There can be lots of different cans, jars and tubes on the canned tomato shelf of the grocery store and if you wander down to the Italian foods section you may find even more to choose from. This can make trying out that new recipe slightly scary as you may not be sure exactly which type of tomato to use and if the store is out of stock of the one you need, can you use another type of tomato instead?
Two of the more popular tomato ingredients found in many Italian recipes and other cuisines are tomato sauce and tomato paste.
So, just what is the difference between tomato sauce and tomato paste? Both tomato sauce and tomato paste are made with peeled, de-seeded and cooked tomatoes but tomato sauce often contains other ingredients such as herbs, salt and vegetables while tomato paste is made from tomatoes concentrated down to make a thick and rich paste. Tomato sauce is ready to use while tomato paste is used as a tomato base for homemade tomato-based sauces and other recipes.
In this blog post, I look at tomato sauce and tomato paste along with other tomato ingredients to not just consider the differences between them, but also to see just how versatile they both can be in the kitchen.
What is Tomato Sauce?
Sometimes called pasta sauce, tomato sauce is made with tomato and often contains other added ingredients such as salt, herbs and garlic. It may also contain olive oil and sweeteners such as sugar. Some tomato sauces are also available with vegetables such as onions or even meats, suitable for stress-free and fast family meals.
Tomato sauce is made with tomatoes which have been peeled, de-seeded and cooked and it has a milder and sweeter flavor more like fresh tomatoes. The color of tomato sauce can vary between dark orange to red-brown.
As well as for pasta dishes, tomato sauce can be used for meatloaf, stuffed peppers, casseroles, ratatouille, soups, chili, noodles, fusion stir fries and curries and more.
Tomato sauce is quick and easy to use and comes in cans, glass jars or cartons. As the tomatoes have already been part cooked or even fully cooked during canning this means it can be added either during cooking or some are suitable to be added to cooked and drained pasta and quickly heated before serving.
In some countries, ketchup is also known as tomato sauce.
What Is the Difference Between Tomato Sauce and Marinara?
Traditionally, a tomato sauce is cooked for longer compared to marinara sauce, which is quickly cooked with garlic, basil and crushed red pepper. As tomato sauce is cooked longer than marinara and often contains vegetables and a range of herbs, this gives it a more complex flavor than a marinara sauce.
Is Tomato Sauce the Same as Tomato Passata or Puree?
No, tomato sauce is different to tomato passata or puree. Passata (from passata di pomodoro) or puree is made by passing peeled and de-seeded ripe tomatoes through blending machines so that everything is smooth. The finished texture of passata can be very silky or coarse depending on the consistency. Although it can be bought containing herbs or other seasonings, tomato puree often just contains tomatoes.
Tomato puree often has a similar consistency to tomato sauce and is milder and sweeter in flavor than tomato paste.
In Italy, no water can be added to a traditional Italian passata by law although salt and other seasonings such as herbs may be added. Passata is often sold in jars or glass bottles. Passata is used as a base for homemade tomato/marinara sauces, pizza sauces, salsas and more.
Can You Make Tomato Sauce with Canned Tomatoes?
Of course, if you are out of tomato sauce, then canned tomatoes are an easy starting point for homemade tomato sauce. Canned tomatoes are usually made with ripe long tomatoes which are blanched and then peeled. Canned tomatoes can be bought as whole or chopped in regular or large cans.
If your canned tomatoes are whole tomatoes, just roughly chop or cut them with scissors then add them to the pan with a little garlic powder, onion powder and Italian herbs. You can also use a hand blender or processor to blend the tomatoes down to more of a tomato sauce consistency, rather than the chunkier consistency of a marinara sauce.
Heat the tomatoes and allow them to simmer for a couple of minutes. If the canned tomatoes are a bit watery then simmer a little longer to boil off some of the water, or if the sauce is a bit on the thick sauce, dilute with some liquid.
After simmering you can then add to your pasta or other dish. If you only have fresh garlic and onion in, then cook these first before adding to the sauce as they need longer to cook.
What Is Tomato Paste?
Available in tubes or small cans, tomato paste is concentrated tomato used in many Italian recipes as a base to color, thicken and add richness to dishes.
