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

It’s March 2020, and the world is in the grips of a pandemic. Groceries aren’t scarce, exactly, but the rate at which people have been panic-buying canned goods means that access to some things are iffy. Maybe you can get rice, but not beans, or pasta, but only the long kind. (And maybe you’re reading this in the future, in which case, hi! How is it? Does the world as we know it still exist? Send a sign of goodwill!) Canned tomatoes might be in short supply, but you perhaps have gotten your hands on a can or two of tomato paste, or you unearthed a tube of double-concentrated tomato paste from somewhere 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, but helpful no matter what.

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 you possibly can, 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 tomato, and 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. They tend 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. They’re also harder to find in the supermarkets around me, because we don’t live in an ideal world, so I have also picked up cans now and then.

The key for storing tomato paste in a can 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. The best way to save it is to dollop the paste into servings on a sheet pan—I usually go for a tablespoon—and put the sheet pan in the freezer for the paste to firm up. Then transfer those dollops into a freezer bag, label it, and just throw in a tablespoon or two into your dish as needed. 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 saute 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 I-came-from-a-can-or-tube tinny 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.

Credit: Pastificio Di Martino

Add Depth to Pasta Sauce

Tomato paste is a great thing on hand when making a tomato-based pasta sauce, since it can intensify the umami tomato flavors already on hand. It’s a key ingredient in this simple marinara sauce, which you can make entirely from canned tomatoes. It’s also crucial in this umami, salty puttanesca sauce. Even if you don’t have any other canned tomato product on hand, 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.

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, and cook them in a Dutch oven in 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 flake, 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 in 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 this Coconut Curry Tomato Sauce or this quick Chicken Curry with Tomato Yogurt Sauce, or make this Basic Indian Tomato Curry and add whatever vegetables and meat you have around.

Use It to Make Creole Food

Want to make some Etoufee? 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 you have on hand. 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 any other tomato flavors in anything 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.