Skip to Content

Can I use pasta sauce instead of tomato sauce for chili?

This is a common question for home cooks looking to make chili. Both pasta sauce and tomato sauce are tomato-based sauces that can be used in cooking, so it’s understandable why someone might wonder if they can be used interchangeably.

The short answer is yes, you can use pasta sauce instead of tomato sauce in chili recipes, but there are some important differences to consider. While both sauces are tomato-based, pasta sauce tends to have a thicker consistency and more complex flavor from added vegetables, herbs, and spices. Tomato sauce is a simpler preparation usually consisting just of tomatoes and seasonings.

Substituting pasta sauce in chili can work, but it will impact the finished flavor and texture. This article will look at the differences between the two sauces and provide tips for using pasta sauce in chili. We’ll also look at how it will change the dish and offer recipe ideas. Let’s dive in!

Comparing Tomato Sauce and Pasta Sauce

First, let’s look at what distinguishes tomato sauce from pasta sauce:

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce consists of tomatoes, tomato puree or crushed tomatoes as the base. It may contain onions, garlic, herbs like basil or oregano, and seasonings like salt, pepper, and sugar. The ingredients are simmered together to meld the flavors.

Tomato sauce has a thin, liquidy consistency. It provides the essential tomato flavor that forms the foundation of many dishes like chili, Bolognese sauce, and shakshuka.

Pasta Sauce

Pasta sauces have a similar tomato base, but also contain chunkier ingredients like tomatoes, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and mushrooms. The extra vegetables give the sauce more body.

Herbs like basil, oregano, and parsley are common. Spices like fennel, paprika, red pepper flakes add to the flavor complexity. Some recipes also contain meat like ground beef or Italian sausage.

The chunky ingredients and simmering time gives pasta sauce a thicker, more substantial texture than tomato sauce. It clings nicely to pasta, unlike a thin tomato sauce that can slide right off.

How It Changes Chili

When you use pasta sauce rather than tomato sauce in chili, you’ll notice the following differences:


Pasta sauce has a more elaborate flavor profile thanks to the herbs, spices, vegetables, and sometimes meat used to make it. This can add nice layers of flavor to chili, making it taste richer.

However, those seasonings may clash with the chili powder and cumin in the recipe. The flavors of oregano, basil, fennel, and such were not meant to complement those spices. The overall flavor may taste a bit “off”.


The thicker consistency of pasta sauce will make the chili thicker and heartier compared to using a thin tomato sauce. This can be a pro or con depending on your preferences.

Some people like a thick, substantial chili while others prefer it more brothy. The chunks of vegetables in pasta sauce will also change the texture compared to the smoother tomato sauce.


Tomato sauce creates a rich, red-orange color in chili. Pasta sauce may make it look a little dull or brown due to the added pureed vegetables. However, you can add tomato paste or canned diced tomatoes to brighten it up.

Factor Tomato Sauce Pasta Sauce
Flavor Simple, lets other ingredients shine More complex with herbs and spices
Texture Thin and liquidy Thick and chunky
Color Rich red-orange Duller brown-orange

Tips for Using Pasta Sauce

Here are some tips to modify pasta sauce to better suit chili:

– Pick a plain pasta sauce without a lot of chunky extras. Meat sauces and basil or oregano-heavy sauces clash most.

– Add some tomato sauce or diced tomatoes along with the pasta sauce for brighter color and flavor.

– Boost the chili powder or cumin to compete with the bolder pasta sauce flavors.

– Saute any big vegetable chunks first to mellow their raw flavor before adding the sauce.

– Add about 20% less pasta sauce than you would tomato sauce since it’s thicker. Add broth or water to thin it out.

– Let it simmer for a while so the flavors have time to meld together more cohesively.

– Finish with lime juice and cilantro. The brightness balances the richness.

Recipe Ideas

Here are some chili recipes that work well with substituting pasta sauce:

Turkey Chili

Lean ground turkey lets the pasta sauce flavors come through. The added vegetables in the sauce provide plenty of texture. Serve with cornbread or over baked potatoes.

Vegetarian Chili

Swap half the tomato sauce for pasta sauce for more complexity. Load up the chili with beans, corn, zucchini, bell peppers. The chunks of veggies complement those in the sauce.

Cincinnati Chili

The warm spices are assertive enough to override the pasta sauce. Use half pasta sauce and half tomato sauce. Serve over spaghetti with classic toppings like cheese, onions, and beans.

White Chicken Chili

Substituting pasta sauce adds nice tomato flavor and color to this chili. The chunks of chicken and beans pair well with any vegetable bits in the sauce.

Chili Mac

Cook pasta right in the thicker, heartier pasta sauce-based chili. The creaminess of the pasta and sauce is perfect for chili mac. Sprinkle with shredded cheddar.


While pasta sauce and tomato sauce are not exactly interchangeable in recipes, pasta sauce can be used in chili with some modifications. Pick a plain pasta sauce and combine with diced tomatoes for the best results. Boost the chili spices to match the bolder sauce flavors.

Pasta sauce makes chili thicker with a more elaborate flavor. This can enhance some chilis but overpower others, so taste as you go. Properly prepared, pasta sauce can be a flavorful alternative when you’re out of tomato sauce.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of how to work with pasta sauce in your chili. With the right chili recipe, pasta sauce can add nice richness and texture. Just be prepared for it to impact the final flavor and consistency compared to using tomato sauce.