is cooked again, reducing the water content even further and resulting in a thick, spreadable paste.
Tomato purée, on the other hand, is cooked just once, and for a shorter amount of time, with the seeds and skin strained out afterwards. It has the consistency of a thick liquid, with a less concentrated flavour, and is better suited to dishes that require a more subtle hint of tomato, or sauces that need loosening with a little extra liquid. If you think your dish needs purée rather than paste, you can find out how to make the perfect tomato purée here.
The right kind of tomatoes
Before you begin making a tomato paste, it’s important to select the right ingredients. While you can technically use any tomato to make paste, some will make better (and more) paste than others.
Small, dense tomatoes, with more flesh, fewer seeds, and most importantly, lower water content, tend to make the best paste. Tomatoes with a higher water content are cooked down to almost nothing, so as much as you may love the subtle flavour of juicy heirloom tomatoes, they’re not well-suited to this particular job.
The best tomatoes for making into paste tend to be tall and elongated, rather than short and wide. In fact, there are several varieties that are known for being ‘paste tomatoes’, most notably the San Marzano or Roma varieties. Dense, meaty and low on seeds, these tomatoes take less time to cook down, and produce more paste for their size and weight.
How to make tomato paste
For the very best and freshest flavour, try making tomato paste at home with our simple, step-by-step recipe.
10 lb, San Marzo or Roma variety.
- Preheat your oven to 350°F.
- Place the tomatoes on a large cutting board and cut into quarters using a sharp knife.
- Place the olive oil in a large pan, and heat over a medium high heat for around 2 minutes, until the oil begins to shimmer.
- Add the tomatoes and cook until just softened, and their peels begin to come away.
- Remove from the heat and push the tomatoes through a food mill or sieve to remove the skin and seeds.
- Add the salt and lemon juice to the pulp and stir to combine.
- Spread the pulp in a thin layer over two large baking sheets and place them both in the oven to cook.
- Check the paste every 30 minutes, stirring well and switching the position of the two sheets so that their contents cook evenly.
- When the paste no longer fills both sheets, combine the contents of both together on one sheet and replace in the oven.
- Continue to bake until the paste is reduced to around half its original size and there no longer appears to be any liquid seeping out. This should take around 3 to 4 hours, depending on the water content of the tomatoes.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
- Scoop the paste into sealable glass jars for storage, leaving about an inch free at the top of each jar.
Homemade tomato paste should be stored in the refrigerator in a sealable container. It should keep for longer than purée due to its lower water content, but exactly how long it will stay fresh depends on how thoroughly you removed the water when you made it. Wetter pastes may only keep for 7 to 10 days, while more concentrated batches can stay fresh for several weeks.
Because different batches of paste can vary so much, it is safest to assume a shorter shelf life and freeze anything you still have left after 1 week. To create easily manageable portion sizes, freeze your leftover paste in an ice cube tray, then place the frozen cubes in a freezer bag with the date written on the side. Once frozen, you should use your tomato paste within 3 months.
How to use it
Tomato paste is particularly popular in Italian dishes, and it is also great for thickening sauces, soups, stews and chilis, as well as adding some colour and a rich tomato flavour. Stir some into shop-bought sauces to add a little extra intensity, or use it to pep up marinades and seasoning pastes for meat. You can even use it as a kind of tomato pâté, spreading a little onto a warm baguette and sprinkling a little cheese over the top.
Tomato paste will not add excess moisture to your cooking, so it also works well in dryer dishes like meatloaf, taco fillings or stuffed vegetables. Remember to use it sparingly, however, as too much tomato paste can give your dish an overpowering, slightly acidic flavour.
Did you know that the Spanish have an annual tomato festival? Or that tomato seeds have been sent into space? Find out more fascinating tomato facts with our A to Z of interesting things to know about tomatoes.