To deepen the flavor of tomato-based sauces, soups, stews and braises, we turn to an underappreciated powerhouse pantry staple: tomato paste. And we double down on its flavor by browning it, a simple step that caramelizes its natural sugars to make it richer and more savory.
Unlike watery supermarket tomatoes, tomato paste already is brimming with sweet, concentrated umami-rich flavor. Browning takes it one step further, activating complex flavor compounds called glutamates, which equate to umami and enhance savory richness.
Typically, you’ll want to brown your tomato paste in oil after you’ve sautéed any aromatics or spices. For most sauces and stews, cook the garlic, onion or other vegetables over medium-high until they start to soften and brown at the edges, then add the tomato paste and cook, stirring with a silicone spatula, until it darkens slightly. This should take 5 to 7 minutes. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the skillet so it doesn’t burn. Then add any cooking liquid to deglaze the pan and continue cooking.
Though we generally prefer tomato pastes in tubes over canned varieties—which can have a metallic taste—tube pastes tend to be double- or triple-concentrated. When browned, they can be a little too potent for some recipes. Instead, when browning, we favor Italian-made canned pastes.
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