Tomato Puree vs. Tomato Sauce: What's the Difference?

These products sound similar but are more different than you may think. Find out how they differ plus if you can use them interchangeably.

There are few ingredients that have an underdog story like tomatoes. For over two centuries, they were regarded with extreme suspicion, their reputation badly maligned in medieval society. To this day, tomatoes are still not fully understood, despite their quintessential importance to many world cuisines. For instance, is it a fruit or a vegetable? (Technically a fruit but more commonly used as a vegetable.) Can you eat it before it's ripe? (Yes, and here's how.)

The versatility of tomatoes is part of why they've become such an integral part of many global cuisines. However, there is such a thing as too many choices … and anyone entering their grocery store's canned and jarred tomato aisle will know this to be true. In it, you'll find tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, stewed tomatoes and whole peeled and unpeeled tomatoes. They come seasoned, unsalted and fire-roasted. Or perhaps you'd like tomatoes with peppers. And of course, you'll also encounter tomato puree and tomato sauce, the latter of which then gets further divided into subcategories.

Essentially, what we're saying is, don't feel bad about being here, looking up "tomato puree vs. tomato sauce." We've all done it! So to answer this question, we enlisted the help of an expert, Caroline Wright, brand manager for organically farmed tomato company Take Root Organics. And that's what brings us to today's burning question: What's the difference between tomato puree and tomato sauce?

What Is Tomato Puree?

It sounds pretty straightforward: tomatoes that have been pureed, right? Well, kind of.

"Canned tomato puree is made from fresh tomatoes," Wright says. However, "they go through a process of heating and straining until the desired puree consistency is achieved." This cooking time is quick, so the tomatoes don't reduce and thicken naturally, so straining gives the perception of a thick texture without the concentration of flavor. They are also usually put through a blender or food processor. The end consistency, the method in which they're cooked (for instance, Hunt's flash-steams theirs), and the tomato variety used is why some cooks are loyal to specific brands.

All of these attributes make them visually very different from tomato paste, which is considerably denser and darker. Generally, tomato puree should be thick, mostly smooth and uniform with a summery flavor and vibrant tomatoey color. Its texture is ideal for making marinara or pizza sauce, soups and stews, sauces, casseroles, baked beans and more. The addition of an acid—typically lemon juice—and salt helps preserve a flavor that's more reminiscent of fresh tomatoes versus tomatoes cooked into sauce.

a photo of tomato puree and sauce beside each other on spoons
Getty Images

What Is Tomato Sauce?

The answer to this question is a little trickier since there are three types: canned, jarred and sauce tomat, the French mother sauce. According to Wright, "Canned tomato sauce generally has a thinner consistency and a fine and glossy look compared to canned tomato puree. To make tomato puree into tomato sauce, ingredients like sea salt and spices are added to tomato puree, then the product is ground to a finer texture." In many cases, it's also watered down.

Common seasoning additions that turn tomato puree into tomato sauce typically include garlic, onion, basil, oregano and/or bay leaves. The types and amounts of seasonings added to the puree—the base ingredient of tomato sauce—varies based on brand, which is why Wright advises, "Check these to avoid tomatoes with too much added sugar or salt."

This is good guidance for jarred tomato sauces, too. This type of tomato sauce can also be labeled as pasta sauce, and it's called tomato gravy in some areas. These tend to skew sweeter than plain puree, and not just from additives. The simple act of cooking the tomatoes longer brings that flavor out and concentrates the others, even though it's also slightly diluted with water. Simmering also melds the taste of cooked tomatoes with any other ingredients, including the oil that's usually added to jarred versions to thin it out and add richness.

These traits are why many people opt to make their own homemade tomato sauce for pasta, which is not only easy but also allows the cook to control the texture and flavor profile. For instance, they can opt to shift their pomodoro into marinara, steer it into arrabiata territory if they want a little kick, or add vegetables that will contribute their own distinctive flavors and add chunkiness.

How to Use Tomato Sauce

The pre-seasoned and sweeter nature of canned tomato sauce makes it a convenient ingredient to have on hand for many types of recipes. You can make your homemade pasta (or zoodle) sauce or lasagna with canned tomato sauce instead of tomato puree to get a bit of a head start. If texture is not as important as flavor, feel free to swap it for crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes in dishes like shakshuka, minestrone or ratatouille.

Tomato sauce is also commonly used in olive tapenade, rice-stuffed vegetables, pizza sauce, chili, stews, and less commonly (but no less ingeniously!) in cocktails like Bloody Marys.

Can I Use Tomato Puree and Tomato Sauce Interchangeably?

Most of the time, yes. If it's a small amount, it's perfectly fine to do a 1-to-1 swap.

Tomato puree is thicker than most canned tomato sauces, so you can water the puree down, 1 tablespoon at a time, to reach a saucy texture. Adding seasonings such as onion, garlic, basil, oregano, and salt to tomato puree can make it a bright, quick and easy tomato sauce—your final product just won't have as much depth as longer-cooked sauces.

In reverse, if you cook tomato sauce in a pan over medium heat, you can also reduce it to get closer to the consistency of puree. Bear in mind, though, that the flavors will be deeper and the seasonings will become stronger. In this case, you'll definitely want to adjust the quantity of salt or sugar in the recipe you're cooking for, and maybe the herbs and spices depending on your preference.

Bottom Line

Tomato puree is the basis for the two most common types of tomato sauce: the canned and jarred tomato sauces found on your supermarket shelves. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases, tomato sauce is also tomato puree, but tomato puree is never tomato sauce until it's seasoned and slightly thinned out. Therefore, keeping tomato puree in your pantry is a great idea for purists, while tomato sauce is an easy shortcut to herbaceous hints in your tomato-accented dishes.

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