Video: Use Cherry Tomatoes for the Fastest Fresh Pasta Sauce Ever

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]



There's a basic tomato rule of thumb when you're shopping at the supermarket: The smaller the tomato, the better, especially during the off season. Larger tomatoes are picked while still green; if they were allowed to ripen on the vine (as all tomatoes would be in an ideal world), they'd bruise themselves under their own weight during shipping. Cherry tomatoes, on the other hand, are picked when much closer to fully ripe. Their small size means that even when ripe, they're tougher.*

* That's the square-cube law in action! Given the same density, smaller objects will be tougher for their size than larger objects, because as an object grows, its mass increases geometrically faster than its footprint. It's what makes Ant-Man a force to be reckoned with, and a 35-foot Twinkie physically impossible. Or something.

Of course, it also helps that many cherry tomato varieties are bred to be both sweeter and higher in pectin than larger, beefsteak tomatoes.

All of these factors—better flavor, more sweetness, and high pectin content—mean that cherry tomatoes are fantastic for making a rich, thick, flavorful sauce. Even better: It takes only four ingredients and about 10 minutes, start to finish—less time than it takes to cook the pasta you're gonna serve it with.

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I start by sautéing a few cloves of sliced garlic in plenty of extra-virgin olive oil over moderate heat in a skillet. The idea here is to infuse the oil with flavor, not to brown the garlic. You can use minced garlic if you prefer, but I like the simplicity of slicing.

Once the oil is fragrant and the garlic has softened, I add some cherry tomatoes. About a pint for every two servings is the right amount. Now the hard part: Stir the tomatoes until they turn into sauce. It's really that easy. As the tomatoes heat up, they start to steam from the inside, eventually bursting their skins and releasing their juices. Those pectin- and sugar-rich juices eventually emulsify with the olive oil, turning into a creamy sauce in a matter of minutes. A little salt and pepper and a big handful of chopped herbs (basil, parsley, thyme, or a mix) are nice additions.

You can cool the sauce and keep it in the fridge until you're ready to use it, but why wait?

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While those tomatoes are cooking, I cook some pasta in a separate pot. And remember: There's no need to use a huge amount of water. Using just enough water to cover the pasta will give you identical results, and it has the advantage of heating up much faster and producing starchier pasta water, for better-textured sauce.

Once the pasta is just shy of al dente, I add it to the sauce, bringing it to a hard simmer to finish cooking. As I toss it all together, I add a big splash of starchy pasta water from time to time to maintain a nice, creamy consistency in the sauce. Just before serving, I stir in some finely grated Parmesan cheese, which adds to that creaminess.

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Four ingredients for the sauce, six ingredients total including the pasta and cheese. Fine, eight, if you want to count the salt and pepper.

The beauty of this sauce is that it's terrific with perfect, in-season cherry tomatoes, but it's also great with the supermarket cherry or grape tomatoes you can get any time of year. There are some days when I feel like simmering a slow-cooked tomato sauce all day long, but there are other days when I just want to make something fresh and tasty, fast.

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It's good to know that on those time-strapped days, I'll never have to compromise on flavor and freshness.