Chicken Alfredo is comfort food at its best— mouthwatering bits of chicken mixed with heaps of sumptuous pasta and a rich, creamy sauce. What could be more satisfying than that? This uncomplicated, yet luxurious dish is sure to have you reaching for a second helping.
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In the early 1900s, Rome restaurateur Alfredo Di Lelio began serving his signature sauce over fettuccini. In theatrical fashion, and much to the delight of his customers, Di Lelio would make the sauce tableside. Soon his dish became an international sensation.
The recipe has changed over the years, most notably with the addition of heavy cream, but the essence is still the same. Silky, melted cheese sliding along ribbons of perfectly cooked pasta is a delight for all the senses.
Don’t be fooled though. You don’t have to be a chef to make homemade Alfredo sauce. With just a few simple ingredients – butter, cream, garlic, parmesan, and nutmeg – you can make a sauce so scrumptious you’ll never want to buy another jar of premade.
To make this main dish a hearty, satisfying meal, add in juicy morsels of seasoned and seared chicken, and top with fresh herbs and shaved parmesan.
Preparing the Chicken
Watch anyone eat chicken Alfredo, and you’ll notice how they move their fork around the plate between bites, seeking out those tasty hunks of mouth-watering chicken to wrap in folds of creamy pasta on their forks. Creating pieces of chicken that are uniformly cooked and consistently delicious is key to this dish’s success, but, unless you know the trick, that can be difficult to do on the stovetop.
Chicken breasts are thicker on one end, tapering down to a thin point. As a result, the thin ends are often overdone and dry. To avoid this, cut the chicken lengthwise into 2 even cutlets, about ½ inch in thickness before cooking.
You can achieve similar results by placing the chicken between sheets of plastic film, or in a large resealable bag, and pounding it with a kitchen mallet until you have one large ½ inch thick piece of chicken. Then, you can cut it into two smaller cutlets for cooking. You will slice the chicken into bite-sized pieces just before serving.
Seasoning the Meat
Beyond cooking the meat evenly, seasoning it well is crucial to this chicken Alfredo recipe. A generous coating of kosher salt, pepper, and paprika are all that is needed to make flavorful, golden chicken. For added dimension add garlic powder, onion powder, and Italian seasoning, or herbs like basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. To take the spice up a notch, try using cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning, or blackening seasoning.
Cooking the Chicken
A quick pan sear produces the best chicken for this dish because it creates a crisp golden outside and a moist, juicy center. Iron skillets are a favorite for pan searing, but nonstick or stainless steel pans will work as well.
Heat the olive oil over a medium burner, and cook each side of the chicken. Do not move the chicken until it has formed a nice crisp crust on the bottom. Once it has caramelized, it should turn easily, without sticking. The process takes about 5 to 7 minutes per side.
You will know it is ready when the center reaches about 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC) on a meat thermometer. Cover the chicken with aluminum foil to keep it warm while you finish making the pasta and sauce, then slice it into bite-sized portions just before serving.
For an extra crispy outside, dredge your chicken in a little flour and shake off the excess before pan-searing.
Alfredo sauce is traditionally served with long, flat fettuccini noodles, but really, it is going to taste amazing on any pasta you choose. For those who prefer thinner pasta, linguini is a great option, or if you want to maximize the sauce in each bite, go with rigatoni, bucatini, or penne pasta. These have holes in their centers that will soak in the sauce so that every bite is full of creamy goodness.
Cook the Pasta
There are three important things to remember when preparing noodles. First, always salt the water. This is your one chance to thoroughly season the pasta itself, so don’t skip it. You should add about a tablespoon of kosher salt to 3 quarts of water, which is enough to cook a pound of pasta.
Second, be sure to stir the pasta while it is cooking. This will ensure that it cooks evenly and does not stick together.
Finally, pasta should be cooked al dente. This means that it is still slightly chewy, rather than mushy, in the center. If your pasta is overcooked, it will absorb too much sauce and begin to fall apart.
