We Tried 16 Brands of Tomato Paste and Found Some Surprising Results
I’ve done dozens of tastes in my career and there’s almost always a very clear winner (or, at most, a couple of winners). Even when I’ve compared stuff that seems incredibly similar — like vodka, which most people think has no flavor at all — some brands come out on top. I certainly didn’t expect this test to be any different. I just assumed there’d be a clear winner. There was not. Why? Let’s take a look.
For this test, I picked up as many brands as I could find, gathered a group of tasters, obscured the brand names, and got ready to jot down notes. Altogether we had nine cans and seven tubes of tomato paste and, for the most part, they were… pretty much the same from brand to brand. The biggest difference we tasted was between the paste in the cans and the stuff in the tubes.
What’s the Difference Between Canned Tomato Paste and Tomato Paste in a Tube?
It turns out there are some key differences between canned tomato paste and tomato paste that comes in a tube. To start, the cans are all preserved with citric acid (not salt), so their paste tastes a bit tart but still slightly flat. The tubes, on the other hand, are preserved with salt instead of citric acid, so they taste more seasoned.
In terms of texture and appearance, the canned pastes were a little thicker and darker than the paste in the tubes, which was softer and looser — even though the labels all specified “double concentrated.” (That just means that, after cooking, the pastes are placed in evaporation tanks to reduce the water and concentrate the flavor. It doesn’t mean they are twice as intensely flavored as the cans.) This discrepancy is likely due to how the pastes are processed.
Tubes of tomato paste are pretty much always imported from Italy, as most American food manufacturers are equipped to preserve food in cans rather than tubes. And, according to Cook’s Illustrated, Italy makes its tomato paste differently. There, the paste is cooked to 150 degrees rather than the 200 degrees that’s standard in America. “A higher temperature darkens and caramelizes paste and deactivates enzymes that would normally break down the fruit’s firming pectin, so the paste stays thicker. The cold-break method, with its lower temperature, yields paste that is looser, brighter red, and fresher-tasting.”
So, Which is Better?
We all liked the flavor of the tomato pastes from the tubes a little more than those from the cans. Even when a brand offered both a tube and can version (like Whole Foods 365), the tube tasted a bit brighter and more delicious. This could be because, again, they had salt instead of citric acid. And some of the cans had a slight metallic taste.
Tubes are definitely more expensive, around $2 to $4 per 4.5-ounce tube versus $0.80 to $1.50 for a 6-ounce can. But once a tube is opened, it’ll last 30 to 45 days without deteriorating in flavor. Tomato paste from a can will start to get moldy far faster because it’s exposed to more air, so you’ll have to freeze the excess if you want it to last.
The official vote: If you’re cooking a dish that needs a large amount of tomato paste, go with the can. If you just need a tablespoon or two, the tube is the way to go.
How We Tested the Tomato Pastes
We tasted every single option on its own, using just a spoon, and found little to no difference between them. Next, we also tried tasting the pastes on bread and crackers, hoping a starchy vehicle would help some flavors come through. Nope.
Then. I decided to mimic cooking with them to see if nuances would emerge. Tomato pastes are essentially diluted into a dish using heat and liquid, so I used hot water — 1 teaspoon paste to 1 tablespoon hot water. This did help a bit, as we were able to detect which pastes offered a richer tomato flavor once diluted with an equal amount of liquid.
The Best Canned Tomato Paste
Among the cans, the only differences we could detect were some had a very faint metallic note, some were just the barest smidge more tart, and some were slightly darker in color with a slightly more roasted flavor. The differences were so incredibly slight they’d be undetectable in a cooked dish.
The Best Tomato Paste(s) in a Tube
The tubes were even harder to differentiate. One had a smoother texture, some were brighter than others (because they had more salt), but that was about it. Trader Joe’s, Cento and Mutti all ranked highest for being the most “tomato-y.” When I compared the labels, though, I found out why: These were the brands that had the most salt. If the others were salted more, they’d probably taste about the same.
Buy: Cento Tomato Paste, $7.50 for four 4.56-ounce tubes at Walmart
Do you have a go-to brand for tomato paste? What is it?