April 25, 2021

All About Tomato Paste

Are you using tomato paste correctly?

Tomato paste needs to be in your pantry right now!

Why? Tomato paste adds depths of flavor and umami. It’s sweet. A touch tangy. And oh so delicious. It will give you the ability to add big flavor to a dish with little effort. And fewer ingredients too. A tablespoon of tomato paste has as much flavor as 100 fresh tomatoes! (Okay. A touch of exaggeration there. But just a touch. 😉)

Let’s chat about making and buying tomato paste and then the essential, but easy, step to turn normal tomato paste from spark status (⚡️) to bomb status (💣).

How Is Tomato Paste Made?

Making tomato paste is pretty straightforward. It's tedious, but you could do it yourself. You cook tomatoes until the water evaporates, and the flavor concentrates.

If you’re interested, here’s a recipe for homemade tomato paste. But here are the cliff notes:

  1. Cut up fresh, ripe, could-eat-them-like-they’re-an-apple tomatoes. (Because why go through the effort if you’re using tomatoes from the store in December.🤷‍♂️)
  2. Simmer the tomato in a pan to release all their juices—say 30 minutes.
  3. Pass the cooked tomato (chunks and juice) through a food mill or fine mesh strainer. This removes all the skins and seeds.
  4. Cook the tomato puree again in a pot on low so it doesn’t burn. Let it reduce for about 45 minutes, stirring frequently.
  5. Spread out the remaining puree onto a baking sheet coated with olive oil.
  6. Bake it in a 200ºF (95ºC) oven for ~3 hours until reduced by half. Stir frequently so it doesn’t burn or form a crust.
  7. Eat it by the spoonful and hope you have some leftover you can use in your cooking! 🥄

So you don’t forget the steps above, feel free to copy and paste them. 🥁

Buying Tomato Paste

Don’t worry. Store-bought is A-okay too. It’s what I use. 😊

In the US at least, you can find tomato paste in a can or a tube. Some folks prefer the tube because you can dollop small amounts into a dish without wasting any. Others like the can because they are about a third of the price of the tube.

I use the cans. More bang for your buck. I add the leftovers to a small, air-tight jar and keep it in my fridge. So guess what? I can still dollop small amounts into a dish without wasting any. Take that tube lovers! 🥊

You can also freeze tomato paste. I’d recommend doing it in tablespoon chunks or in ice cube trays. And the best part? You don’t even need to unthaw it. Just give it a little extra time in the pan to incorporate before moving on.

Whether it’s a tube or a can (but you’re only going to use the can now right?), you’ll want to buy tomato paste with the fewest ingredients in it. Typically tomatoes and salt. Citric acid is fine too. I don’t like the flavored version though. Why add a stale, herb flavor to my paste, when I can add fresh flavors of whatever I want when I’m cooking?

While you typically won’t find them in cans, there are also double—and even triple—concentrated versions. They pack an even more tomato-flavored punch! Which is nice to have, but not essential.

Extract More Flavor from Tomato Paste

Ready for a change of paste? 😉

If you’re adding tomato paste straight from can to liquid, you’re doing it wrong. Even though the tomatoes cooked for hours to become a paste, it still has a raw tomato flavor. Why? They were cooked low and slow to prevent burning. But that also prevents browning. And browning—aka caramelization—is a chemical reaction between heat and sugar that creates new and intense flavors.

So here’s the trick. Always give tomato paste a chance to have direct contact with your pan. A great time to add it is when onions, celery, etc. are right at the point you want them. Then create a well in the middle of the pan and add a little extra oil, if needed. Spoon in your tomato paste. And let it sit there for 20 seconds or so. This gives it and the pan plenty of 1-on-1 time. Then stir it into your veggies. Caramelize the tomato paste until it turns a deep red color. You’re going to suck all the brightness out of it!

Once it’s turned maroon, deglaze the pan with wine, stock, or even water. You’ll pick up all the flavor stuck on the bottom of the pan as you browned the paste. #SaveTheFond

Where I learned this: I brushed up on tomato paste by reviewing a few great articles around the web like this one, this one, and this one. But I first realized the power of tomato paste from my grandfather’s secret family recipe. So thanks Nanu!