Alfredo sauce is one of those sauces that is just SO much better homemade. Even in the rare situation when I come home from the store with a premade jar, I always feel the need to doctor it up. But let’s get real – my family always knows when it’s not full-on homemade.
Since homemade Alfredo sauce is just superior to store-bought, it’s so worth it to take the time to learn to make it right. If the Alfredo is too thin, it’s drippy and doesn’t grab the pasta as you want it to.
And if it’s too thick, it can taste goopy–no one wants to bite into a juicy bit of pasta and find out it is the actually congealed sauce! The best Alfredo sauce is velvety thick and smooth. But even with practice, Alfredo sauce (which has only three basic ingredients) sometimes doesn’t cooperate and deliver the desired consistency.
Not to fear: there are myriad ways to thicken your Alfredo sauce. You can experiment with some different methods to see what works best for you. I would look at two main considerations:
- Dietary preferences or restrictions: if you’re avoiding gluten, you won’t want to use the flour option. If you’re avoiding dairy, why are you reading this article? Just kidding! There are lots of delicious dairy-free recipes for Alfredo sauce. Most use cashews and nutritional yeast to make comfort food that vegans can happily enjoy.
- What you have in your pantry: it’s more convenient and cost-effective to use what you already have in your cupboard. For one thing, you usually don’t know you need to thicken your sauce until you need to thicken your sauce NOW.
In addition, you don’t want to spend extra money on a specialty thickening agent that you won’t be using regularly. That expensive specialty ingredient will sit in your cabinet well past its expiration date until you let go of the guilt of throwing it out. Go ahead.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of thickening, let’s go over a basic Alfredo sauce.
Alfredo sauce has three main ingredients:
- Heavy cream
- Parmesan cheese
Really, that’s it? You’re now wondering how your favorite Italian restaurant gets away with charging so much for pasta topped with a three-ingredient sauce. Ambiance. And they take care of the thickening and the cleanup.
For a pound of pasta, you’ll want to start with a stick of butter (½ cup), 1 cup (8 ounces) of heavy cream, and 1 cup (4 ounces) of Parmesan cheese*. You can season with some minced garlic or black pepper if you want.
* Note: You can use any kind of Parmesan, but freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano creates a superior sauce and is definitely worth the extra pennies.
Basically, you melt the butter, add in the cooked pasta, add the heavy cream and Parmesan, and toss until the pasta is coated with delicious goodness.
Pro Tip: If I serve my husband a plate of Fettuccine Alfredo and it doesn’t have a healthy portion of more grated Parmesan on top, he looks at me as if I have just arrived from another planet, so don’t be shy about adding more Parm.
Butter, heavy cream, Parmesan–calories, fat, calories, fat, calories, fat. YUM. If you happen to be counting calories or fat grams and you don’t want a whole army of them, you can definitely use lower-fat versions of the ingredients and still get a delicious sauce. It won’t be as thick and rich, but your pants will still fasten.
You’ll want to start with your sauce hot to successfully incorporate any of these thickening methods. Please be aware that unlike some sauces, Alfredo is not one that you can walk away from. Cream sauces need extra care, attention, and stirring to produce the result you want.
Add more heavy cream. This is a good option because it allows you to keep the integrity of the base ingredients. Whisk a little more heavy cream into the sauce (medium heat – you don’t want to scald the cream and wreck your sauce). Bring it to a simmer and it will slowly thicken.
It can take a lot of heavy creams to thicken a sauce, and since you’ve already used a cup, you’ll want to check your flavor to make sure the cream hasn’t masked the butter and cheese flavor.
Add more Parmesan. Again staying true to the original Alfredo recipe, adding more Parmesan will thicken the sauce and maintain the classic Alfredo flavor. As I mentioned before, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only Parmesan I’ll use.
My family likes it on top of just about anything. Bonus: The heel of the cheese can be frozen and added to crushed tomatoes when you’re making a homemade red sauce (gravy!). My Italian grandmother taught me that trick.
Anyway, liberally grate some more Parm into the Alfredo to thicken it. The only caveat is that if you add too much, it will alter the consistency and may turn out stringy rather than creamy.
Reduce the Sauce. The third method that doesn’t add foreign ingredients (or any ingredients!) is reducing the sauce to make it thicker.
Watch your sauce carefully as you simmer it. Don’t let it boil and stir it regularly to keep it from burning or sticking to the bottom of the saucepan.
