Quick and creamy pesto pasta is a delicious recipe that is ready in about 10 minutes with only 5 ingredients. It's a both a kid and adult favorite and works as either a main or side dish.
Pasta with homemade pesto is a good, classic recipe. But pasta with a creamy pesto sauce is a great recipe. A creamy white sauce elevates pesto to a whole new level.
What is pesto?
Pesto is traditionally a mixture of olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and parmesan with salt added for flavor. The ingredients have been mashed together for centuries in a mortar and pestle, though a food processor or blender does the work for us now.
There are also now many variations where the basil is replaced with other herbs, pine nuts with other nuts, and even use other cheeses.
My recipe for "frugal" pesto is a riff on the classic, but replaces the expensive pine nuts with a much cheaper ingredient - that I think makes it taste even better!
But back in the first years of our marriage, Brian and I went to an Italian restaurant and ordered pasta with pesto. I thought it was good. Brian thought it was like "eating chopped grass" with his pasta.
So when I started growing basil and making pesto to keep in our freezer all winter long, I had to figure out a way to have pasta with pesto that wasn't quite so "pesto-y."
Well I suppose I didn't have to, I just wanted to because it's such an easy meal, on its own, or mixed with chicken and dried tomatoes, or even as a side dish alongside chicken or sausage.
Plus by the time I started making pesto with our garden basil, we had kids and they loved pesto pasta anyway.
Creamy Pesto Pasta
What is creamy pesto made of?
My solution was to create a creamy white sauce of butter, flour, and milk and then mix it with pesto.
You could also just heat heavy cream until it thickened a bit and add the pesto, but I wanted a thicker sauce than that would produce, kind of like an Alfredo.
And this creamy pasta has become one of our family's favorite dishes - and yes, even Brian.
Plus it's one of those recipes I always have the ingredients for and is so fast (10 minutes!) that when we are tempted to buy something to eat on our way home from something, I always think "I could have creamy pesto pasta made in less time than it would take to get fast food."
Having recipes like these in our back pocket makes it easier to stick to a budget and bypass those times we're tempted to order out.
How much savings? Combined with a salad, this recipe would come in around $4.00 for the whole meal, serving a family of 4-5.
Make Creamy Pesto Pasta
- pasta of choice (I always try to use a whole grain or healthier pasta - I really like the chickpea pastas)
- premade pesto
- plus salt for flavor
- optional variations: cooked protein like chicken, shrimp, or chickpeas; added vegetables like spinach mixed in or chopped tomatoes added on top.
Note on Making a White Sauce:
Making a white sauce is really very simple. I didn't use to think so, back when I made everything with a can of cream-of-something soup. But once I learned how, there was no going back.
Especially when I realized that a white sauce has four ingredients (butter, flour, milk, and salt) and the canned creamed soups have...well, a lot. Plus things I don't recognize as food.
It goes without saying that the taste of homemade white sauce is way better.
Timing Note: Start the water boiling first before starting the sauce, adding the pasta to the water when it's ready as you're making the white sauce. In this dish, it's the pasta that needs the most time to cook. See? Really just 10 minutes!
Make the Sauce
1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and mix well over medium heat. You just want it combined and bubbly a bit like shown above, but not brown (that's becoming a roux, then).
2. Slowly add the milk, stirring with a whisk. Cook and stir until the sauce thickens. Add a teaspoon of salt or to taste.
You've made a white sauce! How easy is that? I can't believe I ever thought it was hard.
3. When the sauce has thickened, add the pesto and stir together.
This can be to your taste - I usually add one of my small containers of frozen pesto which are between 1/2 and 3/4 cup. It's just about right for this amount of white sauce.
Make the Creamy Pesto Pasta
4. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
5. Add the creamy pesto sauce to the pasta and toss until the noodles are coated. Serve as is with a salad or use as a side dish or base for chicken or shrimp.
There you have it. One more easy recipe in the arsenal against the last-minute "let's just grab something to eat" scenario - which may be your next family favorite recipe, too!
Creamy Pesto Pasta FAQs
You can use the method in this recipe - making a white sauce of flour, butter, and milk before adding the pesto - or use heavy cream and cook on low until it thickens slightly (it will be runnier than a white sauce).
Another option is to thicken your pesto with potato starch or corn starch and add a milk product until it's as creamy as you wish (this is a good dairy-free alternative).
Any pesto pasta can be served on its own as a light meal. It can also be a side dish to any grilled or roasted meat or seafood.
It's also a wonderful based to add ingredients too, like sautéed spinach, onions, and peppers, cooked chicken or shrimp, or any leftovers you need to use up.
All the things you love about pesto - the flavor from garlic, basil, and parmesan - are there int he creamy version, but just a bit lighter with less bite. The texture is smoother, too, with less of a feel of chopped herbs (for want of a better description!)
Top Reader Comments:
"Can I say it, OMG? This was so easy and so good. I added Parm Cheese and Grilled Chicken. OMG x 2!"
"This is so simple and so delicious! My husband also is not a fan of full on pesto, so this was a perfect compromise. 🙂 I made some turkey meatballs and let them simmer in the sauce. We enjoyed this very much!"
"I made this tonight and it was wonderful. Will def be making your recipe again."
Creamy Pesto Pasta
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 cups milk
- ½ to 1 teaspoon salt to taste
- ½ to ¾ cup pesto to taste
- ¾ pound pasta
- Start the water boiling for the pasta. When it boils, cook as directed on the package.
- Meanwhile, make a white sauce by melting the butter in a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until combined; cook for a couple minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly add the milk and stir over medium-high heat until thickened.
- Add the pesto to the white sauce, stir and remove from heat.
- Drain the pasta and return pasta to the pot.
- Toss the sauce with the pasta and serve.
- Add cooked chopped cooked chicken, shrimp, sausage, or smoked salmon.
- Add chopped fresh spinach along with the sauce and toss it all together.
- Add chopped dried tomatoes.
- Top pasta with fresh chopped tomatoes.
Other quick meals to try:
This recipe has been updated - it was originally published in April of 2010.
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