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The Garlickiest, Butteriest, Simplest Pasta Sauce


A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we’re guessing you have those covered. This week, we’re going from garlicky to garlickiest.

When my kitchen is out of milk and eggs and greens and, most concerningly, coffee, I can still count on these staples, sturdy as they come: pasta, garlic, and butter. This weeknight dinner needs nothing more.

The littlest of Big Little Recipes—the lowest of the low-maintenance, the chillest of the chill—share their ingredients via their titles. Think: Chicken Noodle Soup with just chicken and noodles. Chocolate–Peanut Butter Mousse with just chocolate and peanut butter. Broccoli-Cheddar Sauce with just broccoli and cheddar. Cream of Mushroom Soup with just cream and mushrooms.

You know where this is going, right? The garlickiest, butteriest, best garlic butter sauce for pasta comes together with just garlic and butter.

But the amount of garlic is key. For half a pound of pasta (aka two servings in our pasta-adoring household), we’re using a whole head of garlic (aka a dozen cloves, give or take). I know. I know! Stay with me.

Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

When raw, a couple of cloves is more than enough to carry a crowd’s worth of Caesar dressing. But when cooked, garlic undergoes a metamorphosis—from stingy-sharp to nutty-sweet—not unlike a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or Hilary Duff’s iconic 2003 album.

“When onions and their relatives are heated, the various sulfur compounds react with each other and with other substances to produce a range of characteristic flavor molecules,” Harold McGee writes in On Food & Cooking. “Cooking at high temperatures in fat produces more volatiles and a stronger flavor than do other techniques.”

Think about how you only need a sliver of onion on a sandwich, yet could eat a basketful of fried onion rings with ranch. When minced into bits and butter-sizzled until golden, garlic goes from a less-is-more ingredient to a more-is-more showstopper.

This sauce gets along with any pasta shape, from something short and chunky to long and twirly, whatever you have around. And while the world is your oyster with the accessories—chopped parsley, grated Parm, red pepper flakes, you name it—I hope you’ll take at least one bite without any of the distractions. Simply, confidently, blissfully unadorned.

Emma is the food editor 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 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 at @emmalaperruque.

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