What Are the Differences Between Tomato Paste, Tomato Sauce, and Marinara?

Get to know each of these staple ingredients.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the numerous tomato-based products near the pasta section in your local grocery store. Marinara sauce, tomato sauce, and tomato paste are often all displayed next to each other, and though they may seem similar, there are a few key differences that make each one unique. Ahead, we're explaining what you need to know about each in order to ensure you're using the best one for your cooking.

homemade tomato sauce in a glass jar
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Tomato Paste Versus Tomato Sauce

This tomato product is a highly concentrated paste that you'll find in either a tube or a can (we recommend choosing a tube if you have the option, as it will protect the paste from spoiling once it's exposed to oxygen). Tomato paste is made by cooking down tomatoes and removing their seeds and juices until all you're left with is a highly concentrated, super thick product that carries bold tomato flavor. Meanwhile, tomato sauce is often made with loads of aromatics and is thinner in texture. Because the flavor of tomato paste is so intense, you generally only need to use a couple of tablespoons per recipe—say for making a classic beef stew or cooking your own homemade marinara sauce.

Whether you purchase cans or tubes, tomato paste is generally sold in four to six ounces. You can also make it yourself—all you need is five pounds of chopped tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, and salt. Cook all three ingredients in a saucepan until the mixture thickens, then transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Marinara Sauce Versus Tomato Sauce

Despite serving similar purposes—from a delicious pizza topping to a sauce for bucatini or spaghetti—marinara sauce and tomato sauce are not the same product. According to Lidia Bastianich, author of more than one dozen cookbooks including Lidia's Italian Table ($15, barnesandnoble.com), marinara sauce is a quicker, less complex product than tomato sauce. Marinara sauce can be left chunky or smooth using crushed tomatoes, whereas tomato sauce traditionally begins with puréed tomatoes. However, like many international dishes, Italian-American food writer Domenica Marchetti says that regionality plays an important factor when defining how these two sauces are made. "If you get 10 Italian cooks together, each one will give you a different version of what marinara sauce is," she says.

Historically, Marchetti says that marinara is defined as, "being in the style of the seaman. In Naples, spaghetti alla marinara is a tomato sauce made with anchovies or tuna, which provides the seafood component." Throughout Italy, you may find marinara sauce made with anchovies, capers, and olives, which is what many people—especially in the United States—think of it as a puttanesca sauce. "These things that have similar names can be very different depending on where you are in Italy and who is doing the cooking," Marchetti says. In a basic Pomodoro or tomato sauce, most cooks will agree that it should be made with fresh or canned tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, chopped onions, basil, and parsley. Marchetti says some Italian-American cookbooks may define tomato sauce as simply a quickly cooked sauce seasoned only with garlic, basil, and fresh or dried oregano.

In the United States, you'll find jars of sauce in the grocery store labeled as either "tomato sauce" or "marinara sauce"—most of which will not contain ingredients such as anchovies, capers, and olives. Other descriptive words may define a particular sauce as chunky or smooth, or call out certain herbs like basil. Always read the label on the back to make sure that the ingredients in the sauce will be palatable to you and your family's preferences.

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