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American cans versus Italian tubes: We find out what's really important when it comes to buying this flavorful pantry staple.
Published Mar. 1, 2019. Appears in Cook's Country October/November 2010, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Indian Feast
What You Need To Know
Tomato paste is an inexpensive, versatile flavor powerhouse. We deploy its concentrated sweetness and savory umami flavor to bring depth and complexity to both classic applications (such as sauces, soups, and pastas) and unexpected ones (such as beef stew or spice-rubbed steak).
Historically, tomato paste has been sold in cans in the United States, but in the past decade, tubed pastes have popped up on supermarket shelves. Amore Tomato Paste was the first, but others have followed. When we studied the domestic tomato paste market, we found an intriguing pattern: Almost all the tubes are made in Italy, and all the cans are made in the United States. But considering that we often use such a small amount of paste in a recipe, does it even matter which product you buy?
Concentrating on Concentrate
We assembled a lineup of eight top-selling tomato pastes, priced from $0.12 to $0.78 per ounce: three Italian tubes and five American cans. We started by comparing everything about them: cost, packaging, ingredients, nutrition facts, and processing methods. Here's what we learned.
In general, the tubes cost about four times as much, averaging $0.67 per ounce compared to $0.16 per ounce for the cans (this excludes Muir Glen, which is organic and costs $0.57 per ounce). Experts told us that this is a matter of logistics—transporting the tubes from Italy costs money. You also get more paste in a can: All the cans in our lineup were 6 ounces, while all the tubes were about 4.5 ounces.
But the tubes are easier to use—just pop open the seal, use what you need, and put the tube back in the refrigerator. With the cans, you have to crank them open, portion out the desired amount, scrape the inevitable leftovers into another container, and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. (We suggest freezing tomato paste in small portions to make things easier.)
The tubes also last longer. Joseph Cristella IV, the chief operating officer at Cento Fine Foods, which manufactures both tubed and canned pastes, told us that tubed paste will last 30 to 45 days before the flavor starts to change, while a paste that's been transferred from a can to a sealed container will keep for only seven to 14 days. Our storage tests confirmed this.
How Tomato Paste Is Made
All the pastes in our lineup are made with oblong Roma-style tomatoes, which the industry refers to as “processing” tomatoes. They're bred to have specific characteristics, such as being fleshier and firmer so they yield more solids and can handle being transported. They're designed to ripen at the same time, so a machine can pull the entire plant up by the roots, which are bred to release easily from the gr...
Everything We Tested
Recommended - (Tubed Tomato Pastes)
This paste, like the other Italian pastes, was looser and redder than the American ones. When eaten plain, it was “sharp,” “acidic,” and “surprisingly complex,” “with a depth and tomatoeyness behind it.” “I could eat a whole jar of this,” said one taster. In sauce, it had “robust tomato flavor” and pronounced acidity.
This paste was “tangy,” “sweet,” “jammy,” and “pleasant,” with “a sun-dried tomato flavor.” In sauce, it was “richly tomatoey,” “balanced and warm.” “This could really up the savoriness of a dish,” said one taster.
Recommended - (Canned Tomato Pastes)
Like all the American pastes, this one was thick. It was “savory, with good fruity flavors,” and “bright and acidic but not in a bitter/harsh way.” In sauce, tasters found it “fruity,” “earthy,” and “sweet but not too sweet,” with “acidic undertones” that lent complexity.
This paste was “very savory”and “meaty,” with “bright” tomato flavor and some fruitiness. It made thicker sauce that had “beautifully nuanced tomato flavor, with balanced sweetness and acidity.”
Tasters described this paste as “tart” but a bit “flat,” with a “concentrated sweetness.” It was dense and smooth and made slightly thicker sauce that had “roasty tomato flavor” and leaned “slightly acidic.”
This thicker paste was fine if not underwhelming: “Kind of bland and flat,” remarked one taster. In sauce, it was “mellow” and “acceptable,” with some “sweet-tart tomato flavor.”
This paste was thicker, with a “concentrated tomato flavor” and a “jammy sweetness.” “Like a Fruit Roll-Up,” said one taster. In sauce, it was “nicely balanced between sweet and savory,” with “real tomato earthiness.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Hannah is an executive editor for ATK Reviews and cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube.