Tomato Basil Garlic Pasta with a Tomato-Butter sauce, via my iPhone; and frankly, I’m not happy with the quality, but you will get the idea of the tomato water use; next time back to the HD camera (and now, back to the gym).

When I was courting Donna in southern Florida more than 20 years ago, I made a pasta dish of nothing more than tomato, basil, garlic and butter that we both loved for its simplicity and big garlicky flavor.  It’s still a weekday staple for us, especially at the end of summer when basil and fat tomatoes are plentiful.  (Part of the original plan was to load Donna with so much garlic that she would ooze it from her pores the following day to keep other suitors away—so there is a lot of garlic.  If you are already a couple, you can saute the garlic a little more aggressively to tone it down.)

I used to toss all the ingredients together but never really liked the way the tomato water would pool at the bottom of the bowl.  So, how to get all that tomatoey goodness to adhere to the pasta?  Butter!  First you separate the water from the tomatoes by salting it 20 or 30 minutes ahead of time, to draw the water out.  Then, you mount butter into that tomato water to create a lovely sauce that coats the pasta. All that’s left is to garnish it with the drained tomatoes and basil.

Last Thursday, just before getting dinner on the table for the family, I handed Donna my iPhone and asked her to film me while I finished the dish—crude, unpolished, and off-the-cuff, but it does show how the sauce comes together.  The tomato-water-butter-sauce, is a great general technique.  This sauce would be delicious on poached Romaine, any kind of pasta, or even diced potato or crispy homemade croutons.  The dish is soft, so it’s always a good idea to serve the below pasta with something crunchy, such as a toasted baguette.

The sauce that coats the pasta has the perfect balance of sweetness, acidity and richness.  I could well owe my marriage to this highly recommended dish.

Spaghetti with Tomato, Basil and Garlic

4 ripe tomatoes, large dice

1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons of coarse kosher salt

12 ounces spaghetti or any pasta you like

10 cloves garlic

a good handful of basil (you’ll want about a cup after you’ve cut it to ribbons)

olive oil as needed

3 ounces butter, cut into three chunks

1. Season the tomatoes with the salt and toss them well.

2. Put a big pot of water on to boil.

3. Smash the garlic with the flat side of a knife, give it all a few rough chops with the knife and set them a side in a small bowl.

4. Cut the basil into ribbons or roughly chop it.  Take a pinch of this basil and chop it finely and add it to the tomatoes to season the water.

5. Cook your pasta, drain it, put it back in the pot, oil the pasta to keep it from sticking to itself. (If your water isn’t boiling yet, get your garlic cooking, step 6.)

6. Heat a teaspoon or two of olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat, add the garlic and cook it till it is just beginning to brown around the edges and soften, a couple minutes.  Give it a pinch of salt if you wish.

7. Pour the tomatoes into a strainer or colander over the garlic.  Set the strainer with the tomatoes into the bowl so they don’t drip on the counter, and swirl the sauce to bring it to a simmer.  Add the butter while continuing to swirl or stir the sauce.  Keep the sauce moving until all the butter is melted.  Add the pasta, toss and serve to coat the pasta evenly.  Divide the pasta among four bowls, top with the tomatoes and basil.


64 Wonderful responses to “Guerrilla cooking demo—a weekday meal:
Tomato Basil Pasta Using Tomato Water”

  • Toast

    OK, I’m making this tomorrow night. We’re bursting with tomatoes around here, and this looks phenomenal. Thanks, Ruhlman!

      • Toast

        Wow. This came out beautifully. The fresh tomatoes and basil on top are great, but every third mouthful I took just the pasta so I could get that subtle butter/tomato infusion flavor. My wife gives it the thumbs up too. All that, and it’s the simplest/fastest pasta dish I’ve cooked in months. Thanks again!

    • CW

      I don’t think this recipe calls for any oil in the pasta water. It states that once drained, oil the pasta so it doesn’t stick to itself.

      • Jason Sandeman

        Agreed. You don’t put oil in the boiling water; it is best to oil the pasta once it comes out of the pot. That way you can gently toss the oil through the pasta, which will prevent it from sticking.

        Michael, thank you for taking something so sublime and turning it into something really cool!

      • Ely

        While I agree that the intention was after, adding a little oil to the water while boiling prevents your pot from getting too bubbly and foamy and spilling over. The oil coats the water which keeps the starchy foam down (I think this tip comes from Alton)

  • Steve Marks

    Michael – I love this technique and can’t wait to try it. One typo, I think. The recipe says 6 ounces butter, but I believe it is 3 ounces (6 TB).

