Tomato paste is having a moment. Made by boiling down tomato juice into smooth, concentrated form, tomato paste is absolutely packed with umami. Just a tablespoon can transform a braise, stew, or soup, imbuing it with an unplaceable but vibrant richness. Knead it into bread dough for a ruby-red pop, or add it to tomato sauce to make it even more tomato-y. The opportunities are endless, but this rich, sweet vermillion substance is just the kind of thing I’m constantly forgetting on my grocery runs. So if you’re staring down a recipe that calls for some paste and need a quick tomato paste substitute, we have your back.
Here are 7 tomato paste substitutes you probably have on hand:
DIY Tomato Paste
In essence, tomato paste is just crushed, reduced tomatoes. Though the stuff in a tube (or tiny can) is boiled for many hours from fresh tomatoes, you can achieve a similar result much quicker by starting with a can of crushed canned tomatoes or tomato puree. Measure out five times as much crushed or pureed as the amount of tomato paste you’ll need into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, until reduced to a thick paste.
Canned (or Homemade) Tomato Sauce
Tomato paste adds richness, sweetness, umami, and, of course, tomato flavor to everything it touches. While tomato sauce is much less concentrated than tomato paste, and doesn’t have the same deep flavor profile that come from slow-cooking, it’s in the ballpark. And if you’re making a braise or stew that’s meant to cook down over several hours, the tomato sauce will have a chance to gain some of paste’s depth and richness as it simmers.
To turn fresh tomatoes into tomato paste, cook them down, strain out the skins (and/or puree the flesh) and then cook down further until very thick.
A tempting substitute because of its similar color and viscosity, ketchup can work as a substitute in a pinch when replacing small amounts of tomato paste in recipes. Though it’s important to note that ketchup is seasoned with sugar and vinegar, and lacks the savory umami character of tomato paste. If substituting with ketchup, you can remove additional sweeteners like honey or sugar in the rest of the recipe.
Bear with me here. Miso may be from a different culinary universe than tomato paste, but think of them as long-lost cousins. Where tomato paste derives its rich umami character from tomatoes themselves (which are full of glutamic acid), and from the Maillard reaction, the flavor-chemical cacophony that erupts when amino acids are heated with reducing sugars, miso is umami-loaded by way of fermentation. Both pastes have a rounded sweetness and an earthy undertone. I always add a touch of miso when I make tomato sauce to give it that secret richness, and you should too. Be aware, of course, that miso tastes nothing like tomatoes, and will not lend tomato flavor to dishes.
I’m really going out on a limb now, but seriously, what isn’t improved by a dash of thick, salty-sweet oyster sauce? Though most common in recipes of East and Southeast Asian origin, you can sub an equal amount of oyster sauce in place of tomato paste in braises and stews. But anticipate a darker color and less acidity as a result (and no tomato flavor, of course). As it’s made with oysters, it’s also important to note that this substitute won’t work for vegetarians.
This peculiar blend of anchovy, vinegar, tamarind, onions, spices, is beloved around the globe for its sour-savory kick. (Again, vegetarians will want to abstain from this tomato paste alternative.) No one would mistake it for tomato paste, but it does contribute the umami and sour notes your dish may be missing in its absence. Add a few dashes to taste in braises or stews, and consider adding a pinch of sugar to compensate for the acidity.