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How to Make a Creamy Pasta Sauce Without Using Cream

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Ah, heavy cream. It’s thick, delicious, and makes my arteries clog just a little every time I read the nutrition label. For a while, I was just making carbonara whenever I wanted a vaguely creamy pasta sauce. Eventually, though, I decided that not having a decent cream sauce in my repertoire just would not do and started tinkering around.

I experimented with a few alternatives, but eventually settled on evaporated whole milk for a few reasons:

  • Convenience: I could store a few cans in my pantry and have it at the ready.
  • Temperature: Since I would heat the milk, it made more sense for me to use something that was already room temperature rather than refrigerated.
  • Ease: Since evaporated whole milk is whole milk with approximately half of the water removed, using it gave me a head start over using regular whole milk.
  • Fat┬ácontent: While my first knee jerk instinct was to use some form of skim milk, the truth is that you need some fat for the sauce to come close to a decent texture. Whole milk seemed like a level-headed compromise.

how to make a creamy pasta sauce without cream

Below is my recipe for Pasta with Garlicky Shrimp and Spinach in a Sundried Tomato Cream Sauce. Long title! A few things to keep in mind as you’re making it:

  • Curdling. Because of the lower fat content, evaporated whole milk will curdle if you let it boil. As such, it’s best to keep the milk just below a simmer as you’re reducing it.
  • Milk skin. As the milk heats up, a skin will form on the surface. To prevent this, you periodically need to stir the milk as it’s reducing.
  • Let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce. Doing so lets the starches in the pasta help to further thicken the sauce.

While you wouldn’t mistake this for something that used heavy cream, it’s still tasty and a pretty decent substitute. Best of all, you won’t have to run extra laps at the gym for the next week. Win, win.

Pasta with Garlicky Shrimp and Spinach in a Sundried Tomato Cream Sauce
- serves 2 -

1/3 pound dried spaghetti
1 bunch of spinach (approx .5 lb), rinsed and drained
6 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 dozen large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 dozen sundried tomatoes, packed in olive oil*
1 12oz. can of evaporated whole milk
olive oil
salt
thyme (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt the water, and add the spaghetti. Undercook the spaghetti by 2 minutes from your normal timing. Drain the spaghetti and set aside.

2. While you’re cooking the spaghetti, heat a wide saute pan over medium heat with a Tbsp of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add 2 cloves of garlic and heat until fragrant, approx 30 seconds. Add the spinach along with a couple of pinches of salt and stir fry until the spinach is cooked. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove the spinach from the pan and drain the cooked spinach in a colander. Wipe out the saute pan with a paper towel.

3. Heat the same saute pan over medium heat again with a Tbsp of olive oil. Add 2 cloves of garlic and heat until fragrant, approx 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp is translucent and cooked through, flipping once. Remove the cooked shrimp to a plate and season with salt. Do not wipe out the pan.

4. Add sundried tomatoes to the saute pan. You can add a Tbsp of olive oil from the sundried tomatoes to the pan if you think it’s too dry, but keep in mind that as the sundried tomatoes heat in the pan, they will release some of the oil it was packed in. When you start to smell the sundried tomatoes, add the remaining cloves of garlic to the pan and a sprig or two of thyme (if using). Cook for about 30 seconds more.

5. Add the evaporated whole milk to the pan and adjust the heat to keep it just below a simmer. Reduce the milk by about 1/3, stirring occasionally to prevent the dreaded milk skin from forming. This will take approximately 10 minutes or so, depending on how close to a simmer you keep the milk. As you’re reducing, you can use a couple of wooden spoons to break up the sundried tomatoes into smaller chunks. Season liberally with salt to taste.

6. When the milk has reduced, add the drained spaghetti to the milk and mix. Let the spaghetti finish cooking in the milk and watch the sauce to ensure it does not boil. If it does, the sauce will turn pasty. As the spaghetti absorbs the sauce, you should notice the sauce thickening a tad. When the spaghetti is almost cooked to your liking, add the spinach and shrimp to the pan and mix to warm up. Adjust seasoning and serve!

* If available, consider using sundried tomatoes that are packed in oil that has been seasoned with spices of some sort (italian or otherwise). It’ll give you a nice flavor boost and you can leave out the thyme in the recipe.

    5 Comments

    1. Ina says:

      So THIS is how you spend your time…interesting. I have another use for evaporated milk–making mac n cheese without a roux. I’ll send you the recipe. You make a good point about the milk curdling quite easily. That happened to me when I mixed in melted butter that was too hot. It ruined the ‘creamy’ effect.

    2. Anonymous says:

      It unfortunate to see that people still think saturated fat (heavy cream) “clogs” arteries… its the total opposite… read a few articles in the literature before you follow mainstream ideas on saturated fat. Organic Heavy Cream is the way to go.

    3. Brittany says:

      Anonymous,

      I’m pretty certain that the way she used the term ‘clogged arteries’ was just a funny figure of speech. Heavy cream, organic or not, is high in fat and calories and a lot of people watch both those things. She is just giving another option. If you don’t like it/agree, don’t comment. Its really that simple.
      ——————————————————————————

      I am going to use this idea tonight for a tomato cream sauce with shrimp and lobster raviolis! Thanks!

    4. eli says:

      Science facts have prove that saturated fat (heavy cream) does not clog arteries

    5. Cudowny post, humor i dystans! Plus ogolnie bardzo fajny blog :) Gratuluje! :)

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