  • Tags

    Strangely enough, I just got around to reading “Natural Born Keller” your entry in “Best Food Writing 2000” this morning, and here I see that you’re playing with tomato water.

    So, I’ll ask the question I had this morning, did Chef ever have another go at serving the shaved tomato-ice gazpacho snow cone, or is it still ahead of its time?

      • Tags

        Oh well, maybe they’ll try a tomato/green pepper spumoni.

        I know, it sounds nuts :-‘)

  • Andreas

    Tried the tomato water on poached lettuce last week and it was one of the best things I’ve eaten in ages. Thanks for sharing this, Michael.

    • ruhlman

      very cool, thanks. i’ve only done the lettuce with butter but I knew this would be perfect, thanks for confirming!

  • Mike

    not sure from the picture, but do you remove the skin from the tomatoes or just dice them with the skin on? In your book “Making of a Chef” you talked about tomato concasse, so I’m wondering if that’s assumed to be done with the tomatoes.

  • Mark Tigges

    Tried this tonight … it was staggeringly good. Normally when my wife is working late it’s steak night. This was a worthy replacement. Thanks!

  • Cindi

    Can the sauce really stick to the pasta if it’s oiled? I’m thinking a better bet would be to under cook the pasta by about a minute, drop it into the tomato-butter sauce for the pasta to soak up some of the tomatoey-goodness. No?

    • ruhlman

      if the pasta doesn’t sit too long, yes, better. good idea if you’re organized.

  • luis

    Michael I am becoming a real tomato lover so this is wonderful stuff for me. I can make this no problem. But I would also add the shrimp chef Pardus showed me how to cook. Gosh…this could turn me into a regular polygamist…perish tha thought!

  • rose

    peasant simple, colorful, gorgeous textures AND HEALTHY…thank you for reminding us…beautiful on the white dish! AND QUICK!!!

  • Barbara | VinoLuciStyle

    I’ve been making a tomato sauce with butter and onion for the past couple of years that my family loves so much it’s almost expected that I not mess with success. But it’s time. I miss basil and garlic so this is on the menu and it’s easy…I’ll blame you and say you made me do it. Whew!

  • Maven

    Okay, this home cook wants to thank you. I often make pasta with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil, but have never gone that extra step to make a sauce out of the tomato water. I can already tell this will now be a staple for my family. Awesome!

  • luanda

    Oh man, now I’ve got to go out and BUY some tomatoes. My home grown are all gone. Thank goodness I’ve got some of my own basil.

  • kcg

    Chef, I love these iPhone vid. HD isn’t necessary IMO. There is a contrast between the image and the food that points out something important, I think. This is simple cooking producing wonderful food. The poor video allows you to better imagine the smell it through the image. Serious! Best, kcg

  • Susan

    I would think you could use heavy cream as well. It’s really nothing more than unchurned butter..though it still has the butter milk. I get the same effect when I drain the pasta then dump the garlic and cream in the pan to sizzle the garlic before adding the pasta back and the tomatoes in to combine. Lovely sauce.

  • Victoria

    This is a whole new concept for me. I “did” two bushels of tomatoes last week and ended up with 60 Ziplock bags each filled with one cup of not-quite-finished tomato sauce in the freezer. I wish I had three of those beautiful ripe tomatoes to make this for dinner tonight.

    There will still be beautiful tomatoes at The Berry Patch, my local farmstand in Stephentown, NY, on Saturday, so I will make this for Sunday lunch when friends are coming over. Thank goodness for the long Columbus Day weekend.

    Alas, I think my arugula bed is out of commission for the season, but I’ll find something good to serve with it.

  • bojj

    Will be making this tonight! I am going to cook up some diced pancetta till it’s nice and crispy and add this as a finishing touch…thanks for the great recipe!!

  • LIz

    I do something similar – melt butter and toss with garlic, and keep on a low flame to infuse while water boils. Then, while pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes and let them cook slowly on low-med flame ( I like a cooked sauce). When pasta is ready, add, with a tiny bit of pasta water and bring up flame – cook until sauce consistency is thickened is enough to coat the pasta, then add fresh herbs and Parmesan, if using. This is even good with Roma tomatoes in the middle of winter when I’d otherwise use canned.

  • Erik

    Freaking fabulous, Ruhlman. Try your tomato water as a chaser for a nice tequila, too. Very deece.

  • Doug


    Thanks for the demo. As a devoted fan of Italian cooking, these are flavors I use all the time. The tomato water technique, however, isn’t one I’ve overtly tried before for some reason, even though I’ve used tomato water in french style cooking. Mental block connecting the two, I guess. I will definitely do this in some form in the next week.

