Caramelized Tomato Paste Pasta

published Jan 5, 2023
Pantry Pasta
Caramelized Tomato Paste Pasta Recipe

A delectable dinner solution that uses a whole can of tomato paste.

Serves4 to 6

Prep5 minutes

Cook20 minutes

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Caramelized tomato paste pasta on plate.
Credit: Photo: Murray Hall; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

If you have a can or two of tomato paste collecting dust in your pantry, look no further than this five-ingredient pasta. It unlocks the power of the humble staple, caramelizing it in a hot pan with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes until it becomes rust-colored, deeply rich, and intensely savory. Combined with starchy pasta water, it magically transforms into a luscious tomato sauce you’ll have thought cooked slowly on the stove all day.

The $1 Secret to the Easiest Weeknight Pasta

For years, I overlooked tomato paste. I bought it begrudgingly for a recipe and lamented the fact that after using the tablespoon or two that’s called for, you’re stuck with quite a lot left over in the can or tube. A tube can last a month or so in the fridge, but after you’ve transferred what’s left of the can to an airtight container, it will go moldy in a few days.

What I failed to realized all the while is tomato paste’s true brilliance. It’s not just another form of canned tomatoes. Tomato paste is tomato sauce that’s been cooked for hours to extract its water content. The result is pretty much tomato sauce concentrate — thick, rich, and packed with deep umami sweetness and slow-cooked flavor. Cooking the paste a bit more on the stove in hot olive oil with aromatics causes its natural sugars to caramelize and brown, heightening its flavor drastically without much effort on your part. This process also erases any tinned flavor that might linger from the can.

Credit: Photo: Murray Hall; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Unlike whole canned tomatoes, the small cans hardly take up room in the pantry, so I’ve come to love keeping a stockpile close by to turn into the quickest yet deepest-flavored pasta sauce. Each can also costs just about $1, which is a major win. Plus, you’ll use a full 6-ounce can in this recipe, so there’s no need to worry about what to do with one that’s left half-empty.

Pantry Pasta is Sheela Prakash‘s monthly column of easy, accessible pasta recipes. You’ll discover a new, inspired recipe each month that takes advantage of grocery staples and highlights one pantry hero. Follow along and grab all the recipes here.

Caramelized Tomato Paste Pasta Recipe

A delectable dinner solution that uses a whole can of tomato paste.

Prep time 5 minutes

Cook time 20 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info


  • 6 large cloves


  • 1 ounce

    Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup firmly packed freshly grated or 1/3 cup store-bought grated)

  • 1/3 cup

    olive oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes, plus more for serving

  • 1 (6-ounce) can

    tomato paste

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 pound

    dried pasta, such as spaghetti or rigatoni

  • Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)


  1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, thinly slice 6 large garlic cloves (about 1/4 cup). Finely grate 1 ounce Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 packed cup) or measure out 1/3 cup store-bought grated.

  2. Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is softened and turns light golden-brown, about 2 minutes.

  3. Add 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook, stirring often, until the tomato paste is significantly darkened in color to a deep rusty red, caramelized in a few spots, and starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

  4. Meanwhile, add 1 pound dried pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until 1 minute less than al dente. Reserve 2 cups of the cooking water. Drain the pasta.

  5. Add the pasta water to the skillet and stir to combine with the tomato paste mixture (a few lumps are fine — it will smooth out when the mixture simmers). Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer until the liquid reduces and thickens slightly, about 1 minute. Add the pasta and toss continuously until the sauce thickens a bit more and coats the pasta, and the pasta is al dente, about 1 minute more.

  6. Remove the pan from the heat. Add half of the Parmesan and toss to combine. Serve garnished with the remaining Parmesan and chopped fresh parsley leaves and more red pepper flakes if desired.

Recipe Notes

Storage: ​​Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.