If you’re looking to elevate your pasta game, this is the recipe for you. It’s creamy, cheesy, umami forward, and best of all, extremely chicken-y. This is a creamy chicken pasta that would fit in any high end Italian restaurant.
Chicken gets a bad rap as a trashy pasta ingredient that it doesn’t deserve. Years of bad microwave chicken fettucine alfredo has done a number to chicken’s reputation as a ‘good’ pasta pairing, but chicken is, hands down, the most perfect partner for any cream-based pasta because of how silky smooth properly cooked chicken can be.
This is one of my favorite dishes to make when I’m cooking for myself (or Steph) and not trying to impress anybody, but honestly, it ends up tasting pretty darn impressive. The combination of crispy guanciale, poppy capers, and soft silky chicken make this a truly perfect pasta.
But why creamy chicken pasta?
Creamy chicken pasta is satisfying soul food. But more importantly, it’s much cheaper and faster compared to the 16 hour braises of any red meat ragu, yet is just as delicious. I’m a huge believer in doing 10% of the work for 90% of the maximum return.
This pasta is equally perfect for weeknight dinners or high stakes dinner parties. I truly feel like no one with a soul can disagree that creamy chicken pasta, done right, is a universal comfort food, no matter which culture or economic circumstance you grew up in.
It’s one of the fastest pastas to make
You can have this whole dish done faster than the time it takes to cook the pasta. In fact, this sauce is so fast to make that I recommend people who are not expert cooks make the sauce first, then cook the pasta after, so that you’re not rushing to have it done by the time your pasta is ready to go. If you’re good at multitasking though, everything will be ready in 15 minutes or less, even including prep.
Those 15 minutes are why I’m not a fan of one pot pasta recipes, which are rarely done in under 30. Sure, you save yourself washing one relatively clean pot – that was only filled with water, pasta, and salt – but it takes double the time compared to going with two pots.
It could be the best chicken pasta you’ve ever tried
This dish is built from the same basic techniques that most authentic Italian places build their pastas from, just with the usual exotic meats (looking at you, wild boar everything) swapped out for chicken. That means that, at its core, you’re eating an ultimately authentic, properly made pasta, but easy and unfussy.
The secret to getting this pasta super creamy is not searing the chicken. I know, you’re thinking “but Mike, you’re an idiot, what about maillard reactions and texture and stuff, this is a total mistake and you don’t know how to cook”. While that’s probably true, in this case I’m saying: all of that stuff doesn’t always matter. The crispy rendered guanciale gets you all the crunch and crust you crave. The chicken, gently poached in garlicky infused white wine and cream, stays silky smooth and almost somehow tastes creamier than the cream sauce itself. It’s extreme cream.
Ingredients for the best creamy chicken pasta
- High quality pasta. Splurge on some good bronze extruded pasta. The price difference between high quality and low quality pasta is not very much, just a couple of dollars, but the quality difference is huge. Look for something with a sandy texture to it.
- Garlic. There’s a lot of garlic in this recipe. Over the years I’ve found that the expensive $1 garlic from USA tastes far better than the $1 3pack from China, but that’s just me.
- Guanciale. The guanciale may be harder to find. Most likely you’ll need to look in an Italian deli to find it; I’ve never seen it at a supermarket deli. But, it’s easy to sub, and you can even find guanciale on Amazon now (although at double the price that you’d normally pay, with questionable reviews). More on guanciale below.
- Chicken thighs. Boneless skinless is the name of the game here. Because it’s a pasta sauce, and because I wanted it to cook fast, yet gently, I cut it into very thin 1” x 1/4” strips. Many people ask if you can switch out for breasts, and yes, you can, but you shouldn’t unless for health reasons or if you are a really good cook. The window for properly cooking breast is lower than with thighs, and if you over cook it, the chicken will be dry and not very tasty.
