The Secret Technique for Getting Big Flavor out of a Tiny Can of Tomato Paste

Updated: May 27, 2021

Who knew there could be SO much flavor in that tiny little can?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret that will make your pasta sauce taste better than it ever has. Over the years, we’ve added it to numerous pasta sauces and hearty stews, but most of the time we just stir it in with all the other ingredients, and therein lies our error. That little can or tube of tomato paste is hiding many flavor secrets; you just need to know how to coax it out.

The Trick

Cook the tomato paste a bit before you use it. Yes, it’s that simple. Stir the amount of paste you need in a saucepan over medium-high heat for a few minutes, being careful to not let it scorch on the bottom of the pan. You’ll know it’s ready when the color starts to darken a little and the tomato aroma is very intense. By heating it for just a few minutes the sugar in the paste starts to caramelize, which adds so many complex flavors to any dish you use it in.

Why does this work? Tomato paste is simply tomatoes cooked slowly and gently until almost all the water has evaporated. While it’s already an umami-rich powerhouse, you can get even more flavor out of it by cooking it a little before adding any liquids.

When to Use It

It’s actually very easy to modify almost any recipe that calls for tomato paste. For instance, if I’m making one of our all-time favorite pasta sauce recipes, I saute the sausage, onions and garlic as normal. Then, instead of adding the remaining ingredients, as the recipe says, I’ll only add the tomato paste. After 1-2 minutes, when all of the paste’s magical flavors have emerged, I’ll proceed with the rest of the recipe, adding the canned tomatoes and seasonings.

And that’s all you need to do. Try it the next time you have a recipe that calls for tomato paste and I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Next up: Marinara vs. tomato sauce—what’s the difference?

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