Tomato paste is the backbone of many of our recipes at America’s Test Kitchen, providing deep, rich tomato flavor. Even in some non-tomato-based recipes, like beef stew, the paste acts as our secret ingredient. Because it’s naturally full of glutamates, which stimulate tastebuds just like salt and sugar, it brings out subtle depths and savory notes. Could a better-tasting brand have an even bigger impact? We gathered 10 top-selling brands and 21 staffers for blind tastings, sampling the paste straight from the can, cooked by itself, and in our recipe for marinara sauce.
Each year, California produces more than 10 million tons of “processing’’ tomatoes—no other state comes close. As the tomatoes ripen, a frantic few months of picking and processing ensues. Most are turned into paste, which can be stored indefinitely. The paste is packaged and sold as is, or serves as the foundation for other tomato products, such as sauce, puree, or ketchup.
To make the paste, ripe tomatoes are heated and ruptured, a process called “break.” The seeds, pulp, and skin are filtered out, and the juice is evaporated into a thick paste. By law, it must be 24 percent solids. While some brands make their own paste, most buy it from large processing plants, which adjust their formula to meet each brand’s “recipe.”
When we sampled our lineup uncooked, tasters split between brands that tasted bright and acidic, like fresh tomatoes, and those with deep “cooked” tomato flavor. Many downgraded brands for “dried herb” notes, including oregano. Tomato paste is usually cooked, so we sautéed each brand in a skillet and tasted again. Some pastes became dull; others sprang to life. One brand earned top marks right out of the can as well as cooked.
We sampled them a third time in marinara sauce, which calls for a whole can of tomato paste. Here, one paste came in first place for its “cooked,” “concentrated” taste, which provided long--simmered flavor and depth. Also, the “Italian herbs” suited this dish. In general, we’d prefer a more neutral profile—what if we had been cooking Mexican food?
But our winner was right behind in the marinara tasting, which gave it the highest overall ranking. It has low sodium and one of the highest levels of natural sugars in the lineup (from tomatoes, since no sugar is added). Tasters praised it for its sweet-tart balance and lack of unpleasant flavors; metallic, stale, or fermented flavors dragged down other brands.
In the end, while better tomato pastes improved the taste of the marinara, no brand ruined the dish. Overall scores were relatively close—the losers were not far behind our top-ranked pick. We “recommended” or “recommended with reservations” every brand, including our previous winner, which comes in a convenient tube. The bottom line? Any of these tomato pastes will supply reasonably good concentrated tomato flavor.