3-Ingredient Summer Tomato Sauce

Barely Cooked Tomato Sauce6

“That does look decadent, like you could make it into a sorbet,” my friend Sarah said.

She was referring to the bowl basin of frothy tomato juice on the countertop.

Sarah and her husband were in town for a wedding and were staying with us. On Friday when she wandered into the kitchen before a pre-wedding afternoon at the nail salon, I snagged her for taste testing. I had a problem that demanded a second opinion.

Barely Cooked Tomato Sauce2

One of my favorite recipes to cook on a busy night is Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce (we’re talking dorm room simple), and I wondered what would happen if I made that nutty, flavorful sauce with fresh tomatoes instead of canned.

When Sarah walked in, I had just finished puréeing three pounds of tiny two-bite tomatoes from one of my favorite stalls at the farmer’s market, tomatoes that I had ripened on the countertop for three days, and the pressing question was – to pulp or not to pulp?

Barely Cooked Tomato Sauce1

THAT brought me back to a tomato dilemma I’ve faced dozens of times: when cooking with fresh tomatoes, some chefs choose to ditch the seeds and skin. The idea is to avoid a situation where a sauce is silky and smooth but with little islands of tomato skins and seeds floating around and interfering with the texture. But is it really necessary to get rid of seeds and skins? And how will I get rid of them – strain them out before cooking or after? And how long is this going to take? (Life’s big questions, I know.)

I had already put the skin and seeds through the Ninja (yes, the blender from the infomercials) and pushed it through a fine mesh sieve three times. Before me were a little bowl of pulpy seeds and an enormous bowl of foamy, velvety tomato juice. This was the ideal tomato situation, the one I had been trying to be patient enough to arrive at for 5 years. I had the delicate juices completely separated from the skins and seeds. And now I was questioning it.

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The seeds and skins just looked so…good. And while I am definitely going to turn that foamy tomato sauce into a sorbet next time (as Sarah says: anything can be sorbeted), this time I cut my losses and dumped the pulp right back in. I mean why waste any summer tomato?

As for the cooking of these gems.

“Only cook something so long as cooking improves it.”

A motto I heard in my early days of cooking.

The raw food community would probably take that advice as a reason to never cook anything ever, for lots of nutritional reasons having to with vitamins and minerals, but I tend to believe that most foods can stand a little transformation. And if we’re being honest, I choose flavor before calories on most days anyway.

That maxim put in my head the image of a flavor arch, in which the flavor gets better and better as the cooking time continues, and then it starts to plummet rapidly. Basically, it means “don’t overcook things,” but the implication is that every ingredient has a different cooking arch, and it is the cook’s responsibility to notice when a flavor is plateauing.

With the freshest summer tomatoes, I thought the flavor arch would take a sharp downturn if I cooked them a moment too long (or at too high a temperature).

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So instead of simmering for 40 minutes or more, like many tomato sauces, this barely cooked fresh tomato sauce relies on the salted butter and an onion to bring out the natural sweetness. I only let it simmer for a few moments before tossing it with starchy noodles. The whole dish makes for a lighter summer pasta that doesn’t make you feel like a hot ripe fruit yourself.

As the clock ticked towards 2:00 and Sarah and Shorty and I spooned the last bits of sauce up from our bowls, we also decided that this sauce would play well with little pasta shapes, the kind you can catch in a big spoonful of sauce. A shape with lots of ridges to grab the liquidy sauce, like radiatore, bowties, shells, or something ruffly. Next time.

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Warm 3-Ingredient Tomato Sauce with Pasta
Serves 4

3 lbs. small, juicy tomatoes, very ripe
6 Tablespoons salted butter
1 small white onion, chopped in half and peeled
1 lb. pasta (small shapes recommended)
Salt & fresh-cracked pepper
Optional: fresh-grated parmesan, fresh chopped parsley, and olive oil for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil

2. In a food processor, purée the tomatoes until they are liquified.

3. In a medium pot, combine tomatoes, butter (you can leave it one block), and onion. Bring to a very gentle simmer for 5-7 minutes. Season with salt as needed.

4. Meanwhile, cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions.

5. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, lift pasta out of the water (do not pour over sink) and into a bowl. Pour about half the sauce over the pasta and gently toss with tongs. Serve in four bowls, and top each bowl with ladles of the remaining sauce.

Optional: top each bowl with a sprinkle of parmesan, parsley, and/or olive oil.

Enjoy immediately!


  1. This is fantastic! Really. I wrestle with all of these same questions. Peel? Deseed? I like that you just tossed the lot back in. I have made Marcella’s tomato sauce a number of times using canned Marzano’s and it’s lovely, however, you took it to the next level and prepared with it with not only fresh tomatoes…but fresh cherry tomatoes! Impressive. It’s simple pasta sauces like these that drop me to my knees. 🙂 Gorgeous.

  2. Thank you! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who ponders what to do with tomato pulp! I can’t wait to make it again. I bought more tomatoes at the farmer’s market, but they’re inferior. I think that was the sweet spot ya know? That was THE moment in the summer to make the sauce, and now it has passed!! Although I am still on the lookout for cherry tomatoes. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  3. This is one of our favorites, too! Did you know that seeds are actually part of what gives tomatoes part of their gorgeous flavor?! I just learned that a few years ago, and it makes so much sense. I never take them out anymore, but I do peel them. Someone gave me a tip a while back that if you freeze whole tomatoes in a plastic bag, when you thaw them out, the skins peel right off. I will never blanch a flipping tomato again!

    1. I had heard that about the seeds. I was suspicious about it, but then once I was eating this sauce I couldn’t imagine it without the pulpy parts and seeds! That’s a good idea about freezing tomatoes before peeling them. Freezer space is at a premium though. Guess I need to eat some ice cream. o.O

  4. Looks great! Why do you suggest lifting the pasta out of the water rather than pouring in the sink?

    1. Oooh I should make a post on that! Okay these are my reasons: 1) I find that the starchy water that comes along with the pasta when you scoop or lift it out helps the sauce bind to the noodles better; 2) I like to have a little water leftover in case I need to use it to change the texture of the sauce, and it’s easier for me to do this than to find a way to reserve some pasta water in a separate dish when I’m trying to get the pasta out of the water ASAP; and 3) More than once I have poured half the noodles straight down the drain. I’m not saying it will destroy your meal if you strain the noodles in a colander over the sink, but I’m all about crisis prevention.

      1. Thanks, sister. I smell experimentation coming on… The recipe also doesn’t include seeding & peeling tomatoes. So, either way is fine or at least debateably fine? I’m also thinking of lighter ways than butter for the sauce. That creaking sound is my wheels turning! 🙂

      2. Yes there was much deliberation about the seeding and peeling thing. I decided against it…this time. The seeds and pulp looked too good once I had it all strained out, so I just put it back in.

  5. […] and you’re probably busy, and you shouldn’t be fooling around here looking at carrot cakes and 3-ingredient tomato sauces, I’ll get to the point […]

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