Growing the Best Paste Tomatoes Yields Fresh Salsa and Sauce

1 / 3
The San Marzano Redorta is a super-sized variety, with the fruit weighing in around 8 ounces.
2 / 3
Paste tomatoes make great sauces, salsas and more.
3 / 3
A well-constructed trellis helps the tomato plants stay in one place and aids the gardener when it comes to harvesting the fruit.

Like many people, I used to think that a paste tomato and a Roma tomato were one in the same. However, two decades of testing, tasting and growing more than 100 varieties of tomatoes has broadened my point of view. Though paste tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are noted for their dense meaty texture, low moisture content and few seeds, I quickly discovered that not just any paste-type tomato will result in the tastiest salsa, the creamiest ketchup, the heartiest paste or the richest spaghetti sauce.

Paste tomatoes are simply not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some varieties grow better, are more flavorful or have better texture than others. And while one variety may excel in ketchup, it isn’t always the best choice for making salsas or sauces.

For example, both San Marzano and Sausage are flavorful and very meaty, with little juice and very few seeds. These characteristics make them ideal for canning or for making ketchup and sauces with great body. Black Prince and Saucey varieties have the right balance of meaty fruits with bold tomato taste and just enough juiciness to make electrifying salsas. Then there’s Viva Italia. While no paste tomato is perfect for every need, this variety comes close. Its fresh, zesty flavor and firm but teasingly juicy fruits hold up to canning, cooking or freezing. 

Variety isn’t the only factor to consider. Experience also has shown me that the best salsa or spaghetti sauce has as much to do with the type of tomato used as it does with how that tomato was grown. Even the best varieties can fall short when raised in less than favorable conditions. Here’s how to make sure your paste tomatoes come out perfect — or, at least, near perfect — every time.

Tomato dynamics

Several factors can greatly influence tomato flavor and texture. These include insufficient heat and light along with too much nitrogen, a deficiency of certain minerals, and too much or too little moisture.

A soil test is a great starting point in determining your soil pH (ideally between 6.2 to 6.8) and the nutrients your soil may be lacking. Tomatoes require ample amounts of phosphorus, potassium and calcium. The type of fertilizer you use is crucial, as too much nitrogen can result in reduced production and weakened flavor.

For prime fruits, use a low nitrogen (5-10-10) organic fertilizer. Additional sources for these three nutrients include bone meal (phosphorus), crushed oyster shell (calcium) and greensand (potassium).

Liquid seaweed and kelp-based foliar sprays offer a good source of nitrogen and potassium, while rock dust supplies phosphorus. All three are an excellent source of flavor-producing trace minerals.

Starting off right

Providing the right growing conditions for your plants will greatly influence the fruits’ overall performance and taste. Tomatoes thrive in a slightly acidic, fertile and well-drained soil.

Choose your sunniest spot for growing your plants — at least six hours of daily direct summer sun is needed for fruits to fully develop their flavor. Mulching with a reflective red plastic mulch (available at many garden supply stores) will help bring more light and heat to the fruit. Staking, trellising or caging your plants also will increase the surface area exposed to light.

The structure of your soil also is key when it comes to producing prime fruits. Soil that is loamy and light (rather than heavy clay or sandy) allows air and water to penetrate better, and such soil provides easier access to valuable nutrients while still maintaining enough body to retain adequate moisture and nutrients. This can be accomplished by digging in plenty of aged organic matter — such as compost or rotted manure — prior to planting.

Amending the soil with compost or aged manure before planting supplies the needed nutrients to get plants off to a great start. In lieu of pre-planting enrichment, you can use an organic fertilizer (remember, low nitrogen) applied at the rate of two to three pounds per 100 square feet. We also enrich the soil with rock dust before planting, or spray plants with a seaweed foliar spray for essential minerals. Side-dress plants with compost or well-rotted manure when the first fruits are the size of marbles.

Planting basics

Sow seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before your last spring frost. Seeds germinate best at temperatures between 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the first set of true leaves emerge, pot up seedlings into 4-inch pots. For even earlier yields, transplant once more into gallon-size pots when seedlings are about 6 inches tall. Research has shown that periodically brushing the tops of developing seedlings lightly with your hands will result in larger and stockier transplants.

Set out transplants — after hardening them off — into the ground after frost danger has passed, about 12 to 24 inches apart for determinate varieties; 24 to 36 inches for indeterminate, unstaked varieties; and 15 to 24 inches for staked, caged or trellised plants.

Whether your transplants are big or small, take care to snip off the lowest sets of leaves (suckers) and plant the bulk of the stem below the surface. New roots will form along the buried section, encouraging a healthier and faster-growing plant.

Growing the best paste tomatoes

Water deeply and consistently so soil moisture stays even. Too much water dilutes the flavor of the fruit; too little will inhibit flavor production. Reduce watering once fruits reach full size and begin to change color. Stressing plants as fruits near harvest helps to intensify the flavor.

Mulch plants to help maintain moisture levels and reduce problems such as fruit cracking and blossom-end rot — a common problem characterized by sunken brown areas of decayed tissue forming around the bottom of fruits.

For blossom-end rot, fluctuating moisture levels can interfere with the uptake of calcium. Adding crushed eggshells or oyster shells to the soil prior to planting will help prevent any calcium imbalance.

Cornworms, whiteflies, flea beetles and aphids are the most common tomato pests. Organic pest controls include insecticidal soap or blasting plants with water for whiteflies and aphids; wiping out hornworms by hand picking or dusting plants with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), bacteria that prey upon hornworms and other insect larvae; and using row covers or dusting plants with diatomaceous earth controls flea beetles.

