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Want to elevate your culinary skills? Start caramelizing the tomato paste you use.

Rigatoni with Easy Vodka Sauce features caramelized tomato paste. The dish is an easy one to make for a weeknight dinner, but also fancy enough for weekend guests. 
The tomatoe paste on the left has been caramelized to a brick red color.

Do you caramelize tomato paste before you use it?

I have to admit I have not, but an article I read recently online at Epicurious.com has convinced me it is a necessary step in preparing great sauces.

I have made tomato paste using tomatoes from my husband, Mark's, garden, and notice its more robust flavor over store bought. But I never considered enhancing purchased tomato paste's flavor.

The Epicurious article noted that purchased tomato paste straight from the can or tube has a tart, mineral flavor that won't do our dishes any good. The article went on to state that the secret of using tomato paste is to caramelize it before any liquid is added to the pot.

Their method for making tomato sauce from paste is to sauté onions, carrots, garlic or other aromatics until they are softened and almost as dark as you like them to be.

Add spices and sauté briefly to release their essential oils. Add tomato paste and continue cooking until the paste changes color from bright to brick red. Deglaze the pan with wine or other liquid and continue with your recipe.

Making your own tomato paste is a simple process. It is best to use roma or San Marzono tomatoes for the greatest yield, but you also can use juicy heirlooms. You don't have to wait for next summer's harvest to make your own tomato paste, as well drained San Marzonos can be used to make tomato paste now.

Here is the process to make tomato paste (courtesy of @Kitchn):

Tomato paste

10 pounds tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon citric acid, or 2

tablespoons bottled lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F. Arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters.

Place olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add tomatoes and cook until soft and the peels begin to detach from the flesh.

Push the warm tomatoes through a food mill, sieve or chinois to separate the pulp from the seeds and skins. Stir salt and citric acid or lemon juice into the pulp. Discard or compost the seeds and skins.

Divide the tomato pulp between two large, rimmed baking sheets. Place the baking sheets in the oven. Check the tomatoes every 30 minutes, stirring the paste and switching the position of the baking sheets so they reduce evenly.

Over time, the paste will start to reduce to the point where it doesn't fill the baking sheet anymore.

At this point, combine the contents of the two baking sheets into one and continue to bake. The paste is done when shiny, brick-colored and reduced by more than half, 3 to 4 hours, though exact baking times will depend on the juiciness of the tomatoes. There shouldn't be any remaining water or moisture separating from the paste at this point.

You can transfer the paste into 4-ounce jars (leave ¾-inch head space) and preserve in a hot water bath, or refrigerate or freeze the paste instead.

To do this, scrape the finished paste into clean half or quarter pint jars and top each jar with a layer of olive oil and place in either the refrigerator or freezer.

As long as you keep the paste well-covered with olive oil and ensure that you use a clean spoon to remove it from the jar, it will keep in the fridge for three to four weeks. You can also freeze the paste in ice cube trays; frozen the paste will keep for up to nine months.

OK, so I'd rather use fresh tomatoes to make paste. How can I use this method until then?

Today's recipe, Rigatoni with Easy Vodka Sauce, explains how to caramelize tomato paste. The process is quick and easy and results in heighten flavor for the dish.

The recipe is perfect for a weeknight dinner, but special enough for weekend company. Give it a whirl this week.

Bon Appetit! Make eating an adventure!

Rigatoni with Easy Vodka Sauce

Makes 4 servings

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, smashed

1 (4.5-ounce) tube double-concentrated tomato paste

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

¾ cup heavy cream

1 pound rigatoni

4 ounces Parmesan, finely grated

Basil leaves, for serving

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

Meanwhile heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat.

Cook onion and garlic, stirring constantly, just until onion is starting to brown around the edges, 5-7 minutes. Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes and stir to coat onion.

Cook, stirring often, until paste is deep red and starting to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot, 5-7 minutes. Add vodka, scraping up brown bits; reduce heat to low.

Using a heatproof measuring glass, scoop out about ¼ cup boiling water from pot and add heavy cream. Stirring constantly, gradually pour cream mixture into onion mixture and cook, stirring, until a smooth sauce forms. Remove from heat.

Cook pasta in the pot of boiling water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. About 1 minute before pasta is done, scoop out 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Return Dutch oven to low heat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pasta to Dutch oven. Stir in ½ cup pasta cooking liquid, then gradually add half of the Parmesan, stirring constantly to melt. Pasta should be coated with a smooth, glossy sauce. Season with salt; add more pasta cooking liquid if sauce is too thick.

Divide pasta among bowls. Top with basil and remaining Parmesan and drizzle with a little olive oil.

Recipe courtesy of epicurious.com.

Barb Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-479-2374 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow her on [email protected]


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