This recipe for pesto cream sauce is easy and quick to make, and the perfect accompaniment to your favorite pasta. It features all of the basil-y pesto goodness you know and love, but is extra creamy and buttery thanks to the addition of milk. You can totally use jarred pesto!
Despite the fact that I’ve made cooking for my family every day into an actual job that, like, pays the bills…there are still days that I struggle with the actual mechanics of cooking for my family. AKA – some days I don’t wanna.
Over time, I’ve become a big fan of “accessory recipes”. These are those reliable 30 minute meal ideas 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.
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 in the wrong hands, pasta dinner recipes with pesto just taste like eating a spoonful of herbs to him.
This is where “less is more” pays off. Just a few dollops of pesto whisked into my basic pasta cream sauce is (1) still super flavorful and (2) not *so* flavorful that it’s overwhelming and (3) not *so* green that the kids would think they were getting extra vegetables or something (gasp!).
How Do You Make Pesto Sauce Better?
Pesto sauce is already great. Perfect, even. So perhaps the question becomes…how do you make pesto more versatile?
Pesto isn’t just for saucing noodles. Toss pesto with chicken meatballs for a family friendly spin on a classic. Add a splash of cream and a little wine, and you’ve got an instant creamy pesto chicken pan sauce.
Here, a nutty, rich cream sauce tames the strongest notes in classic basil pesto and instantly makes it kid friendly. And if you want to go even milder, try this broccoli pesto!
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.
Psst! This recipe is also available as a step-by-step story post!
IMPORTANT NOTE: 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 life.
- Make a roux. Heat butter until it melts, then add flour. Whisk until smooth and cook until the roux turns golden brown (just 2-3 minutes).
- Add one cup of pasta water and one 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 pesto cream 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.
- 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 ½ cup.
What’s the Best Pasta for Creamy Sauces?
Thick, creamy sauces work well with any pasta, but wider flat noodles 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.
Make It Your Own
- 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. We like it best with broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini.
- 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.
Did you make this easy 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.