Fast. Filling. Flavorful. Creamy Pesto Sauce is a winner for both those who eat it and those who heat it. Follow this one-pot recipe as-is for a hearty vegetarian meal or customize according to family favorites (don’t worry – we’ve got some solid suggestions below). By using milk instead of cream, this pesto cream sauce doesn’t feel heavy, but has just enough cheese and butter to taste decadent.
Y’all, quarantine is weird. Time both flies and drags. I’m sure like many of you, I tried to go into this with a sense of hopefulness and was almost (dare I say it) excited to have more time to create! And then the reality of life with all the people, all in one place, ALL the time settles in and you realize you cannot skip off to test every brilliant idea at every single meal, every single day.
Therefore, I have become a big fan of “accessory recipes” and this is a life-enhancing path I encourage you to walk along.
There are certain meals you just throw together with whatever is handy; there are recipes you follow to the letter (and so help you if you veer from the path, thanks Julia Child).
Then there are those dishes that give you a solid base with lots of room to improvise – accessorize, if you will – depending on the occasion. Kinda like a little black dress. It goes with everything, and everything goes with it! It turns out my Creamy Pasta Sauce is just such a recipe, so I decided to dress it up.
How’d I do it?
I added pesto. That’s it. That’s the trick. That’s the “simple string of pearls.”
Whole new meal, whole new look. And you know what? It was gooood.
I am a huge fan of pesto; the men in my life, not so much. Even my grown-man husband wrinkles his nose at it because nine times out of 10, in the wrong hands, dishes with pesto just taste like eating a spoonful of pesto to him. But by taking the less is more approach, I found just the right amount to not overwhelm him with flavor or turn it green so the kids wouldn’t think they were getting extra vegetables or something (gasp!). Then I accessorized my own plate with more pesto to satisfy my Italian genes.
So let’s start simple and then we can talk accoutrements.
How to make creamy pesto sauce
Pesto cream sauce is a creamy, buttery, nutty wondersauce, elevated by earthy bite from basil and garlic. Made with milk, it’s light enough to serve up in summertime and hearty enough to fill up on. You can totally take the easy way and used jarred pesto. Use a wide, flat noodle like fettuccine, and don’t forget to save your pasta water – it’s a must for this (and most) pasta sauces.
The first thing you’ll need to do is cook your pasta noodles, reserve some of the pasta cooking water, then drain the noodles and set ’em aside. You can (and should) use the same pot for making the pesto creamy sauce because one pot wonders are a necessity.
To make the creamy sauce base:
- Heat butter over medium heat until it melts then foams. Add flour and whisk until the color is golden brown and the aroma is nutty.
- Add one cup of pasta cooking water and a cup of milk. Whisk until the mixture is smooth, then simmer until thick – about 5 minutes.
- Add finely grated parmesan cheese in small batches, whisking until smooth after each addition.
- The resulting sauce will be thick and creamy, and easily coat the back of a spoon or spatula.
- Add pesto to the creamy sauce and mix until smooth. I used store-bought – don’t hate. Delallo makes the best jarred pesto sauce, and it’s just one less thing I have to make (see my notes below for finding the best jarred pesto sauces!).
- Add the pasta to the creamy pesto sauce and toss until evenly coated. If the sauce is too thick at this stage, add more pasta cooking water to thin it out.
- Garnish with fresh basil and/or more pesto to taste.
What’s the best pasta for creamy pesto sauce?
Thick, creamy sauces work well with any pasta, but wider flat noodles (like the fettucine we served) will allow you to “mop up” all that goodness. We like fettuccine or pappardelle.
What’s the best pesto to use?
When fresh pesto isn’t possible, homemade is totally fine. DeLallo is our favorite – it’s the most traditional jarred pesto I’ve ever found in stores.
When buying jarred pesto sauce, be mindful of the ingredients – all pestos are NOT created equally. Look for real food ingredients on the label, including good quality oils, pine nuts, basil, and real cheese.
Be mindful of expiration dates. Because it contains dairy, pestos may not keep in the fridge nearly as long as think. It may be tempting to buy larger jars, but you risk losing more if you don’t use it up quickly. A little goes a long way (that’s why it usually comes in adorable tiny jars).
