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Tomato Paste

By Cook's Illustrated Published October 2010

How we tested

Tomato paste is the backbone of many of our recipes at America’s Test Kitchen, providing deep, rich tomato flavor. Even in some non-tomato-based recipes, like beef stew, the paste acts as our secret ingredient. Because it’s naturally full of glutamates, which stimulate tastebuds just like salt and sugar, it brings out subtle depths and savory notes. Could a better-tasting brand have an even bigger impact? We gathered 10 top-selling brands and 21 staffers for blind tastings, sampling the paste straight from the can, cooked by itself, and in our recipe for marinara sauce.

Each year, California produces more than 10 million tons of “processing’’ tomatoes—no other state comes close. As the tomatoes ripen, a frantic few months of picking and processing ensues. Most are turned into paste, which can be stored indefinitely. The paste is packaged and sold as is, or serves as the foundation for other tomato products, such as sauce, puree, or ketchup.

To make the paste, ripe tomatoes are heated and ruptured, a process called “break.” The seeds, pulp, and skin are filtered out, and the juice is evaporated into a thick paste. By law, it must be 24 percent solids. While some brands make their own paste, most buy it from large processing plants, which adjust their formula to meet each brand’s “recipe.”

When we sampled our lineup uncooked, tasters split between brands that tasted bright and acidic, like fresh tomatoes, and those with deep “cooked” tomato flavor. Many downgraded brands for “dried herb” notes, including oregano. Tomato paste is usually cooked, so we sautéed each brand in a skillet and tasted again. Some pastes became dull; others sprang to life. One brand earned top marks right out of the can as well as cooked.

We sampled them a third time in marinara sauce, which calls for a whole can of tomato paste. Here, one paste came in first place for its “cooked,” “concentrated” taste, which provided long--simmered flavor and depth. Also, the “Italian herbs” suited this dish. In general, we’d prefer a more neutral profile—what if we had been cooking Mexican food?

But our winner was right behind in the marinara tasting, which gave it the highest overall ranking. It has low sodium and one of the highest levels of natural sugars in the lineup (from tomatoes, since no sugar is added). Tasters praised it for its sweet-tart balance and lack of unpleasant flavors; metallic, stale, or fermented flavors dragged down other brands.

In the end, while better tomato pastes improved the taste of the marinara, no brand ruined the dish. Overall scores were relatively close—the losers were not far behind our top-ranked pick. We “recommended” or “recommended with reservations” every brand, including our previous winner, which comes in a convenient tube. The bottom line? Any of these tomato pastes will supply reasonably good concentrated tomato flavor.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*