The Secret to a Better Burst-Tomato Pasta: XO Sauce

Overhead of large serving plate of pasta with burst cherry tomatoes and XO sauce, garnished with basil and mint leaves.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Team]

Like many people, I frequently find myself at a loss for weeknight dinner ideas when cooking at home. After a full day of recipe-testing or writing, the last thing I want to do is spend a lot more time and energy figuring out, shopping for, and preparing a meal. In these moments, I often end up rummaging through my fridge and cupboards to scare up a handful of ingredients that can be cobbled together into a quick and easy supper that doesn't require much cleanup afterwards.

With the best season (tomato season, duh) in full swing over the past month, I've had a lot of fresh produce on hand of late, which makes pulling off quick meals a whole lot easier. Most of what little kitchen counter space I have has been taken over by trays of heirlooms, beefsteaks, and Sungolds, brought home from the farmers market for recipe development. Despite working on multiple tomato-based recipes at the same time, I can't get enough of them, figuratively, but also end up with too many of them, literally.

Ingredients for the pasta dish: casarecce pasta, sliced shallots, sliced garlic, red and orange cherry tomatoes, XO sauce, ground dried Thai chilies, fresh mint and basil leaves.

This pomodoro paradox is a good problem to have, and, while I may have a Michael Scott–level grasp of the economic principles behind a surplus, I do know how to turn extra tomatoes into some really solid weeknight dinners.

There have been panzanella and tomato tonnato salads aplenty, along with a few BLTs, but the peak-tomato dinner that I've been making the most recently is a riff on Kenji's pasta with blistered-cherry-tomato sauce. For extra savory punch, I've tweaked it with the addition of my favorite condiment, XO sauce.

Side view of XO sauce being stirred into skillet with burst cherry tomatoes to form a rich sauce.

This version gives you the best of both tomato-sauce worlds, balancing the bright sweetness of fresh tomatoes with the background savory depth of a long-cooked ragù. And it all comes together in about 20 minutes.

Photo collage of shallots and garlic sweating with olive olive oil in a skillet, and cherry tomatoes being added to the pan.

I start the sauce by sweating allium aromatics, in this case sliced shallots and garlic, in olive oil until they soften, stirring frequently to ensure they don't scorch. Give the shallots a head start in the pan before adding the garlic, and season them early on with salt to coax out moisture and speed up the softening process.

Shaking skillet to arrange cherry tomatoes in a single layer.

Next, dump in a mess of cherry tomatoes (around two pints if you're cooking pasta for four people), and shake the skillet to distribute them in an even layer in the pan. Now all you have to do is stir, and wait.

Photo collage showing the progress of cherry tomatoes bursting in the skillet.

As the tomatoes cook over medium heat, they'll begin to steam from the inside, eventually bursting their skins and releasing their juices. Those pectin- and sugar-rich juices will eventually emulsify with the olive oil, turning into a creamy sauce in a matter of minutes.

You can speed the tomato-bursting process along by pressing down on them with a wooden spoon, but I recommend leaving a few of them whole to provide pops of juicy sweetness in the finished dish.

At this point, you could stop cooking the sauce; toss it with some pasta, cheese, and chopped herbs; and call it a day. That's a tasty meal right there.

A jar of XO sauce.

But if you've taken my advice and stocked your fridge with a jar of XO sauce (store-bought is grand, but all the better if it's homemade), well, there's no better time to bust out that culinary cheat code to flavor.

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Stirring a heaping spoonful of XO into this sauce brings out the umami notes of the tomatoes, without sacrificing their fresh aroma. The meaty, seafood-y flavor of the XO gives the sauce the kind of backbone that's usually achieved through a much longer cooking process, toeing the line between a slow-simmered ragù and a quick-cooked puttanesca.

Side view of a heaping amount of XO sauce that has just been added to skillet with burst cherry tomatoes.

This is the magic of great condiments: They make food taste better without making a cooking project harder or more time-consuming. If you put the time in when you've got some to spare to make things like XO sauce, you'll be rewarded down the line when you're short on inspiration, and ingredients.

Overhead of skillet with sauce of burst cherry tomatoes and XO.

Once I've stirred the XO in with the burst cherry tomatoes, I let the sauce simmer for a minute or two to allow it to thicken while the flavors meld, adding a pinch of ground dried chilies (or pepper flakes) to complement the background heat of the XO sauce.

I then add pasta that's cooked a minute shy of al dente, along with a heavy splash of the starchy pasta-cooking water. This is, of course, standard operating pasta-saucing procedure.

Jack the heat up to high, then swirl, toss, and stir like your life depends on it, until the pasta is perfectly cooked and coated with sauce.

Finishing pasta in the skillet by emulsifying starchy pasta water into a creamy sauce with burst cherry tomatoes and XO sauce.

For this dish, I'm a fan of short, non-tubular pasta shapes, like casarecce or gemelli, that hold on to their chew well and can be speared on a fork with the remaining whole cherry tomatoes. With the richness and savory punch of XO, this pasta doesn't need any grated hard cheese, and leaving it out allows the flavor of the fresh tomatoes to shine.

Chopped mint and basil added to skillet with pasta with burst cherry tomatoes and XO sauce.

What it does need is a big old handful of fresh herbs, so, right before serving, I fold in a bunch of chopped basil and mint to round out the dish. And there you have it: a quick and easy weeknight dinner, made possible by the power of condiments and tomato pectin. XOXOXO.

Side view of large serving plate of pasta with burst cherry tomatoes and XO sauce, garnished with basil and mint leaves.