Why does everyone keep telling me to save pasta water?
If you’re not on the pasta cooking water bandwagon, I’ll gladly squeeze over and make room for you. There is a reason every single food writer on earth calls it liquid gold.
What makes the water murky is just sweet, sweet (and if you’ve done it right, salty) leftover starch. And it is that same starchy water that is going to rock the emulsification of those delicious dairy fats you’re about to cook down in that same pot to make a silky, smooth sauce.
So when your pasta is cooked al dente, hold a beat before draining and grab a ladle first. Dip the ladle into the pasta water and scoop out a few ladlefuls, then transfer to a mason jar or glass measuring cup. Use what you need for the recipe, then save the rest in the fridge for up to 3 days to use for reheating leftovers.
Tips for making this recipe perfectly
- Always cook pasta in heavily salted water (it should taste like the sea!) – at least 2 tablespoons of kosher salt per pound of pasta. This infuses the pasta with flavor from the inside out while it boils.
- A little cheese goes a long way, and quality matters – use a fresh block of high quality parmesan cheese.
- Adjust the amount of pesto to your preference, up to 1/2 cup.
Tips for accessorizing creamy pesto sauce
- Pesto: go the homemade route and work a few different flavors into this recipe. I’ve had some luck using infused olive oils in basil pesto, but if you’re really looking for variations, it’s all about finding the right balance of greens and nuts. Pistachios and walnuts are great substitutes for pine nuts (in cost, taste, and availability.) And we’ve had some lovely successes with both parsley and even carrot tops!
- Pasta: we highly recommend long, wide pasta for this dish so crank it up a notch with pappardelle. If you prefer the taste of homemade pasta, the classic flavors in this sauce are perfect for enhancing, not masking.
- Cheese: if bolder flavors are your thing, consider Pecorino Romano, an aged, hard sheep’s milk alternative to Parmesan. Pecorino has a pleasant bite and can be substituted one-for-one for parmesan.
- Veggies: if your goal is to color within vegetarian lines, then you can pair these flavors with just about any vegetable. Just be sure whatever your preferred method of preparation is (blanching, steaming, roasting), you don’t over do it. You want to balance the soft texture of the sauce and pasta.
- Protein: you can’t go wrong with grilled chicken or seared salmon, but if you’re taking this pesto cream sauce “out for a night on the town,” then you’ve got to go all the way – pan-seared scallops are heavenly with this dish.
More pasta recipes you’ll love
- Broccoli Pesto over Whole Wheat Shells
- Weeknight Tomato Cream Sauce
- Ricotta Pasta with Peas and Leeks
- Late Summer Zucchini and Corn Pasta
- Caprese Pasta with Italian Sausage
Did you make this pesto cream sauce? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below
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- 1 lb fettuccine noodles
- 2 tbsp kosher salt
- fresh basil, to taste
- cracked black pepper, to taste
Creamy Pesto Sauce
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp all purpose flour
- 1 c whole milk
- 2 oz finely shredded parmesan cheese
- ¼ - ½ c pesto sauce
- Heat a large pot of water until boiling, then season with the salt. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve 2 cups pasta water, then drain.
- Place the pot back over a medium flame. Add 2 tbsp butter and heat until it melts then foams. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and whisk until the flour turns lightly golden brown, 1-2 minutes.
- Pour in one cup pasta cooking water and one cup milk. Whisk and simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the parmesan cheese gradually, a few tablespoons at a time, whisking until smooth; repeat until all of the cheese has been added and the sauce is thick.
- Stir the pesto into the creamy pasta sauce; start with ¼ cup, adding more to preference.
- Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss; add more pasta water if the sauce is too thick. Garnish with fresh basil and cracked black pepper and serve immediately.
- Use good quality jarred pesto sauce, made with real food ingredients.
- Storage: store leftovers in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Reheat, adding a bit of leftover pasta water to help loosen the sauce (it will firm up in the fridge).
- Store leftover pasta water in an airtight container (like a mason jar) in the fridge.
- Freezer instructions: double the sauce, and store half in an airtight container in the fridge. I like to put sauces into gallon zip lock bags, then freeze flat for easy storage.