Every Little Can of Tomato Paste Is Magic

Tomato paste is a versatile, cheap pantry staple. Here's what to do with it.

Perhaps early pandemic panic-buying has left a can or two of tomato paste nestled in your pantry, or maybe you've unearthed a tube of double-concentrated tomato paste from somewhere deep in the back of a cabinet. Good news: That little can or tube is an incredibly versatile ingredient that's particularly great for injecting flavor into vegetarian dishes, and helpful no matter what's currently available at the grocery store.

What To Do With Tomato Paste
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What is tomato paste?

Yeah, what exactly is tomato paste, anyway? Legitimate question! Basically, tomato paste is what happens when you cook down tomatoes for a long time, removing as much water as possible, as well as their seeds and skin. It's just super concentrated tomato. Double-concentrated tomato paste is, yes, even more concentrated down. That's useful, because a smaller amount of paste can carry as much flavor as a larger amount of chopped canned tomatoes. It's especially helpful when fresh tomatoes aren't in season or aren't available or take up too much space for whatever reason. That means it's a handy tomato-based ingredient for all kinds of tomato recipes.

What kind of tomato paste should you get, and how should you store it?

When I have a choice of tomato pastes, I prefer to go with tomato paste in a tube. It tends to be more expensive than the kind in a can, but it's also easier to keep in the fridge without fear of oxidization since you'll probably only be using a spoonful or two at a time. It can be harder to find in the supermarkets around me, so I also pick up cans now and then.

The key to storing canned tomato paste is that, once you open it, the best practice is to scoop it all out and transfer it to another (preferably airtight) container. Left to its own devices, in an open can in the fridge, the tomato paste will turn black from oxidation and form mold fairly quickly. Save it by dolloping the paste into servings on a sheet pan — I usually go for tablespoons — and put the pan in the freezer until the paste firms up. Then transfer those dollops into a freezer bag, label it, and just remove a tablespoon or two as needed for your dish. No need to defrost the paste first; it'll take a little longer to incorporate than it would at room temperature, but it's such a small amount that the difference is fairly minor.

First, caramelize it

When you're cooking with tomato paste, no matter what you're making, it's a good practice to sauté the tomato paste in oil or another type of fat for 30 seconds to a couple minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and scorching. That one little step eliminates the tinny I-came-from-a-can-or-tube flavor. If you cook the paste until it caramelizes, going from a bright red to a deeper, browner brick red, you'll caramelize the sugars and intensify the flavors even more. A good rule of thumb: If you're almost done sautéing the aromatics for a dish, that's the time to add your tomato paste.

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Add depth to pasta sauce

Tomato paste is great to have on hand when making a tomato-based pasta sauce, since it can intensify the umami tomato flavors already present. It's a key ingredient in this simple marinara sauce, which you can make entirely from canned tomatoes. It's also crucial in this salty, robust puttanesca sauce. Even if you don't have any other canned tomato product on the ready, you can make this simple, delicious pasta sauce with tomato paste, garlic, and olive oil. If you don't have fresh herbs, use dried, or skip them altogether.

Make basic beans extra delicious

In my house, we eat a lot of dried beans, and I've found that my favorite way to cook them always includes tomato paste. I chop up or halve an onion and smash a few cloves of garlic, then cook them in a Dutch oven with a glug of olive oil until they start to brown. Then I'll add a dollop or two of tomato paste, and whatever spices I'm feeling that day — usually some combination of smoked paprika, chile flakes, and oregano or a tiny bit of cocoa powder — and caramelize the paste before adding in beans and stock or water. It gives a nice hint of richness to the bean broth.

Boost your braises and soups

Similarly, if you're braising meat, adding tomato paste before the meat and whatever liquid you're simmering it in can hold the sauce together and help meld the fat, aromatics, and spices you're using. That's true for all kinds of cuts of meat, from brisket to pork. A dollop also adds umami and richness to pretty much any kind of soup, but especially the luscious bean-based ones.

Deploy as a substitute for fresh tomato in Indian curry

All kinds of Indian and Indian-American dishes have tomato as one of their ingredients and, in a pinch, tomato paste is a good substitute. Cookbook whiz Nik Sharma actually prefers it, and he uses it in his extremely flavorful and easy pressure cooker Dal Makhani, for example, to get an intense tomato flavor without cooking down fresh or canned tomatoes. At home, you can improvise a curry-like dish with tomato paste, onions, garlic, ginger, and Madras curry powder or garam masala, like Coconut Curry Tomato Sauce or this quick Chicken Curry with Tomato Yogurt Sauce. Or make Basic Indian Tomato Curry and add whatever vegetables and meat you have around.

Use it to make Creole food

Want to make some étoufée? Tomato paste is great in that! Ditto for this Eggplant Dirty Rice, which is basically rice cooked with aromatics like onions and garlic, plus tomato paste, spices, and eggplant. The traditional dish is made with chopped chicken liver and ground meat, but there's no rule saying you can't use whatever meat you have on hand and want to use up.

Plus, tomato paste is great for intensifying other tomato flavors in whatever you cook. Add a dollop to jarred sauce and cook it down, or throw it in a marinade or seasoning paste for chicken. Anything that could use a dose of savory richness will probably benefit from adding a little tomato paste.

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