As water evaporates, the sauce becomes more concentrated and thicker. Keep in mind that a sauce reduction will intensify the flavors and you may need to adjust your seasonings.
Add a different kind of grating cheese. You can grate some mozzarella or white cheddar cheese into your too-thin Alfredo sauce that is simmering over medium heat. Toss to incorporate the cheese and give it some time to thicken.
Considerations with this method include:
- The possibility of stringy texture rather than the smooth and creamy one expected from an Alfredo sauce
- A taste alteration. Mozzarella has a mild flavor so it should blend satisfactorily with the Parmesan. White cheddar won’t change the appearance of your sauce, but even a mild cheddar will affect the palate of the plate.
Add cream cheese. Cut a cream cheese brick into cubes and let it soften (it’s much easier to cube it before softening). Whisk cubes into the heated Alfredo sauce one or two at a time until you achieve the consistency you’re looking for. Go slow, it can take some time to thicken.
As with the other cheese additions, add only as much as you need. Cream cheese has a distinctive flavor and it will change the taste of the sauce.
Create a roux. A roux is a basic kitchen go-to and serves as the base for many sauces and gravies. A roux is super easy to make. Melt butter in a saucepan and
And then whisk in flour at a 1:1 ratio until smooth.
To thicken Alfredo sauce, whisk a little of the completed roux into the simmering sauce and incorporate it to get the desired consistency.
Make a starch slurry. A starch slurry is a common method for thickening alfredo sauce. You can use cornstarch, flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, rice flour, or arrowroot flour, depending on what you have in your pantry and whether you have gluten sensitivities.
Mix a little of your chosen starch with some cold water until you attain a smooth mixture. Then slowly whisk your slurry into the Alfredo sauce (which, as usual, is simmering at medium heat).
Be patient when whisking into the sauce; if you add too quickly, you may over thicken the Alfredo. You’re adding a pure starch (albeit cut with water), and the starch will swell into a gel-like thickening agent when it’s heated.
Add starch directly. Flour, cornstarch, arrowroot, potato starch, or even instant potato flakes can be added to the simmering Alfredo a tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency.
Smooth and slow addition is the key to this thickening method. If you’re not mixing the starch with water before adding it to the sauce, you risk lumps. With any starch addition, you may notice a flavor change.
Add food gums. Xanthan gum and agar are popular food gums added as thickeners. The big benefit of the food gums is that they don’t affect the appearance or flavor of your sauce.
You only need a small amount to thicken. Xanthan gum can be mixed directly into the simmering Alfredo, while agar should be mixed with liquid before adding it to the sauce.
If you’re using xanthan gum, use .01-1% of the weight of your liquid. So if you have 16 ounces of sauce, use no more than one ounce of xanthan gum. Start with less and add until you get the desired thickness. The xanthan gum needs some elbow grease in the whisking.
If you’re using agar flakes, use one tablespoon for each cup of liquid; if you’re using agar powder, use one teaspoon for each cup of liquid.
Boil the agar into four tablespoons of liquid for 5-10 minutes and mix into the Alfredo sauce.
Add egg yolks. Egg yolks are tricky because you have to cook them carefully. Remember that your Alfredo sauce is hot and eggs cook quickly. If you don’t whisk constantly, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs.
Before you add the yolk, put it in a bowl and add a little bit of the hot Alfredo sauce into the bowl with the yolk, whisking until the eggs are warm in the bowl. Then you can incorporate the yolk/sauce mixture into the sauce.
Think of how you get used to the water by putting your legs in first, rather than jumping into a cold pool – you want to introduce the heat change gradually.
Purée vegetables. Puréed vegetables are also a great thickener. A white vegetable like cauliflower won’t alter the color of your Alfredo sauce. You could also try jicama (although it’s pretty watery for thickening), parsnips, turnips, or even white carrots. The mild flavor of cauliflower will offer the least amount of taste alteration. Just mix it into your simmering Alfredo sauce.
Make Beurre Manié. Beurre manié translates from French to kneaded butter. In this method, the butter and flour are kneaded together before adding to the Alfredo sauce.
Knead equal parts flour and butter with your fingers or a fork until you get a smooth dough or paste.
Make teaspoon-sized balls and add one by one to thicken the Alfredo sauce. Give the sauce time to thicken before adding another ball to avoid over thickening. Add more balls until your sauce is the perfect thickness.