How to make the perfect creamy pasta sauce at home, revealed

I have a thing for red sauce joints from suburban malls. You know, the places decorated with vintage Campari posters and old bottles of Chianti in woven baskets. At these restaurants, the offerings tend to veer decidedly towards the American side of Italian-American. (A longtime favorite of mine brings a basket of toasted Texas garlic bread at the start of the meal, for example.)

Inevitably, there are some kinds of pasta on the menu with a cream-based tomato sauce or roasted red peppers. Although not strictly authentic, I tend to like these dishes. They’re cozy and decadent, and if you’ve got a few cooking basics under your sleeve, they’re also easy to make at home.

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I say “some cooking basics” because while these sauces are simple to make, they’re not as simple as adding a cup of cream to the marinara sauce. It’s a surefire way to end up with a broken, lumpy sauce topped with curd protein – which is the opposite of the thick, comforting sauce you want to savor.

Ready to start? Here’s everything you need to know to make the perfect creamy pasta sauces at home:

Watch your heat

Dairy and non-dairy products with higher fat percentages, such as heavy cream and coconut cream, are less likely to curdle from heat, to the point where you could boil both directly and they would probably just thicken.

However, there are still some best practices to follow for bringing dairy products up to temperature in pasta sauce. First, don’t just pour cold milk or cream into the pan. Instead, temper it by adding a few tablespoons of hot pasta sauce to the cream first. Once warmed to room temperature, feel free to add it to the sauce.

When reheating the sauce, do it gradually. Instead of immediately exploding your pot or pan to high heat, start slowly on low heat and build up from there as needed.

Beware of acids

Cream and acid have a kind of love-hate relationship, which can be difficult to manage since some of the most common pasta sauce ingredients — including tomatoes, wine, and lemon juice — are acidic.

A common method to keep your creamy ingredients from curdling is to stabilize the sauce by starting with a roux, which is a mixture of equal parts flour and shortening (often butter). Heat the roux over low heat, stirring the mixture until it’s toasted a bit, an indicator that it will no longer taste like raw flour. Then add your cream to the roux, whisking constantly until the mixture takes on a nice velvety texture.

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This technique is the basis of Alfredo and cheese sauces, but you can use it to make sauces that contain an acidic ingredient, such as a creamy tomato and basil sauce or a creamy white wine and Parmesan sauce.

Whisking a few teaspoons of cornstarch into milk before adding it to your sauce can also work as a substitute for the roux, but the sauce won’t get as thick.

A note on non-dairy cream sauces

Some non-dairy milks and creams respond better to heat than others, such as every time you add cold non-dairy milk to a hot cup of coffee. Soy milk tends to separate when introduced at high heat (which, fun fact, is actually how tofu is made), while some brands of almond milk can taste almost metallic when heated.

Oat milk has a fantastic flavor and it will thicken up with a little coaxing. The coconut cream gets the right texture right off the bat, but the taste might not be quite what you’re looking for in a pasta sauce. Silk Dairy Free Heavy Whipping Cream is a lifesaver.

However, one of my favorite non-dairy hacks for getting a thick, creamy sauce is to simply add a tablespoon or two of dairy-free cream cheese to the sauce in its last minutes of cooking. It plays well with acid, does not curdle and provides excellent flavor and texture.

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