Tomato paste is great for adding depth and flavor to chilis, soups, sauces, stews, meat dishes and more, or you can even use it to add some extra richness to pizza sauce.
Tomato paste is made by crushing and cooking tomatoes between for a few hours, straining the skins and seeds out and then condensing further until the tomatoes end up as a very thick and rich red paste. It takes around 10 lbs. to 12 lbs. of tomatoes to make just 2 lbs. of tomato paste! Because tomato paste is so concentrated it is sold in small cans or tubes.
Tomato puree straight from the can does not taste good. It is acidic and the flavor can be overwhelming and very ‘flat’. Tomato paste should always be diluted in a suitable liquid such as water, stock, wine or a fat such as olive oil before using. It is important to never use too much tomato paste otherwise your dish will be too tomato-flavored and on the acidic side.
In Italy, by law, tomato paste must have a concentration range of between 18% and 28% while a ‘double concentrate’ tomato paste must be concentrated at between 28% and 30%.
If your recipe asks for a can of tomato paste and you have double concentrate tomato paste use exactly half the amount of tomato paste required i.e. half the can.
The best way to use tomato paste is by ‘cooking’ it first. You can do this by adding tomato paste to the fry pan with some extra olive oil when you are sautéing the garlic and onions.
The paste will then start to caramelize within five minutes or so, darkening in color and developing in flavor intensity and umami and at this point, you can just deglaze the pan with water, stock, wine or other liquids, add any other ingredients and continue to cook.
If you use tomato paste for base in a slow and long cooking dish it may become too sweet, so a little acid such as vinegar or citrus juice will cut through the sweetness.
Some tomato pastes are flavored with garlic or herbs but generally, pure tomato paste is the most versatile to keep to hand.
If you need to use more tomato paste, such as for a batch of make-ahead meals, then cans are useful. If you have sauce from a leftover can, unless you will be using it in the next few week or so, you will need to freeze the leftover paste – you can do this in tablespoon sized portions.
Or, if you know you only need to use a little tomato paste at a time, then buy a tube as this can be stored in the refrigerator for a few months after opening.
Can Tomato Paste Be Used as Tomato Sauce?
You can use tomato paste as a base for homemade tomato sauce although there will be a slight difference in taste compared with a can of regular tomato sauce.
If you add a cup of water to around ½ a cup (6 oz) of tomato paste (depending on its concentration) this will dilute the tomato paste enough to be used as a tomato sauce. So, in theory, a 6 oz can of tomato paste will be enough to make around one pound of homemade tomato sauce.
Give the paste and water a good mix or blend and then adjust the amount of water or tomato paste until you get the consistency and flavor that you want. As a rule, a tomato sauce should be thick enough to coat a wooden spoon.
Once the tomato is at the right consistency, add your salt, herbs, garlic powder and other seasonings as required and bring to a simmer over a low light. Stir it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan. If you find the sauce slightly on the bitter side, a little sugar will help reduce any bitterness.
Will Tomato Sauce Substitute for Tomato Paste?
Because tomato sauce and tomato paste are so different in type of flavor, texture and use, tomato sauce cannot easily be substituted for tomato paste, unless you simmer and reduce down a can of tomato sauce or tomato puree until it is nearer in consistency and flavor to tomato paste.
For more information about other tomato paste substitutes, take a look at our blog post on the best tomato paste substitutes .
The Nutritional Difference Between Tomato Sauce and Tomato Paste
As tomato sauce usually contains other ingredients such as sugar and salt it is higher in sugar, salt, fat and calories compared with tomato paste, which is commonly just pure tomato.
How you use tomato paste in cooking does of course affect its nutrition though for both, it is thought that tomatoes that have been processed (to make tomato paste or sauce) are actually a better source of the antioxidant lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
As we have seen, although tomato sauce and tomato paste are both made with tomatoes and are used in Italian recipes and other cuisines, they are two quite different things.Tomato sauce usually contains herbs, seasonings and other additional ingredients such as vegetables and can be added to a recipe straight from the can, carton or jar, while tomato puree is a thick and concentrated tomato base which is used as a base for tomato-based recipes and should always be diluted and preferably caramelized with other ingredients before serving.