Steer your cart into the canned-foods aisle of any grocery store, and you'll be met with a sea of red-labeled tomato products; from crushed tomatoes to jars of spaghetti sauce, the choices go on and on. And, sure, the difference between, say, a bottle of ketchup and a prized tin of San Marzanos is obvious, but what about two of the most commonly called-for ingredients in your recipe books: canned tomato sauce and tomato paste?
Canned tomato sauce is a cooked purée of unseasoned tomatoes, while tomato paste is tomato sauce that's been reduced until thick.
Despite its name, you can't just pour tomato sauce from a can onto some noodles and call it a day. The pantry staple is meant to be used as the basis for braises, stews and, of course, more complex pasta sauces. And since it's been only slightly cooked, canned tomato sauce has a sharp acidity that mellows out with more cooking time, and can add a pleasant, last-minute jolt to a finished recipe.
On the other hand, tomato paste is what you get after reducing canned tomato sauce into a dark-crimson spread. Intensely flavored, a small dab of the paste adds a hit of tomato flavor to a dish without the excess liquid that comes with using fresh tomatoes. And while this means tomato paste is the gold-star condiment that can make anything taste like it's been cooking for hours, keep in mind the pronounced sweetness can sometimes be overpowering. In that case, a splash of vinegar will help balance out your dish.
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