Michael Ruhlman's Pasta with Tomato Water, Basil, and Garlic

August 19, 2014
18 Ratings
Photo by Linda Pugliese
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 2 to 4
Author Notes

Tomatoes do double duty in the summer's best pasta -- and it all comes together in the time it takes to set the table. Michael Ruhlman first read the bones of this recipe in a long-since-forgotten paperback cookbook in 1984. "I had never heard of fresh basil," he told me. "So I used dry and it was still pretty good." It's been a weeknight staple in his family ever since, and over the past thirty years, he's refined the technique -- now mounting the tomato water with butter to make a brightly flavored sauce that clings to the noodles. Adapted slightly from ruhlman.comGenius Recipes

What You'll Need
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, large dice
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 12 ounces spaghetti or any pasta you like
  • 10 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup basil, cut into ribbons
  • 3 ounces butter, cut into three chunks
  • Olive oil, as needed
  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, 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, and oil the pasta to keep it from sticking to itself. (Meanwhile, even if your water isn’t boiling yet, you should still get your garlic cooking in the next step).
  6. Heat a teaspoon or two of olive oil in a large sauté 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 so that the tomato water will stream into the pan below. 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 and toss to coat the pasta evenly. Divide the pasta among four bowls and top with the tomatoes and basil.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • erinrae
  • Sauertea
  • Blork
  • ElaNY
  • Tina Heaney
    Tina Heaney
Genius Recipes

Recipe by: Genius Recipes

45 Reviews

Emma August 27, 2023
Really good with ripe juicy tomatoes but even works with halved cherry tomatoes. I use less garlic and basil, 16 oz. Spaghetti. Butter!

It is confusing as written but like Eileen below just: saute garlic, add tomato juices and simmer. Melt butter into juices. Add tomatoes just to warm them up. I have a big bowl so I pour all over the spaghetti.
erinrae September 1, 2020
So, so good! I followed this other than decreasing the amount of basil (I feel like a cup would be overpowering). It didn't need anything added. Next time I might try to use less butter to see whether it can be lightened up a bit.
lynnk October 11, 2018
This is one of the very best ways to use summer tomatoes.
Delicious and easy!
Sauertea September 13, 2018
Made this again tonight! So good!
Eileen August 20, 2018
Easier version:
Boil water, cook pasta. While this is happening, saute garlic in oil, add diced tomatoes and saute just long enough to soften, stir in butter and basil ribbons, cook a bit, and dump the drained pasta into the pan with the tomatoes.
Blork August 19, 2018
Nice to see this making the rounds again. For those who are new to it, here's a few important things I've learned from making this many times over the past few years.

1) Tomatoes are key. Use very ripe and juicy tomatoes. The water that the tomatoes give off is key to this. So don't use Romas; use beefsteak or similar tomatoes that have a lot of juice.

2) If you have time, cut up the tomatoes a few hours before you make the dish. This allows more time for the water to come out.

3) Don't skimp on the butter. I've adapted this for two people and I use two big beefsteak tomatoes and about a third of a stick of butter. The magic of this recipe is all about the tomato water and the butter.

4) This is just a tip: I generally don't add all of the chopped tomatoes back into the dish because I don't want it overwhelmed by tomatoes. I reserve about half and use them the next day to make bruschetta or to top nachos, etc.
ElaNY August 5, 2018
I thought this recipe was simple and delicious. It’s going into my weeknight rotation during tomato season.
kelly March 30, 2018
This was really delicious. It is a simple sauce that tastes amazing and fresh. I will definitely make it again, and again, and again...
Isa October 6, 2017
This was delicious and a perfect use for our fantastic cherry tomatoes from the farmers market! So good! I added a jar of lightly marinated artichoke hearts because I had them (and was feeding some hungry kids!) served it with a salad and had NO leftovers (sad!). Thank you for a new tomato trick!
Tina H. August 26, 2017
I wish I'd known about this years ago!! It's perfect and rich!
Courtney C. August 15, 2016
This was amazing. Make sure your ingredients are top notch and you will want to make this all summer.
Audrius S. July 27, 2017
Agree, just made and finished eating it, very delicious!
TheOriginalWalrus July 28, 2016
This is definitely genius, but it is most certainly a rip off my mom's version :). In my family, we don't cook the garlic at all, everything is raw. Also, the oil is added to the tomatoes about 30 mins or more before cooking pasta, and then all the liquid is added to the strained pasta and cooked. I like using mint and thyme it's basil, my mom always adds pepperoncino, and my brother adds olives. Summer at its best.
HoustonHeat January 29, 2016
Have made this several times, and it always hits the spot. The flavor is so bright and fresh. It's the middle of winter, and I'm dying to make it again!
betty888 October 27, 2015
This is delicious! I didn't have basil on hand, so replaced with a few fresh sage leaves (cut into ribbons). A lot of flavor for minimal effort.
Eileen V. September 15, 2015
When do add the basil after you the pinch of it on the tomatoes?
suzerchef August 20, 2015
How many #s for tomatoes?
Djuana June 28, 2015
I made this recipe several times last summer and it was a huge hit. Started on my summer run today with it and still a family favorite.
wietje May 17, 2015
Simply delicious.
youngna P. September 15, 2014
Added some bacon + sauteed onions in with with the tomato water. Terrific!
Gena M. August 20, 2018
Darlene September 5, 2014
My family loved this recipe and I loved the technique of salting the tomatoes and adding the tomato water to the pan. We will be making this frequently, especially when we have nice fresh Jersey tomatoes. I'm glad I resisted the temptation to add cheese, wanting to experience the simplicity of the recipe, but I couldn't stop myself from adding toasted pignoli. Simple and delicious!