    BTW: Love the “weekday=skin on” comment above.

  • Allen

    Stanley Kubrick only made 10 movies in 70 years because he worried about the perfection, I would much rather have quantity like Woody Allen making a movie every 6 months. I watched it on my cell phone and the recipe came through just fine, inspired to make it for my wife this weekend and much better than just reading a recipe. We have lots of garlic and basil, will be buying some nice tomatoes, thanks it looks great!

  • BDanahy14

    Had some nice tomatoes so decided to give it a go last night.

    I added shallots and some really nice hot Italian sausage into the mix. Took the sausage out of the casing, browned it and got the juices… then took it out, added the garlic and shallots to the pan… from there pretty much stayed true to the video (although added a pinch of cayenne for some heat). Added the sausage back in right before the pasta was tossed…

    Really fantastic. Thanks again.

  • Abigail @ Sugar Apple

    This is a great one to get kids in the kitchen too. They learn knife skills and a few basics and produce something that they can really be proud of. I taught my daughter the tomato water trick when she was about 8 and she still makes it all the time, but she in an uncooked version with only olive oil and much less garlic. She calls it pasta fresca and it’s also great at room temp so she likes to take it on picnics.

  • Renaccio

    It was wonderful! I made it for my Florentine boyfriend and he inhaled it.

  • Craig

    Michael, thanks for opening my eyes to a new technique. When I vacation in PEI I often drain tomatoes through cheesecloth overnight in the fridge and mix the tomato water with a wee bit of vodka for oyster shooters. Now I know what to do if there’s any leftover. Brilliant!!

  • Darren

    So for a weekend version do you think there might be room for some egg yolks added to the sauce? Thick, coating, filling, can’t go wrong with egg yolks. Maybe a touch of liaison. Because once you have egg yolks why not throw in some cream. Wait, wait, wait . . . foodgasm over.

  • Richard

    Great idea. My go-to tomato sauce lately has been Scott Conant of Scarpetta’s version of pasta with red sauce, where he uses an olive oil infused with loads of garlic and basil to flavor the tomato sauce. There’s so few ingredients, that the quality of said ingredients and the technique in which it all goes together is super important. Getting the olive oil emulsified into the tomato sauce is the really important part. Toss it with some fresh pasta from Ratio, and it’s a perfect summer dinner.

  • luanda

    Oh yeah, baby!! This is wonderful. Too bad this recipe came so late in the season. This will be repeated next tomato season. Many, many, many times.

  • Marcus

    Made this tonight with a couple modifications:

    1) I used spaghetti squash instead of pasta to make it a sort of primal meal.

    2) I threw the tomatoes in with the squash at the end to cook them just a tad. Partly so they would be a bit soft for my 1 year-old.

    That sauce was amazing. Thanks.

  • Michael

    The sauce came out a bit too thin for me. I salted the tomatoes for an hour and got only 1/4 c. liquid, which looked too little. In your video, the tomatoes looked almost submerged. I added more salt to the tomatoes and let that sit for a while and then got 1/2 c. liquid. Still, it didn’t look like there was enough liquid, so I heated the tomatoes in a pan and managed to render another 1/4 c. liquid.

    It turned out that 3/4 c. tomato water was too much for 6 Tb butter to thicken. It was like soup with spaghetti.

    How much tomato water should I get out of the salting process?

    • ruhlman

      you should probably get 1/4 cup per tomato, but it depends on the tomato. were they nice round summer tomatoes. If they were romas they may not have given enough liquid.

      i’d have to be there to figure out what the issue is—you’re the first to note any.

  • Marie

    Made this last night and we all loved it. The recipe is going back to NYC with my daughter to add to her arsenal of fast, cheap, satisfying meals after a long day of auditions…A fond farewell to the last of our tomatoes and basil…

  • Becky

    Made this last night. It was unbelievable. And SO SO simple. My meat-and-potatoes boyfriend who thinks pasta is just a vehicle for cheese even loved this. I can’t wait for my lunch leftovers. Thanks, ruhlman!

  • Mike O

    Looks Great – Just watched the video and saw you ave the same stove and hood as I do, and you seem to be the same height as me. Do you hit your head on the hood alot – it happens to me frequently when I go to look at a pot on the back burner

  • Jason Seibert

    I helped a farmer with her abundance of tomatoes last month. I bought 2000 pounds of Heirlooms. Made tomato water, Made tomato sauce and smoked some and made paste. The water I thickend with butter and served it with smoked shrinp and corn tortolini. A little arugula on top and a little cyanne oil. Nice!


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