You’re ready to fire up the oven and make your grandmother’s recipe for lasagna with delicious homemade sauce when…uh oh. You forgot to buy tomato paste at the grocery store. Do you really have to go all the way back to buy one of those tiny cans? Nope. Here are five substitutes for tomato paste—and one foolproof way to make it at home.
But first, what is tomato paste, exactly?
You know, it’s tomatoey. And, uh…pasty. But besides that, you’ve likely never really thought about what goes into making tomato paste. It’s actually a highly concentrated version of tomato sauce—that’s why it turns into a soupy liquid when you add water. It’s made by chopping tomatoes, removing the skins and seeds and cooking it until it reduces into a dark red, thick substance. How much does it reduce? Well, you’ll need about ten pounds of tomatoes to make 20 ounces of tomato paste—that’s why most people just buy it at the grocery store.
But not all store-bought tomato pastes are created equal. If you’re buying it ready-made, it’s best to stick to plain tomato paste rather than one that’s flavored with other seasonings, like basil—just use the paste and add fresh or dried basil to the dish yourself, because it will be more fragrant and flavorful that way. We’re partial to Amore tomato paste, which is sold in grocery stores and online, is a product of Italy and comes in a convenient squeeze tube, so you don’t have to worry about covering that mini can with tin foil and then forgetting about it in the back of your fridge for months.
OK, now that you have some background on tomato paste, let's get straight to our top substitutions. Here's what we'd recommend.
5 substitutes for tomato paste
1. Tomato passata
It's as close to canned tomato paste as you can get. It's basically tomato paste that hasn't been concentrated, so it has more moisture than canned tomato paste. Luckily, you can reduce the tomato passata to about one-third its original volume in a pan; once it's as thick as the tomato paste you're used to, it can be substituted 1:1. (Personally, we'd try it in Julia Turshen's stewed chickpeas with peppers and zucchini.) If you're feeling lazy and the moisture won't ruin your recipe anyway, feel free to skip that step: Simply substitute 3 tablespoons of tomato passata for every tablespoon of tomato paste.
2. Tomato sauce or marinara
For some dishes (like these adorable cauliflower-crust breakfast pizzas), crushed tomatoes and tomato paste are combined to create a sauce. You can skip both of these ingredients and use one that does the work for you: store-bought tomato sauce. Just remember that the recipe won’t be nearly as thick as it would be if you had used tomato paste, and might need some extra time to reduce on the stove. But if you’re looking for tomato flavor without the thickness, sub in 3 tablespoons of tomato sauce for every tablespoon of tomato paste.
3. Canned crushed tomatoes
Don’t have six hours to make tomato paste from scratch, but still want a bit of that flavor and thickness? Open a can of tomatoes, strain out all the liquid to make it as thick as possible and then mash it with a spatula as it cooks. This quick pantry pasta from Half Baked Harvest would taste delightful with some extra crushed tomatoes swapped in for the paste, no? Start with 2 tablespoons of crushed tomatoes for every tablespoon of tomato paste, then adjust according to taste and thickness.
(P.S.: You can also use fresh tomatoes instead of canned. Strain them of their seeds and liquid, then simmer them until thick, just like canned tomatoes. You can also blend them instead before reducing in the pan. You'll need about one medium tomato for every tablespoon of tomato paste.)
OK, hear us out: Ketchup might not have the same thickness as tomato paste, but it is a bit thicker than tomato sauce and can add a touch of tanginess because it contains vinegar and sugar. Try it in recipes that don’t rely on tomato paste exclusively as a thickener, like chili. Because ketchup is thinner and has more water than tomato paste, you might need to reduce your dish on the stove for longer than usual to get it to the right thickness. Swap in 1 tablespoon of ketchup for every tablespoon of tomato paste the recipe calls for.
5. Puréed red peppers
Let’s say you’re cooking a dish that calls for tomato paste to provide a pop of flavor, but tomato isn’t a crucial flavor that needs to be included. (Vegetable tagine with fluffy couscous, for example.) Grab a jar of roasted red peppers—or roast them yourself, if you’re so inclined—then remove the skins and stick them in the food processor. Purée the red peppers until smooth, then add them to your recipe. It’s not going to offer the exact same thickness to the dish, but it will create a depth of flavor that will have your guests trying to guess the secret ingredient. Use 1 tablespoon of red pepper purée for every tablespoon of tomato paste.
Can I make my own tomato paste at home?
Yes, you can totally make tomato paste at home. It’s not hard, but it is time consuming and you'll need several pounds of tomatoes. There’s no one right way to make tomato paste—some recipes suggest whirring the tomatoes in a blender before simmering, and others call for simmering them on the stove until they're reduced by half, then spreading the mixture on a baking sheet and popping it in the oven to reduce even further. Some add olive oil, basil, oregano and other seasonings. But the simplest way to do it?
Step 1: Quarter the tomatoes.
Step 2: Remove the seeds and skin.
Step 3: Simmer them on the stove with a tablespoon of olive oil until the mixture reaches the consistency you like (this can take up to six hours).