A simple light cream sauce for pasta, this Butter & Cream Sauce uses table or light cream and can be made in under 10 minutes! This is the best cream sauce recipe for tortellini or classic fettuccine and makes a great quick weeknight meal for the whole family!
Creamy pasta sauces have always been a menu-draw for me. Growing up in Southern California, Marie Callender's fettuccine Alfredo was my standard order and I couldn't be swayed.
That is until I learned from an Italian chef how to make the best butter and cream sauce for pasta ever. That was 30 years ago and I've been using his method ever since.
And now, I'm going to pay it forward and share his secrets so you can make it too.
I also make a traditional Alfredo sauce without cream that you have to try. Make it a pasta party!
p.s. Either of these cream sauces is ah-may-zing with homemade fettuccine noodles!
What cream is best for cream sauce?
The aforementioned Italian chef owned a 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.
Most cream sauces for pasta call for heavy cream. Some call for half and half. This easy cream sauce recipe uses light cream.
What is light cream?
Light cream (sometimes also labeled "table cream") is in the dairy section of your grocer and it usually is quietly sitting near the heavy cream .
The fat content is 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.
What you'll need
Any pasta recipe that calls for minimal ingredients is a winner in my book - like this amazing Tomato and Butter Sauce from Marcella Hazan. Btw, another super quick and easy pasta sauce recipe is this garlic butter pasta sauce.
This butter and cream sauce recipe has high quality, simple ingredients:
Plus... one ingredient that makes all the difference.
How to make light cream sauce for pasta
- 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 leave a trail in the pan.
- 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.
To make homemade cream sauce and toss the pasta in the sauce, you need the right pan.
Choose a large skillet at least 10" in diameter. 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 the pasta without making a huge mess.
Pasta choices for butter and cream sauce
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 you can twirl, try my Lemon Bucatini.
- large tubes like rigatoni
What to make with light cream sauce
- Make a tortellini alfredo using a meat tortellini to offset the cheese.
- Use as a layer in your favorite cheese 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.
Make ahead and storage
Make ahead. This easy cream sauce recipe is best made right before serving.
Reheat. 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.
Made this recipe?
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Fettuccine with Butter and Cream Sauce
- 1 lb fettuccine 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.
About Lori Murphy
Lori has over 30 years in the food industry as a marketing strategist, culinary instructor and chef for three kids with discerning palates. As the chief content creator at Josie + Nina, Lori is dedicated to helping home cooks create food memories through fresh ingredients and Italian flavors.