For years, I resented any recipe that called for tomato paste. It wasn't the flavor of the paste itself, which I've always been fond of, or even my erroneous suspicion that its impact on finished dishes was overrated. Rather, it was the sight of yet another full can (less one or two tablespoons at most) joining its half-used predecessors in the back of my refrigerator, an elephants' graveyard of forgotten tomato pastes in various states of decay. Periodically, I'd sweep them from the fridge into a trash bag and swear that I'd never buy a can of the stuff again.
Then I went to culinary school, and I no longer had any choice in the matter. Suddenly I was cooking with tomato paste constantly, incorporating it into everything from rich brown stocks and pan sauces to savory curries. I learned to caramelize it in fat over high heat—a process called pinçage—for a subtle, meaty-sweet intensity that only hours of low and slow cooking can replicate. I stirred in spices and anchovies and handfuls of fresh herbs, or smeared it straight from the can onto the occasional late-night grilled cheese sandwich. I even took to using it for fun, transforming dips, spreads, and doughs into vibrantly hued creations.
Of course, the fact remains that even with its myriad functions, tomato paste can be a challenge to use up. Since it's essentially a tomato juice concentrate, long-simmered and dehydrated for maximum impact, just a tablespoon goes a long way. Thankfully, culinary school gave me an answer to that conundrum, too. When I pop a can, I simply dump any leftover paste onto a sheet of plastic wrap and roll it into a thin cylinder (an inch or so in diameter). Then I tuck the cylinder into a zipper-lock bag and freeze it, slicing a chunk off whenever I need it—it returns to room temperature quickly and guarantees a significantly longer shelf life than a half-sealed can. But these days, if I can help it, I grab a toothpaste-like tube of tomato paste: It's become increasingly common on supermarket shelves, and, once opened, it can be refrigerated for months without the risk of oxidation.
Regardless of how you buy and store your tomato paste, once you have some, it's time to make the most of it. Here's just a handful of my favorite uses, recipes included!
Boost Flavor Faster
With its umami intensity and rich, caramel sweetness, tomato paste can add a slow-cooked bass note to even the simplest meals. Quickly sautéed in olive oil with paprika, garlic, and shallots, it adds dimension to our five-minute Spanish-style bean salad—a compelling vegetarian hors d'oeuvre that easily becomes dinner when served over a hefty slice of warm country bread. It's the same principle that also makes tomato paste the star of our 40-minute Italian-American red sauce, in which a brief pinçage imparts depth of flavor that normally takes hours and hours of simmering tomatoes to achieve. You can even fold it into meatloaf, like this shepherd's pie version with Parmesan cheese and potatoes in a Stilton sauce, for an undercurrent of roasted ripe tomato flavor.
Our Italian-American red sauce isn't the only sauce that benefits from a tomato paste–spiked base. Whether you're making simple homemade ketchup or steakhouse-style marinades, a hit of tomato paste can take your sauces from thin and acidic to balanced and complex. In our tomato gravy, the paste combines with flour and bacon drippings for a smoky, deeply savory roux. Tomato paste helps coax out the meatiness of the mushrooms in this vegan Bolognese and complements the garlicky sauce in this simple pasta with oven-dried tomatoes, olives, and bread crumbs. In other words, it's your weeknight pasta's best friend.
Enrich Braises and Stews
Virtually any preparation that starts with a mirepoix or sofrito can benefit from the addition of tomato paste—provided the flavor you're going for is dark, rich, and deeply savory. In other words, clear chicken broth? Not so much. The saucy base for your beer-braised bison pot roast? Totally. In fact, braises are the main reason tomato paste is one of my favorite pantry staples—it forms the subtle backbone of this tender braised oxtail (which, incidentally, makes its way into the most delicious sandwich I've ever tasted); our pork shoulder with tomatoes, fennel, and pasta; and even this moist barbecue-inspired brisket, braised in a tart-sweet apricot and cranberry sauce. You can try tomato paste in almost any meaty recipe, from Roman-style tripe, braised with tomatoes, herbs, and Parmesan cheese, to braised short ribs in porcini-port sauce, to an ultra-satisfying all-American beef stew—I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Add a Splash of Color
The vast majority of times I open a can or tube of tomato paste, it's for flavor-enhancing applications. But if it's nearing its expiration date, or if I'm anxious to use it up, I like to turn tomato paste into an easy, all-natural food-coloring agent that just happens to boost flavor in one fell swoop. It's what gives this fresh pasta its vibrant orange hue—a technique that can be extended to all manner of doughs. If I'm in the mood for something even easier, though, I simply fold it into warmed butter or mayonnaise to give my go-to condiments an assertive tartness and surprising tint.