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.
Goya Tomato Paste
“Rich, bold, and complex,” Goya offered “peppery kick” and “bright, robust tomato flavor.” Tasters liked its sweetness, yet found it well-balanced.
Pastene Fancy Tomato Paste
Uncooked, this paste had “light and clean,” “herbaceous, grassy” tomato flavor. That quality carried over to cooked paste, which -tasters described as “acidic, almost lemony.” Some tasters objected that the paste was “not sweet enough” (just 3 grams natural sugars), but in marinara found it “bright and balanced.”
Contadina Tomato Paste
“Pleasant and floral,” especially in the marinara sauce, Contadina tomato paste was “fresh, balanced, what I’m looking for,” one taster said, with a “strong tomatoey flavor.” However, others found it “sweet upfront, with an acidic finish,” and many deemed it “too acidic.”
Rienzi Tomato Paste
“Tinny and raw-tasting” straight out of the can, Rienzi mellowed when cooked to provide “sweet,” “tangy,” “good tomato flavor,” like “sun-dried tomatoes.” In marinara, it had “decent body and depth.”
Hunt’s Tomato Paste
While tasters enjoyed Hunt's "concentrated, deep-tomato punch," many objected that its "strong oregano" and "Italian spices" downed out the tomato taste. In marinara, it was a hit: "tastes like it was cooked longer," "thick," and "rich."
Redpack Tomato Paste
“Raisiny” and “fruity” straight from the can, cooked Redpack struck tasters as weakly flavored. As one put it, “Nothing offensive here, though not very tomatoey.” In marinara, it was “mild, smooth” but “wouldn’t hurt to be a tad sweeter.”
Hunt’s Tomato Paste No Salt Added
Uncooked, this paste “tastes like ketchup,” “too cooked” with a “bitter aftertaste.” After cooking, we deemed it “nothing special” and “very sweet.” Once again, the “herbs and spices compete with tomato.” In marinara, it had “bold” flavor but a “tinny” aftertaste.
Cento Tomato Paste
“This tastes exactly like what I expect tomato paste to taste like,” one taster noted, “concentrated tomatoes.” Cooked, however, it became “a bit flat,” and in marinara the paste was “too sweet,” leaving the marinara “lackluster” with “no tomato oomph.”
Muir Glen Organic Premium Tomato Paste
Tasters found this to be “basic paste, but a little salty” and “uninspiring” uncooked. After cooking it was “not sweet at all,” and while “the smell was great, the taste was not so much.” In marinara, it was “kind of blah” and “a little tinny.”
Amore Double Concentrated Tomato Paste
Uncooked, Amore tasted “harsh, sweet, and overly stewed,” “coppery and extremely acidic.” Cooking developed its “deep, fruity,” “intensely tomatoey and complex” (though “salty”) profile. Despite the “double concentrated” billing, Amore recommends that you use the same amount as you would of other tomato pastes.