What's the Difference Between Tomato Sauce and Tomato Paste? We Break It Down

Consistency is key.

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Tomatoes are technically fruits, but we treat them like vegetables because they’re a staple in savory dishes. Think about the most common ways we use tomatoes—pizza, pasta, gazpacho, salad, sandwiches, burgers, salsa—need we say more? Given their versatility, it should come as no surprise that tomatoes are the third most purchased piece of produce in America, with a whopping 81 percent of households buying the juicy goodness on repeat.  

You can buy tomatoes all year long, but they’re usually freshest during the summer and fall, depending on where you live. Outside of tomato season, or when the recipe calls for it, canned tomatoes can be just as good and sometimes even better than the fresh fruit. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, canned fruits and vegetables are picked at peak ripeness, so they’re full of nutrients and flavor. 

Diced tomatoes, peeled tomatoes, and crushed tomatoes are a few types of canned tomatoes, but tomato sauce and tomato paste are the key to getting a concentrated tomato flavor without plucking tomatoes from the vine yourself. More than 221 million Americans used tomato sauce in 2020, while nearly 172 million Americans used tomato paste. But, what’s the difference between the two, and what can you do with them? It’s time to clear up some confusion surrounding these flavor-enhancing pantry staples and delve into the difference between tomato sauce and tomato paste.


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Tomato Sauce vs. Tomato Paste

Let’s cut to the chase: What are tomato sauce and tomato paste, how are they different, and how do we use them?

What is tomato sauce?

According to the USDA, tomato sauce is the concentrated, liquid extraction from mature tomatoes, and it may have added seasonings, vinegars, or sweeteners. It’s made from cooked tomatoes (obviously) that are left to simmer until some of the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. It’s not as chunky as other tomato products, so it’s a good liquid base to add other ingredients to, such as soups, chilis, stews, and other tomato-based sauces. Its consistency is comparable to gravy.

You can make it at home, or you can grab a few jars of tomato sauce at most grocery stores. There are even a few different varieties of store-bought tomato sauce, such as plain, no salt added, organic, or Italian-style. Most store-bought tomato sauces will contain a combination of herbs and spices, including salt, sugar, vinegar, garlic, onion, bell pepper, basil, and others.

What is tomato paste?

Tomato paste, on the other hand, is a super thick and bright red paste made from, you guessed it, tomatoes. It’s essentially the most concentrated form of tomatoes you can get, as it’s made by cooking down and straining tomatoes until the final product has a thick consistency with the least amount of water possible.

So, what’s the difference?

The main difference between tomato sauce and tomato paste is its texture, which is a direct result of each product’s concentration, and therefore affects how each is used in cooking. 

Both have a strong tomato flavor, but tomato sauce is less potent and significantly less thick. Tomato paste is much more concentrated and is so thick you can’t pour it from its container. Since tomato paste doesn’t have added seasonings like tomato sauce, its flavor is stronger, so you need significantly less tomato paste to get the job done.

How to use

You can reach for a jar of tomato sauce when you need a liquid vehicle for that tomato flavor, such as in pasta sauce, soups, or pizza sauce. Basically, this is the tomato-based ingredient to use when you need to add flavor along with some liquid like in sloppy joe’s, ground beef seasoning, pizza sauce, and meatball subs.

Tomato paste comes in handy when you need a punch of tomato flavor, like in sauces and soups, but don’t want or need to add any extra liquid to the mix. You only need a couple spoonfuls of tomato paste in recipes like tomato bisque, vodka sauce, chili, and homemade ketchup. It’s also a popular addition to meat loaf, shepherd’s pie, and minestrone soup.

What About Marinara Sauce?

Marinara sauce and tomato sauce can be confused for one another, but they’re not the same. Still, marinara sauce is a type of tomato-based sauce, so it can get kind of confusing when distinguishing the two. Marinara sauce is less versatile than tomato sauce—it’s usually reserved for pastas and pizza. It also typically has fewer ingredients, since tomato sauce can contain a variety of vinegars, sweeteners, herbs, and spices, while marinara sauce is usually seasoned with just garlic, basil, and red peppers.

In terms of consistency, marinara sauce is even thinner than tomato sauce. It’s also generally easier and quicker to whip up, so if you want to learn how to make pantry staples from scratch, marinara sauce is a good place to start.

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