The abundance of beautifully juicy, sweet, and ripe tomatoes in the summer months makes cooking a breeze, offering fresh flavors to some of our favorite pastas, salads, and sandwiches. But when the best of this summer produce leaves us, we’re stuck with lifeless tomatoes and jarred sauces that just don't offer the same flavor value. Whether we're looking to make an Italian pasta sauce or whip up some shakshuka, having quick, easy access to summer tomato flavor year-round can make all the difference in producing fresh, quality meals.
So allow me to introduce you to tomato passata, an Italian pantry essential that belongs on everyone's shelf.
What is Passata?
Passata is a type of tomato purée made from fresh, in-season tomatoes that's often used as a base for pasta sauces, soups, stews, and other dishes. As with pomodori pelati (canned peeled whole tomatoes), passata is traditionally made in late summer, during peak tomato season, as a way to preserve harvested tomatoes for the rest of the year.
Though Italian passata is labeled as tomato purée, it’s quite different from the canned tomato purée you’ll find on most American supermarket shelves. American tomato purée from brands like Hunt’s and Heinz has been cooked down for a thick consistency and a dark, relatively sweet flavor. They’re great for dishes like American-style chili, but not much as a substitute for the brightness and consistency of a fresh tomato sauce. Passata, on the other hand, is meant to be used as a quick and easy alternative to canned whole tomatoes, making it perfect for soups, sauces, and stews that call for a smooth tomato product.
“If you think of jarred and canned tomato products as a spectrum, with whole peeled tomatoes on one end, and ready-to-eat jarred tomato sauce on the other, passata falls between the two,” explains senior culinary editor Sasha Marx.
What Passata Is Good For
If you’re seeking an ingredient that will add a brighter, fresher flavor to your dishes, passata is a must. It’s a quick solution to weeknight meals, especially when you’re in the mood for a tomato-based pasta sauce. Use passata in place of canned whole peeled tomatoes in recipes that call for milling, blending, or hand-crushing tomatoes to a smooth consistency. Reach for it when making Jewish-style braised brisket, tian, and even tomato soup. With passata, you're just a few ingredients and minutes away from a bowl of bucatini all'Amatriciana, a batch of spicy ‘nduja-tomato sauce, or even a quick pizza sauce. And while tomatoes are in season, you can also easily make a batch of homemade passata yourself*.
*If using that article as a reference, you've made passata after the tomatoes are puréed. You can continue with procedures outlined in the recipe to turn it into a classic fresh tomato sauce for pasta.
How Passata Is Made
The key to great passata is ripe, flavorful tomatoes and minimal simmering time. Tomatoes are cut into chunks, and briefly simmered in large pots to soften their pulp and skin, allowing them to begin breaking down and releasing liquid. Next, the tomatoes are run through a food mill or, for large batches, a specialized machine called a passapomodoro, which looks like a cross between a juicer and meat grinder, and translates to "tomato passer"—hence the English translation of passata being “passed.” This produces a fresh-flavored tomato purée that’s strained of seeds and skin. It's then seasoned lightly with salt and sometimes basil. Generally speaking, we recommend seeking out plain tomato versions that omit the basil for more control over how you season your dish. After the passata is poured into bottles, it's then placed in boiling water for sterilization.
The finished product is a tomato purée that has an unmistakably bright tomato flavor. Its texture is smooth, with a consistency that’s thicker than milled canned tomatoes, but thinner than jarred tomato sauce. Unlike heat-and-serve tomato sauce, which is cooked down to a noodle-coating consistency and heavily seasoned with salt, sugar, and herbs, passata is much less of a finished product—it's a building block that delivers bright, unadulterated tomato flavor.
Traditionally, passata production is an annual family event, with everyone assigned to specific tasks—sorting, washing, and cutting the tomatoes; monitoring the simmering process; working the passapomodoro; or the most important job of all: seasoning the passata before bottling. Once all the passata bottles are sterilized and cooled, the year's supply gets divvied up among the family members, and the countdown begins for next year's passata party.
“I made a lot of passata while working on a farm in Piemonte,” says Daniel Gritzer, our culinary director. “We’d pop one of those bottles from storage almost every day to make a quick tomato sauce, which always needed at least a little something extra to become a proper sauce.”
What to Look For in a Store-Bought Passata
That's not to say you need to befriend an Italian family and take on a role in their tomato processing operation in order to get your hands on some passata. In recent years it has become a lot easier to find jarred and boxed passata in grocery stores throughout the US and, of course, online. Well-known Italian brands like Mutti and Pomì are now widely available in the States, and there are even some small domestic producers like First Field that are getting in on the passata game.
Shopping for passata can still be a little confusing as far as labeling goes—some companies label it as "tomato purée" or "strained tomatoes." But there are some easy ways to pick it out of the tomato product lineup in the grocery store. Passata is almost always sold in glass bottles or small boxes, never in cans. And the ingredient list should be short: tomatoes and salt. As with most convenience products, passata is generally a little more expensive than canned whole tomatoes, but cheaper than a jar of store-bought sauce. But for the best of bright summer tomatoes in a bottle, it's worth it.