And replicating their magic at home is shockingly simple. Here are five genius techniques for making creamy, delicious pasta—without loading up on heavy ingredients.
1. Don’t cook the pasta in advance.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had your noodles finish cooking before your sauce is done. When that happens, you probably just drain the pasta and let it sit in the colander until the sauce is ready, right?
That’s a big mistake, says Lorenzo Boni, executive chef at Barilla America. The starchy liquid that’s locked inside just-cooked pasta will work some serious cream magic when it’s absorbed right into hot sauce (we're talking marinara, not Cholula). But if you let the pasta sit for even a few minutes, the pasta will start to steam in your colander, and all that precious moisture will evaporate. The result is a drier, tougher dish.
It might take some planning (and practice), but try to time it so your pasta and your sauce are ready at the same time. Because the next step is to…
2. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.
Surprise—your pasta should actually be slightly underdone when you drain it. Think about two minutes short of the cooking time on the box, Boni says. Don’t worry if it seems a little too al dente. Because as soon as you drain it, you should add the pasta straight into the pan where your sauce is still boiling, and toss the pasta continuously over high heat for two to three minutes.
This step not only helps your pasta absorb the flavors of the sauce, but it also causes the starch inside the pasta to get released, yielding a richer and creamier consistency. What’s more, friction that happens when you toss, toss, toss will encourage the starch from the pasta and the fat and liquid in the sauce to come together. And both of those things contribute to a thicker, more cohesive sauce, says Boni.
3. Save the pasta cooking water.
Whatever you do, don’t pour all of that stuff down the drain. Pasta also releases starch into the water while it cooks—and that starchy liquid plays a starring role in helping your sauce bind together. “The creaminess comes down to the emulsion of water, fat, and starch. And by having that extra starch, you can reduce the fat,” Boni says.
How much of the cooking liquid do you actually need? Every recipe is different, and with practice, you’ll get a better feel for what works. But a good rule of thumb is to reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid. (Use a ladle to spoon the liquid into a heatproof measuring cup.) For a pound of pasta, start by adding about half a cup of the cooking water as soon as you combine the pasta with the sauce, Boni says. Let the sauce cook for a minute or two to thicken up. If it seems just right, you’re set. If it looks a little dry, add another 1/4 cup and cook the pasta for another minute or two, until the sauce reaches the consistency you’re looking for.
4. Add the cheese at the end.
You might be tempted to add that final sprinkle of Parmesan in while your sauce, pasta, and pasta water are bubbling away on the stove. That’ll ensure the cheese melts and makes everything more creamy, right?
Actually, no. The intense heat will make the cheese separate, leaving the sauce oily instead of velvety. Instead, hang onto the cheese until your pasta and sauce are perfectly cooked. Then take the skillet off the heat and let it sit for 20 seconds, undisturbed, to allow the pasta to cool slightly. Then stir in the cheese, Boni says.
5. Skip the dairy altogether.
Remember: Ingredients-wise, butter, cheese, and cream aren’t the only things you have to work with. There are plenty of plant-based options that can deliver the richness you’re looking for. At the New York City vegan restaurant by CHLOE, contributing chef Jenne’ Claiborne uses soaked, raw cashews or sunflower seeds as the base for a creamy cheese sauce. Soaking the nuts or seeds overnight makes them soft and easy to blend.
There’s also avocado, which Claiborne blends with oil to make dairy-free pesto. She adds lemon juice to balance out the richness and to keep the avocado from turning brown.
Want to keep things lighter? Try a butternut squash-based sauce. Claiborne simmers soy milk with arrowroot powder (or cornstarch) and nutritional yeast until thickened, then blends the mixture with creamy, roasted butternut squash. “I roast the squash ahead of time to bring out the natural sweet flavors, but you could use steamed or canned squash too,” she says.