American cans versus Italian tubes: We find out what's really important when it comes to buying this flavorful pantry staple.
How We Tested
Tomato paste is an inexpensive, versatile flavor powerhouse. We deploy its concentrated sweetness and savory umami flavor to bring depth and complexity to both classic applications (such as sauces, soups, and pastas) and unexpected ones (such as beef stew or spice-rubbed steak).
Historically, tomato paste has been sold in cans in the United States, but in the past decade, tubed pastes have popped up on supermarket shelves. Amore Tomato Paste was the first, but others have followed. When we studied the domestic tomato paste market, we found an intriguing pattern: Almost all the tubes are made in Italy, and all the cans are made in the United States. But considering that we often use such a small amount of paste in a recipe, does it even matter which product you buy?
Concentrating on Concentrate
We assembled a lineup of eight top-selling tomato pastes, priced from $0.12 to $0.78 per ounce: three Italian tubes and five American cans. We started by comparing everything about them: cost, packaging, ingredients, nutrition facts, and processing methods. Here's what we learned.
In general, the tubes cost about four times as much, averaging $0.67 per ounce compared to $0.16 per ounce for the cans (this excludes Muir Glen, which is organic and costs $0.57 per ounce). Experts told us that this is a matter of logistics—transporting the tubes from Italy costs money. You also get more paste in a can: All the cans in our lineup were 6 ounces, while all the tubes were about 4.5 ounces.
But the tubes are easier to use—just pop open the seal, use what you need, and put the tube back in the refrigerator. With the cans, you have to crank them open, portion out the desired amount, scrape the inevitable leftovers into another container, and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. (We suggest freezing tomato paste in small portions to make things easier.)
The tubes also last longer. Joseph Cristella IV, the chief operating officer at Cento Fine Foods, which manufactures both tubed and canned pastes, told us that tubed paste will last 30 to 45 days before the flavor starts to change, while a paste that's been transferred from a can to a sealed container will keep for only seven to 14 days. Our storage tests confirmed this.
How Tomato Paste Is Made
All the pastes in our lineup are made with oblong Roma-style tomatoes, which the industry refers to as “processing” tomatoes. They're bred to have specific characteristics, such as being fleshier and firmer so they yield more solids and can handle being transported. They're designed to ripen at the same time, so a machine can pull the entire plant up by the roots, which are bred to release easily from the ground.
Companies that sell tomato paste and “ingredient” companies that buy tomato paste to make their own products (such as Heinz ketchup or Stouffer's lasagna) work with commercial tomato processors to develop pastes to their own specifications. Viscosity (how thick the paste is) and brix (how sweet it is) are defining characteristics.
Once harvested, the tomatoes are transported to a processing facility, washed, and sorted. Aaron Giampietro, a commercial director at the largest tomato processor in the world, Morning Star Packing Company, said the company's three California factories sort the tomatoes both manually and electronically. The electronic sorter uses a high-speed camera that takes photos of everything coming across a conveyor belt and decides whether it should be there. If it's, say, a leaf or a stem, a machine activates a lever down the line to discard the item.
After sorting, the tomatoes are ground into a pulpy mash and cooked. Here, the American and Italian processing methods for making tomato paste diverge. American paste is heated according to the hot-break method, which brings the temperature of the paste to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit; Italian paste manufacturers use the cold-break method, heating the paste to about 150 degrees. The processing temperature affects the final taste, color, and texture of tomato paste. A higher temperature darkens and caramelizes paste and deactivates enzymes that would normally break down the fruit's firming pectin, so the paste stays thicker. The cold-break method, with its lower temperature, yields paste that is looser, brighter red, and fresher-tasting.
Next, the paste is spun at high speed to separate out the pulp and seeds. Then, the remaining tomato juice is pumped into evaporation tanks, which drive off the water. The Italian pastes in our lineup are billed as “double-concentrated”—meaning they're evaporated for longer—though single- and triple-concentrated pastes are also sold in Italy. Most of the Italian pastes have salt added, and most of the American pastes contain citric acid to ensure that the paste's pH is low enough so it can be safely canned for long periods of time. Finally, the paste is packaged for sale.
A Tomato Paste Taste Test
In the plain tasting, our panel identified differences that tracked with the hot-break and cold-break production methods: The American pastes were thicker, with a more cooked flavor, and the Italian pastes were looser, with a brighter tomato flavor. But you'd never eat tomato paste plain, so we needed to find out if these differences would affect a recipe. This proved harder than usual.
We tried the pastes in a couple of different sauces, and the results were very similar; though the Italian pastes are double-concentrated, we had a hard time differentiating them from the single-concentrated products. So we cheated a little bit. We chose a simple marinara sauce recipe, dialed back the amount of crushed tomatoes, doubled the amount of paste, and tried again. This time around, the differences were more pronounced. But ultimately our tasters recommended every product, and the scores of all eight were very close.
Our verdict: Which tomato paste you use doesn't really matter. Some pastes had more sodium than others, but if you use a paste with less and end up with a dish that tastes underseasoned, just add a pinch of salt and you'll be back on track. Every paste we tasted was perfectly adaptable.
Tubed Pastes Won Us Over
That said, we do have a preference in the packaging arena: We're Team Tube all the way. The tubes are so much easier to use and store than the canned pastes. But why is American paste always in cans if tubes are more convenient? We spoke with experts who explained that it comes down to global trends in packaging. The tubes are a form of aseptic packaging, meaning that sterile contents are put in a sterile package in a sterile environment. The cans are processed with retort packaging, which means that food is put into a pouch or can and the container is sealed and then heated, so the food and the container are sterilized together. There's a strong tradition of aseptic packaging in Europe; the United States has a strong tradition of retort packaging, and changing the equipment would be extremely expensive.
The paste you choose to buy comes down to two factors: convenience and cost. In the end, you can make any of these tomato pastes work well in any recipe.
We tasted eight tomato pastes—three made in Italy and sold in tubes and five made in the United States and sold in cans—priced from $0.12 to $0.78 per ounce. We tasted them plain, lightly cooked, and in a simple marinara sauce in which we halved the amount of crushed tomatoes and doubled the amount of tomato paste. Sodium amounts were taken from product packaging and are reported based on a 33-gram serving size. Best sellers were identified using data from the Chicago-based market research firm IRI. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets, and products appear in order of packaging and price.