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How to Make a Light, Creamy Pasta Sauce

Fine Cooking Issue 50

Pasta with cream sauce is a perfect example of how easy— and how liberating—it is to cook without a recipe. Although penne with tomato vodka sauce may seem like a very different dish from spaghetti with curried shrimp and peas, the underlying methods used to make them are exactly the same.

Once you learn a few very simple steps, you can improvise a light, creamy pasta dinner in minutes, without having to refer to stacks of cookbooks to find just the dish you want to make.

No matter what ingredients you use, you just need to know how to control the depth and balance of flavors and the consistency of the sauce. Our simple method will give you that control, whether you’re using one of our ideas, making an Italian classic, or cooking your own eclectic combination. Here’s how easy it is to make pasta with a cream sauce: get your ingredients ready, including boiling your pasta; sauté the main ingredients for the dish; add the flavoring and stock; add the cream; and then toss everything together.

Cream is not a dirty word

We had to get that out of the way right up front. Cream is not bad when it’s used judiciously; in fact it’s lovely and delicious. And you really don’t need as much as you might think.

At our neighborhood American- Italian restaurant, we’ve ordered spaghetti with a mushroom cream sauce and been left wondering if there’s any cream left in the kitchen. Truth is, that’s no way to make a pasta cream sauce. The point is not the cream, it’s the sautéed meat or vegetables and the pasta. In our method, almost half of the volume in the sauce comes from other liquids, like broth, fortified wines, or the juice from canned tomatoes. This gives the sauce tons of flavor without fat. The 1/2 to 2/3 cup cream serves as an enrichment to the sauce, not the whole sauce itself.

Get the pasta (and everything else) ready—this sauce moves fast

Always start a cream sauce by boiling the water for the pasta. Cream sauces are so fast that there’s no time to make the sauce and the pasta at the same time; the-sauce will be done long before the water even comes to a boil. If that happens, the sauce gets cold and has to be reheated—and since it’s already reduced, it can thicken too much or the emulsion in the cream can break, leaving pools of butterfat on your sauce.

Be sure the pasta’s not too tough, not too mushy. Once, we were learning how to make tagliatelle from an Italian cook in her kitchen. When the noodles were almost done, we thought we’d impress our hostess by being duly authentic. We scooped a strand out of the water and tossed it against the kitchen wall.

“Are you insane?” she yelled. “I just had that painted.” Save your walls. Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian, so use your teeth. Take a noodle or a tube from the water, cool it slightly, and then bite it. It should have some resistance, some chew, a firm bite, but you shouldn’t see a white ring or dot in the center of the noodle—that means the interior’s still uncooked. When the pasta is done, drain it immediately and rinse it to keep it from sticking. Although most cooks prefer not to rinse pasta, we think it’s worth the slight loss of flavor to avoid the sticking problem. The pasta will warm again in the sauce, just as the dish comes off the stove.

And feel free to play with shapes. Yes, clam sauce is traditionally served over spaghetti, but you can use angel hair, rigatoni, or even farfalle. To be honest, we usually use whatever’s in the pantry.

Get out your heavy sauté pan. We like to use a 5-quart pan with high sides to hold the sautéed ingredients, the pasta, and the sauce all at once. Be sure to choose one with a nice heavy base that doesn’t have hot spots. You want even heat for sautéing and then reducing.

You’re ready to start when everything is in its place. As with Chinese stir-fries, pasta cream sauces move quickly once you begin cooking, so be sure all your ingredients are shredded, chopped, diced, or measured before you begin the-dish.

One: Sauté your main ingredients lightly—they’ll cook more in the-sauce

Every good cream sauce begins, not with cream, but with a sautéed main ingredient or two: the base of the dish. Here’s where your creativity and mood come into play. Starting with more classic I talian combinations is a good bet—pancetta, mushrooms, and peas; sausage, sage, and sun-dried tomatoes; clams, garlic, and oregano—but there’s no need to be conventional. Just about anything that tastes good together will taste great together in a cream sauce.

