Behind the Recipes

The Fastest Fresh Tomato Sauce

Your best bet for pasta sauce on the fly? The small but mighty cherry tomato.
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Published June 1, 2020.

My Goals and Discoveries

Quick-cooking fresh tomato sauce

Cherry tomatoes require no prep, and because they have more flavor than larger varieties, there’s no need for a lengthy cooking time to concentrate their flavor.

Pasta-coating consistency

Cherry tomatoes contain mostly soluble pectin, so they collapse readily into a lush, saucy consistency in just 10 minutes. 

Keep some tomatoes intact

Cooking the tomatoes in a covered saucepan versus a skillet allows the fruit on the bottom to fully burst while the fruit on top cooks through but is still plump.

Savory-sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes are typically enjoyed as a snack or in salads. But they have another application that may surprise you: They’re the perfect choice for a quick fresh tomato sauce. You can toss these little fruits directly into the pan without any prep, and they don’t need lengthy cooking to concentrate their flavor or thicken into a sauce. That’s because they’re more flavorful than the bigger varieties conventionally used for sauce and have more sugar in their flesh and more savory glutamates in their gel. They’re also full of soluble pectin that readily forms a pasta‑coating consistency.

To make my own version of the sauce, I sautéed 2 pounds of tomatoes (enough for 12 ounces of pasta) in olive oil in a skillet with slivered garlic. In just 10 minutes, the tomatoes had melted into a lush, silky mixture that tasted remarkably complex. There was just one issue: I didn’t want all the cherry tomatoes to burst and disappear into the sauce. Part of the fun of eating these diminutive spheres is how they pop in your mouth, releasing a flood of juices. To ensure that some of the tomatoes stayed whole, I tried adding them in stages, but the delayed additions never softened enough and tasted raw. Smashing some of the fruits early to force them to release their juices left too many annoying, undercooked skins.

Botanically Engineered for Sauce on the Fly

Many of the same qualities that make cherry tomatoes so enjoyable to eat raw make them perfect for a quick sauce.

Then the solution occurred to me: Instead of sautéing the tomatoes in a skillet, I would move them to a saucepan. Thanks to this pan’s smaller circumference, only some of the tomatoes would be in direct contact with the pan bottom, while others would rest on top, protected from the heat. Covering the saucepan allowed this upper layer to cook gently in the steam of the released juices, remaining plump and ready to pop.

A few pats of butter stirred into the pasta with the sauce give it a light, creamy consistency.

With my cooking method nailed down, I did a quick test, subbing grape tomatoes for cherry. I was a little surprised to find that these didn’t work nearly as well, producing a sauce that was thin and dry. Turns out grape tomatoes aren’t as juicy as cherry tomatoes, and their pectin takes longer to cook down and dissolve.

All that was left was to tweak the sauce’s flavor, which didn’t need much: Anchovies added depth while salt, a touch of red pepper flakes, and sugar brought everything into balance. I also tossed a couple of pats of butter into the cooked pasta when I combined it with the sauce, which gave the whole thing a light, creamy richness that still allowed the fresh tomato flavor to shine. Fresh basil and a gremolata-inspired topping transformed this dish into something elegant and special.

A sprinkling of basil and a crispy, lemony gremolata-inspired topping make this dish company worthy.

Pasta with Burst Cherry Tomato Sauce and Fried Caper Crumbs

Your best bet for pasta sauce on the fly? The small but mighty cherry tomato.
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