Ultimately, the best strategies for warding off tomato pests and diseases are to select pest- and disease-resistant varieties, provide the right conditions for growing a healthy plant, and grow flowering plants nearby to encourage beneficial insects that prey on these pests.

Enjoying the tomato harvest

All your measures to grow tomatoes with great taste will be lost if the fruit is harvested prematurely or improperly stored.

Harvest fruits when semi-firm and the color has fully developed. Tomatoes picked a few days before fully ripe and allowed to sit on the kitchen counter a day or two are typically more flavorful than really ripe tomatoes plucked from the vine when soft.

It’s best to store your tomatoes in a single layer in a cool location in your kitchen. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator, as chilling will reduce sweetness and overall flavor. It only takes a couple of days in the fridge for the texture to turn mushy.

Tomatoes that have been cut or leftover pieces of tomatoes, however, should be covered and refrigerated.

The paste tomatoes you grow will probably be used in a variety of ways. Broaden your paste tomato repertoire by growing several different varieties. Whether your goal is to can, cook, freeze, or turn your tomatoes into fresh salsa or sauce, you’ll minimize prep time and cooking time while maximizing flavor.   

Read more: Create DIY tomato cages with plans from our friends at Farm Show in DIY Tomato Cages and Natural Gopher Control.

Oregon-based Kris Wetherbee continues to grow and taste her way to the most delicious tomato varieties. She says that stir-fries, homemade salsas, sauces, salads and scones are among her favorite ways of using paste tomatoes in the kitchen.

Ten terrific paste tomatoes

The best paste tomato is not one variety but many, and their role goes beyond canning, cooking and freezing as there are paste varieties that also excel in salads, pastas and fresh salsas. For the best in paste tomatoes, here are 10 winning varieties to try.

Aunt Lucy’s Italian Paste (80-85 days) Indeterminate: Red, round and meaty with classic sweet/tart flavors reminiscent of old Italian varieties. Great choice for cooking, fresh use, salsas and sauces.

Black Prince (70-85 days) Indeterminate: A personal favorite, fruits ripen to a deep garnet red color, taking on a garnet-chocolate glow with increased sun and heat. Small to medium oval fruits are incredibly rich in flavor that some liken to V-8. Perfect for eating fresh and for cooking in tomato sauces or other dishes. I like to pair this with a red or golden paste tomato for fresh salsa.

Golden Fresh Salsa (63-70 days) Determinate: Combines the best of fresh and paste tomato qualities; meaty and flavorful, 3- to 5-ounce golden fruits, with flesh that stays firm when chopped. Ideal for summer salads, bruschettas, salsas and very light Italian sauces.

Martino’s Roma (75 days) Determinate: Italian heirloom produces an abundance of richly flavored, meaty, 3-inch, pear-shaped red fruits with few seeds. Delicious right off the vine, though ideally suited for sauces, salsas and pastes. Flavor profile becomes more complex during cooking.

Opalka (75-85 days) Indeterminate: Vigorous vines produce great tasting 5-inch-long red fruits shaped like a banana pepper. Extremely meaty with a rich, sweet flavor. Great for fresh eating; exceptional for canning, sauces and salsas.

Principe Borghese (75-80 days) Determinate: Italian heirloom produces prolific clusters of 1- to 2-ounce, richly flavored, plum-shaped red tomatoes. Very meaty, with little juice and no (or only a few) seeds; retains flavor better than most when dried. Great for canning or for making an intensely flavored sauce. Dried fruits can be reconstituted in olive oil or crushed into flakes for seasoning or to add to a sauce for quick thickening.

San Marzano (80-90 days) Indeterminate: Very prolific; rectangular, pear-shaped red fruits have superb flavor, meaty texture, and very small seed cavity for easy scooping. Heavy walls with an extra-high pectin, sugar and solid content make this perfect for canning, sauces, tomato pastes and purées, and for drying. Other San Marzano types to tempt include slightly larger Super San Marzano, super-sized 8-ounce San Marzano Redorta, and its fruitier-flavored golden cousin, Golden San Marzano. This variety combined with Sausage results in a full-bodied ketchup with flavorful depths.

Saucey (75-85 days) Determinate: Early bearing, disease-resistant vines are compact and prolific, with easy-to-peel, plum-shaped red fruits that grow in clusters and hold well to the vine. Use fresh, in pastas, for canning, or for fresh salsas with intense tomato flavor.

Sausage (75 days) Indeterminate: Prolific and dependable heirloom with 6-inch-long red fruits shaped like its namesake. Fine-flavored meaty tomatoes are great for canning and especially ideal for making ketchup or spaghetti sauce with body. Its slightly smaller cousin, Green Sausage, has green and yellow mottled skin, with kiwilike green flesh.

Viva Italia (72-85 days) Vigorous Determinate: Highly disease resistant and exceptional high yielder, with classic pear-shaped red tomatoes that produce throughout the season, even in hot weather. Firm, yet pleasantly juicy fruits have a fresh, zesty tomato flavor. Excellent in salads and salsas; perfect for canning, cooking and freezing. It’s my go-to for picante sauce, particularly when combined with Black Prince.

Seed sources

Territorial Seed Co.
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061

P.O. Box 628
Little River, CA 95456-0628

Tomato Growers Supply Co.
P.O. Box 60015
Fort Myers, FL 33906-6015

Totally Tomatoes
334 W. Stroud St.
Randolph, WI 53956-1295

High Mowing Organic Seeds
76 Quarry Road
Wolcott, VT 05680-4477

Victory Seeds
P.O. Box 192
Molalla, OR 97038-0192
503-829-3126, voicemail and fax order line only