Need a Substitute for Tomato Sauce? Here Are 4 Genius Swaps (Including One You Definitely Have on Hand)
PHOTO: LIZ ANDREW/STYLING: ERIN MCDOWELL

A must-have for spaghetti and meatballs, crucial for homemade pizza and essential for shakshuka, many of our favorite dishes start with a jar of tomato sauce. But what to do when there’s no marinara in the pantry? Read our guide on how to substitute for tomato sauce and locate a swap in your kitchen, that’s what.

What is tomato sauce, exactly?

Tomato sauce refers to any sauce that’s made primarily from chopped or pureed tomatoes, which are then cooked with a combination of spices or herbs to create a unique flavor profile. You’d be hard pressed to find a person who isn’t familiar with tomato sauce in one form or another since it’s commonly used as a base or sauce in dishes from all around the globe. Yep, whether you’re enjoying chicken tikka masala at a local Indian restaurant or housing a plate of pasta from your favorite red sauce joint, you can be sure that some tomato sauce magic went into the making of your meal.

But how can something as simple as tomato sauce wear so many hats in the kitchen? Well, it all comes down to the pleasant balance of sweetness and acidity that tomatoes lend to any dish—and the fact that they pair beautifully with a bevy of different seasonings. 

4 tomato sauce substitutes

So, what do you do when you’re cooking something that requires tomato sauce and realize you forgot to buy a jar of marinara at the store? Abort mission? Nope. You can absolutely still pull off your meal provided you have one of these four substitutes on hand.

1. Tomato paste

Tomato paste is an ideal substitute for tomato sauce because, well, it is tomato sauce—albeit a very concentrated form. As such, you’ll need to thin out the paste with a liquid ingredient for this swap, but once that’s done it works well in just about any recipe that calls for tomato sauce, including curries, stews and pasta dishes. For this swap, David Joachim, author of The Food Substitutions Bible, recommends you use ½ cup tomato paste and ½ cup water to replace 1 cup of tomato sauce—just keep in mind that you’ll need to season your substitute to taste.

2. Canned stewed tomatoes

If you’ve got a can of stewed tomatoes in the pantry, you’re in luck—they’ll make an excellent substitute for tomato sauce in mostly any dish. Joachim tells us that the best way to sub with canned stewed tomatoes is to pop the contents of the can into your blender and blend until smooth before using as a 1:1 stand-in for tomato sauce.

3. Tomato soup

Although this substitute doesn’t make an appearance in David Joachim’s authoritative reference guide on the subject, it will still work in a pinch. A can of tomato soup has a similar consistency to tomato sauce and obviously plenty of tomato-y flavor. That said, it lacks the savory seasoning of a standard marinara, so depending on what you’re cooking you might consider adding a clove of minced garlic, a touch more salt and a few more extra flavors as needed. Use one 10 ounce can of tomato soup to replace 1 cup of tomato sauce in any recipe.

4. Ketchup

OK, this one is definitely not ideal since ketchup contains sugar and vinegar, among other things, and can throw off the flavor of dishes that have a more savory profile (i.e., don’t try this with lasagna). For this reason, ketchup is best used as a swap in recipes that already feature a degree of sweetness. Still, in a pinch, it can be used as a 1:1 substitute for tomato sauce in a variety of dishes—just use your judgment and be sure to taste as you go and adjust the seasoning accordingly.

How to make your own tomato sauce

If you don’t mind doing a little cooking before you start cooking, you can simply make your own tomato sauce. The process is quick and easy—and if you whip up a big batch, you can store the sauce in the freezer for months, so you always have it on hand. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Remove the skin and seeds from whole fresh tomatoes. Five pounds of tomatoes will yield about 2 ½ cups of sauce. (Pro tip: The easiest way to remove the skin from whole tomatoes is to soak them in a hot bath for several minutes.)

Step 2: Place the tomato pulp into a large saucepan along with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and any seasonings of your choice. (Think: garlic, basil, bay leaf.)

Step 3: Bring the mixture to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer until the sauce has been reduced by half (or reached your desired consistency).

Step 4: Remove the sauce from the heat and season with salt to taste. Voila...you’re done!

Ready to cook? Here are 5 delicious ways to enjoy tomato sauce

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