For chicken Alfredo pasta, you also want to remember to save the pasta water. Later, you can use it to thin sauce that has become too thick. Because it has been salted and has absorbed some of the pasta flavor, this water will thin your sauce without watering down the taste. Set aside a cup of the water before draining the pasta and you’ll have more than enough.
Make the Cream Sauce
Alfredo sauce is made by combining heavy cream, butter, and garlic, before mixing in the parmesan cheese. The garlic is sauteed in the butter first, and then the cream is added. This allows the garlicky flavor to permeate through the cream sauce. Simmering this mixture for just a few minutes will evaporate about ⅓ of the liquid, leaving you with a sauce that will cling to the pasta in the most delightful way.
As the sauce cools, the fats will join and stiffen, causing it to thicken. A little salt, pepper, and nutmeg will liven up the sauce just enough without overpowering it.
Add the Cheese
Just before serving, you will add in freshly grated parmesan or Reggiano cheese to add a nutty, salty dimension to your sauce. Using a pungent dry-aged cheese and grating it yourself is definitely worth the extra effort. Grate it finely so that it melts evenly into your sauce. Doing this just prior to serving prevents clumping and delivers a smooth, silky texture.
Toss the cooked pasta in the sauce, plate it, then top it with sliced chicken and chopped fresh herbs.
How to Serve Chicken Alfredo
This dish is a meal all on its own, but if you like, you can round it out with a fresh green salad and a piece of crusty buttered bread. Alternatively, steam broccoli or asparagus, then season with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice for a fresh accompaniment to this chicken Alfredo recipe.
Is this a healthy meal?
Adding cooked chicken to this dish means it contains a healthy amount of lean protein. However, the cream and butter are high in fat. Reduce the fat by using half and half in place of the cream.
Cream contains about 36% fat, while half and half has only 12% fat. You can use whole milk as well, but you will need to thicken it with a roux, as there is not enough fat content in whole milk for it to thicken on its own.
Serve your pasta with a side of vegetables for a additional vitamins and nutrients.
Can I use other cuts of chicken?
Of course! You can use chicken thighs, or any protein you prefer. Sliced steak, sausage links, or turkey meatballs would work with this dish, and shrimp Alfredo is delicious too!
What is the best pasta to use for homemade chicken Alfredo?
Linguini and fettuccine pasta are popular choices for Alfredo sauce because they are long and flat, giving them lots of surface area for that gorgeous sauce to adhere to. However, pastas that have holes in their centers, such as bucatini or penne, will trap the sauce inside and deliver a perfect bite every time.
Chicken Alfredo Seasoning
For the chicken:
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
For the pasta:
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 ounces fettuccine
For the sauce:
- 3 cloves of minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup finely grated parmesan or Reggiano cheese
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- Cut the chicken breasts lengthwise to make ½ inch thick cutlets.
- Evenly season both sides of each cutlet with salt, pepper, and paprika.
- Heat the olive oil in an iron skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken cutlets in a single layer and allow to cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Flip and cook the chicken for an additional 5-7 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads about 165ºF.
- Transfer the chicken to another dish, and cover it with aluminum foil to keep warm.
- Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, and stir to dissolve.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it to al dente, according to the package directions.
- Reserve a cup of the pasta water in a heat-proof measuring cup, then drain the pasta.
- Heat the butter in a large, clean skillet over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds or until it is fragrant. Be careful not to brown the butter or garlic.
- Pour in the cream, salt, and pepper, and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently to prevent curdling.
- Reduce the sauce for about 10-12 minutes, or until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove from heat, and stir in the cheese and nutmeg. If needed, add some of the pasta water, a tablespoon at a time, to thin the sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
- Pour the pasta into the sauce, and gently toss to combine.
- Cut the warm chicken into bite-sized pieces.
- Plate the pasta, then top it with sliced chicken, chopped parsley, and a sprinkling of shaved parmesan.