A No-Cook, 2-Ingredient Spin on the Best Tomato Sauce Ever

July  3, 2018

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, wow factor. Psst: We don't count salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. This time, we're making a summery (a.k.a. no-cook) take on a certain legendary tomato sauce.

Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce—arguably the most famous tomato sauce in the world—has only three ingredients: canned tomatoes, unsalted butter, and yellow onion, plus salt to taste. Hazan calls it “the simplest of all sauces to make” and, as if that weren’t enough, “none has a purer, more irresistibly sweet tomato taste.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about this.

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When we set out to create a Big Little Recipes no-cook tomato sauce, the vision was clear: chopped, fresh tomatoes, a glug of olive oil, maybe some garlic. Sort of like a bruschetta-topper, just with pasta. My coworkers and I—and probably you—have made many, many versions of this.

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Top Comment:
“Pasta, butter and squished tomatoes was (and still is) a favorite. Another ‘no cook’ is butter, lemon juice and parmesan with a sprinkle of Italian blended herbs.”
— BerryBaby

And yet: As I tested and developed and pondered and mulled, something didn’t feel right. Depending on the bite—did your fork snag that tomato chunk or did it slip away?—there was little difference between this and aglio e olio. Not the goal.

How do I make you a sauce? Photo by Bobbi Lin

Where, I wondered, is the line between pasta with tomato sauce and pasta sauced with tomatoes? Where is the pure, irresistibly sweet tomato taste?

So I went back to the drawing board. I chopped tomatoes into oblivion, mixed with bits of butter, and added pasta, confident something wonderful would happen. It didn’t. The “sauce” was watery and flavorless, sliding off the spaghetti. As I dumped it in the trash, at the bottom of the bowl, a pool of juicy seeds sloshed back and forth. Which is when I realized:

I have to get rid of the juicy seeds.

A big little squeeze should do. Photo by Bobbi Lin

More tomato skin, less tomato pulp. This is very easy to do by hand and can be done with any variety. The tinier the tomato, though, the higher the skin to pulp ratio. I took a bunch of cherry tomatoes, halved and pinched them, squeezing out the soupy centers. Then I blitzed these shells in a food processor and added a lot of butter and buzzed and buzzed and buzzed and, suddenly, there it was: our no-cook tomato sauce.

It looks nothing like I anticipated—fluffy and rosy, like something to be spread on toast. (This, too, is very good by the way.) Dollop it on steamy-hot pasta and watch it melt, clinging to each noodle for dear life, excitedly hooting and hollering as grated cheese and torn basil pour down, like rain or confetti or fireworks.

How do you avoid the stove or oven when it comes to pasta? Let us know in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Ken Kiyama
  • BerryBaby
  • Susan Douglass-Jones
    Susan Douglass-Jones
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.


Conscience C. September 1, 2018
Hello, has anyone tried this with vegan butter (earth balance or Miyoko's, specifically)? Thanks! If I try it before I hear a reply, I'll let you know how it works for me.
Christina M. August 16, 2019
Hi! I just found this old article and wanted to know if you ever tried this with Earth Balance or Miyoko's?
Maria August 18, 2019
I haven't tried it, but your message reminded me I should - especially this time of year, with such good tomatoes available. I can't imagine it wouldn't work. I'll comment if I try it, and please do the same. :-)
john July 17, 2018
what do you think about using canned tomatoes ??
Author Comment
Emma L. July 17, 2018
Hi John! Someone was wondering the same thing on the recipe page. Here's my take: I wouldn't recommend that substitution here. While you may be able to make a similar compote butter with canned whole tomatoes and butter, because the water content is so different, the tomato to butter ratio could be very different as well.
Ken K. July 17, 2018
Can you freeze this, or is there any other way to preserve this?
Author Comment
Emma L. July 17, 2018
Hi Ken! This was actually just asked on our hotline, please see my reply there:
Pat June 9, 2019
Hi Emma, the link didn’t work for me. This looks great. Can you freeze it? Thanks
BerryBaby July 8, 2018
I’ve always loved canned tomatoes ever since I was a kid. Pasta, butter and squished tomatoes was (and still is) a favorite.
Another ‘no cook’ is butter, lemon juice and parmesan with a sprinkle of Italian blended herbs.
Susan D. July 5, 2018
This sounds lovely, but I was a bit put off by the add that popped up in the middle while scrolling through your story, of the worst arthritic foods with a picture of worms!?! 🤢
Lindsay-Jean H. July 10, 2018
Hi Susan, I'm so sorry for that experience, that obviously shouldn't have happened. I'm hopeful it was a weird, one-time thing, but if it happens again, please keep us posted.
Lorretta July 4, 2018
Pasta. No stove. No problem. Instantpot. One pound pasta. One tablespoon each of salt and butter. 4-6 cups of water (enough to cover pasta type by about half an inch). Cover. Close vent. Set: Manual. High Pressure. 3 minutes. When done, cover vent with towel. Instant release. Open carefully. Reserve one cup liquid to add to sauce. Drain. Serve immediately. Yum.
cookinalong July 12, 2018
I love my IP and it gets quite a workout in the summer, but I admit I'd forgotten about cooking pasts in it. Thanks for the reminder!
Natalia W. July 3, 2018
is it possible to be even lazier? how about blitzing them first and draining the juice instead of all that squeezing?
Katie July 4, 2018
The seeds would still be in there; they would be partially blitzed and therefore gritty and they add bitterness too. Squeezing first is probably best.
Author Comment
Emma L. July 5, 2018
I haven't tried that, Natalia. But for what it's worth, the halving/squeezing goes by pretty quickly :)