Any meat, poultry, or seafood needs to be browned lightly during this first step, but not totally cooked, because it will continue to cook as you reduce the liquids. We find that meat and poultry are best cut into thin strips; sausage meat should be removed from its casings. Bacon or pancetta should be diced or minced so it has a chance to thoroughly brown. Be sure all your meat or poultry is well trimmed. Because a pasta cream sauce is made quickly, the fat has no time to render out.

Seafood cooks really quickly, so the pieces can be a bit bigger. Medium or small peeled and deveined shrimp work nicely. Bay scallops impart their briny-sweet flavor very quickly to a cream sauce, so be careful not to sauté them very long, but larger sea scallops should be cut in half. Fresh or frozen lump crabmeat is readily available and quite easy to use, as are canned clams. Fish fillets can flake maddeningly, so it’s best to choose a firm fish, such as halibut, salmon, or char. These fish should be cut-into one-inch chunks, which won’t turn-into a mass of threads as your dish comes-together.

For vegetables, the rule is the harder the vegetable, the smaller the pieces. Root vegetables are particularly good with cream sauces, but they need to be cut very small or even shredded first, since they have long cooking times. Broccoli and cauliflower, for example, need to be cut into small florets. We also use the broccoli stems, cut into 1/2-inch strips, much like matchsticks. Peas, of course, cook fastest, especially if they’re frozen.

You should add your ingredients in order of longest to shortest cooking, so the longer-cooking ones can get a head start. Onions, shallots, or leeks need to be cut or sliced finely and sautéed so they’re thoroughly softened and their sweetness has a chance to develop. Chicken or pork would come next, since they must be thoroughly cooked, but if you’re using chicken breast meat, take care not to dry it out by overcooking.

How long you sauté each ingredient is all a matter of common sense, but with this caveat: the main ingredient should be slightly undercooked at this point, because it’s going to continue cooking with the flavorings and the cream. And be sure to lightly season your ingredients at this stage with salt and pepper so that the flavors have a chance to penetrate.

When you start to sauté, get the pan nice and hot and use just a small amount of oil or butter. If you add too much fat to the dish, it can force the cream to break. But by keeping the butter or oil content low in the first place, you’ll actually have a richer, thicker sauce.

Two: Add flavor by reducing liquids into a savory layer

The base has been sautéed, but it’s not yet time for the cream. The next step is what makes our sauces so delicious yet less rich than many. We add and reduce liquids to lay down a layer of deep flavor for the dish and provide some of the volume of the sauce.

We often add spices and herbs right before the liquids, taking care to only gently toast the spices without burning them. As for the liquid, we begin with any wine or spirits that we might be using, so that the alcohol has a chance to evaporate and the sugars in the brandy or whatever can caramelize a bit. Straight wine tends to be overpowered by a cream sauce, but there are other flavorful choices like vodka (which doesn’t have much flavor of its own but helps to “ unlock” flavors in other ingredients), vermouth, or Marsala, as well as brandies like Calvados or Armagnac. But remember that if your pan is very hot, liquors may flame; take the pan off the heat source momentarily before adding them, and stand back. If it does ignite, keep your cool and cover the pan to extinguish the-flame.

For the rest of the liquid, you can use fish stock, clam juice, or chicken, vegetable, or beef broth, depending on the main ingredient. We use a total of about 1/2 cup of liquid for two maincourse servings. The idea is not to boil the ingredients in the liquid, but rather to reduce the liquid slightly to let the flavors form a background with the main ingredient.

Three: Finally, enrich the sauce by adding cream—but not too much

The French, those purveyors of all things creamed, have never been ones for raw cream, unless it tops a dessert. For a sauce, they reduce it endlessly, until even the cream is a glaze. We don’t take it quite that far. Instead, the cream should reduce slightly so that the sauce has a nice coating consistency but isn’t thick. This will take from just a minute up to a few minutes, depending on your pan and your stove. Keep an eye on it: under-reducing the cream will give you a soupy sauce with a raw edge to it, while over-reducing it won’t give you enough sauce to coat the pasta well, plus you may break the cream.

Four: Toss well to bring it all together

The final step to a pasta cream sauce is bringing together the cheese (though not every dish even needs cheese), the sauce, and the pasta itself.

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