An easy authentic Alfredo sauce, this Butter & Cream Sauce uses light cream and can be made in under 10 minutes. The best cream sauce recipe for tortellini or classic fettuccine.
Growing up in Southern California - I believe you it's called SoCal now, right? - we used to go to Marie Callender's for dinner. Believe it or not, that is where this Italian girl was exposed to Fettuccine Alfredo and theirs was topped with two large meat tortelloni (those are extra big tortellini). While it might seem weird to you, butter and cream sauce or Alfredo sauce wasn't a staple for us Southern Italians. If anything, it's more of a northern Italian dish.
Let's face it—you just care that it's good, right? Let's get to making it!
Type of cream for Alfredo
Many recipes will tell you to use heavy cream. My cream sauce recipe was taught to me and inspired by an Italian chef at local "osteria" that my husband and I literally ate at once a week as newlyweds. While the restaurant is sadly no longer there, I am so grateful to have learned the secret to an authentic butter and cream sauce. The secret?
Not half and half. Not whipping cream but light cream.
What is light cream?
Light cream is in the dairy section of your grocer and you probably haven't noticed it. It's somewhere around 18% —my favorite, Dean's, labels it "light cream"—typically it's no more than 30% cream so the fat content is less than heavy cream which is over 35%. If you love the topic, The Kitchn clears up all the differences between all the different kinds of creams you can buy and their uses. It's the kind of stuff I geek out on. Maybe we have that in common?
Regardless —light cream is the key to a great cream sauce for pasta.
Along with a couple of other key ingredients.
The secret ingredient
Any pasta recipe that calls for minimal ingredients is a winner in my book - like this amazing Tomato and Butter Sauce from Marcella Hazan. The Italian queen herself also has a similar butter sauce recipe in one of my top five fav cookbooks.
This butter and cream sauce recipe has ingredients you expect:
- light cream
And one that makes all the difference.
A little pasta water right at the end gives this sauce a creamy, silken texture that clings to every part of the pasta.
How to make light cream sauce
First, grab yourself a large skillet at least 10" in diameter. You need room to toss the pasta in there eventually. One of my favorites is this All Clad All-in-One pan. You really just need anything with a large enough bottom to thicken your cream quickly and toss your pasta without making a huge mess.
SIDE NOTE -Messy stoves are not fun to clean. I ♥️ these E Cloths Range and Stove-top Cleaning Cloths. They work on most any finish and don't require anything but water.
Recipe Fine Points
- Heat your pan a tich and add your light cream along with only 2 tablespoons of butter. You don't need a lot of butter despite the name being Butter and Cream sauce. The cream already has enough in it.
- Simmer the cream until the sauce thickens for about four minutes. You want it to coat the back of a spoon.
- Once the sauce has thickened, turn off the heat and add your cheese, nutmeg and seasonings and stir lightly. Toss with the drained and cooked pasta and a little of the reserved pasta water.
You certainly can pair whatever pasta with whatever sauce you like but just as certain shaped wine glasses were made to highlight certain varietals of wine, certain pastas pair better with certain sauces. The best kinds of pasta for a butter and cream sauce are:
- small filled, firm pastas like tortellini
- wide noodles like fettuccine that can hold the sauce. If the noodle is too thin, the sauce will weigh it down and it won't glide along the fork or spoon when twirling. If you like more of a spaghetti noodle, try my Lemon Bucatini.
- large tubes like rigatoni
Alfredo sauce pairing ideas
- Make a tortellini alfredo using a meat tortellini to offset the cheese.
- Use as a layer in your favorite vegetable lasagna recipe.
- Classic Italian cannelloni recipes call for a light cream sauce or you also can use this bechamél which doesn't contain any cheese.
- Serve this homemade alfredo sauce recipe with a little crown of pesto or marinara sauce like my tangy Homemade Italian Red Sauce.
In this case, you'll need to use some sort of thickening agent like flour. Follow the steps in my Basic Béchamel Sauce adding the parmesan at the end. It won't be exactly the same but works in a pinch.
This easy cream sauce recipe is best made right before serving. The best way to reheat a pasta that has cream sauce already on it is either in a saucepan on the stove over low heat or in the microwave. Add a little splash of light cream or if you're out of it, you can use milk or regular cream. For the microwave, heat on 30 second intervals, stirring in between.
Pasta tossed with the sauce: Store it in a glass container in the fridge for up to two days.
Sauce only: Store in a glass container for up to three days. I don't recommend freezing the sauce as it's easy to make and you won't get the same fresh results.
The best non-dairy alternative for a cream or basic Alfredo sauce is cashew milk. It thickens beautifully and doesn't have an off-taste that you have to doctor up so much.
For a crowd: Make the sauce ahead of time and heat lightly with some extra cream and/or reserved pasta cooking water to make the sauce extra creamy.
For a few: Divide the recipe in half.
Fettuccine with Butter and Cream Sauce
- 1 lb pasta, I prefer fettuccine or cavatappi
- 1 cup light cream, sometimes labeled 18% cream
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, or a couple of shakes or grates if using fresh.
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, plus a little extra for serving.
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of water (at least 4 qts) to boil. Cook chosen pasta 1 minute less than the package directions suggest. You want it a little less than al dente.
- Right before the pasta is finished cooking, heat a large skillet over low heat and add cream and butter. Bring to a low simmer until it thickens about 3-4 minutes. It should coat the back of a spoon. Turn off the heat.
- Add the cheese and nutmeg along with the salt and pepper. Stir to incorporate.
- Reserve ½ cup of pasta water and set aside. Drain the cooked pasta.
- Using tongs, add the pasta to the sauce skillet and toss to coat with the sauce.
- Add the pasta water as needed a little at a time to keep the sauce loose. Taste for seasoning.
- Serve immediately and top with extra parmesan or fresh parsley.