- Cheese. You need a good quality aged cheese. These can be found at most higher end grocery stores, and even most krogers have an excellent cheese section now through their purchase of Murray’s Cheese. My go-to cheese for pasta are parmigiano reggiano or pecorino toscana. As long as it’s aged and meltable though, you’re good. For this recipe, I went with a 10 month aged Kaasaggio Robusto Gouda. KRG is legendary in the cheese world, and I highly recommend you try some (although, I actually prefer their originale).
- Capers. Capers add a bright little pop of happiness to this recipe, along with a whole lot of complexity. More on capers below.
- Cream. You need to use full fat cream for this recipe. Because milk won’t reduce into a sauce, you’ll probably end up with something resembling soup. If you are lactose intolerant, low sodium chicken stock will do in a pinch, especially if you thicken it with a little flour. I personally haven’t tried this recipe with milk alternatives.
- White Wine. I almost always choose whites for sauces unless there is a very good reason to go with red. You can sub out the wine for low sodium chicken broth if you need to be alcohol free for health reasons (because burning off the alcohol is a myth), but you shouldn’t skip it otherwise. Not only does wine add a ton of complexity and taste, alcohol has been proven to enhance other flavors, which is why vodka sauce works so well.
How to make creamy chicken pasta sauce
Once you have all your ingredients prepared, you can make this pasta in the time it takes for your pasta to cook. If you’re not a comfortable cook or you are making a quick 7 minute pasta shape, you might want to fill a pot with water, add salt, and put it on a burner on high, then do these steps before adding your pasta to the water. That way, it’s a slow relaxing, wine filled cooking experience instead of a frantic ultra-multitasking-never-a-moment-to-rest experience.
- Render your guanciale. Chop the guanciale up into 1/4” strips, then drizzle a little olive oil into a pan. Turn the burner up to high, and when the guanciale starts sizzling, turn the heat down to low and render for 2-3 minutes. Flip each piece over after a minute or two (if you’re feeling lazy, just give it a stir instead).
- Add your aromatics. Add your minced garlic and rinsed, chopped capers to the pan once the guanciale has become translucent. Give them a stir every so often so they don’t burn. Cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the chicken and the wine. You add both at the same time, unlike with many other recipes. Turn the heat up to med-high and reduce the wine by half, while flipping the chicken to ensure even cooking.
- Add the cream. Reduce the cream by half too.
- Add the cheese and black pepper. Finally, turn the heat down to low (or take the pan off the heat entirely if you are going to hold the sauce) and add the grated cheese and black pepper. Whisk for a minute or so to make sure everything is emulsified, taste and adjust seasoning if needed, then your sauce is ready for its pasta date.
How to sauce pasta
Saucing pasta properly is one of the most important steps to making good pasta, and is usually the difference between great pasta and sloppy bad pasta. To properly sauce pasta:
- Cook the pasta to 1 minute before the time indicated on the package. The package time is a very good indication of al dente these days. You don’t need to taste it or throw it against the wall. If you prefer your pasta on the harder side, as they do in Italy or Japan, cook it to 2-3 minutes before the time on the package.
- Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and drain the pasta into a colander or better yet, use a pasta scoop, and transfer the pasta directly into your sauce.
- Turn the heat to medium and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for a final minute. If it starts to look a little dry and not as creamy, add pasta water in, 1-2 tablespoons at a time. Use silicone coated tongs or spatulas to gently toss the noodles as they cook, and you’ll have perfectly sauced pasta.
What is guanciale?
A note on guanciale, the only ingredient that might be hard to find: if you’ve never had guanciale, it’s a sweet cured pork cheek that you can probably find locally made by someone in most major cities. I’m sure I’ll get some grief from some Italians for saying this, but you can use it anytime the base of your pasta calls for any form of cured pork.
One cheek keeps me and Steph in pasta for months, and costs less than $10 at our local charcuterie. The equivalent amount of pancetta/proscuitto would be 10x that much. It’s so worth it to seek it out.
Guanciale doubles as the best bacon ever too. It almost never goes bad, and you can even use it for breakfast. When rendered properly, it’s crispy and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. It tastes a little sweet, not overly salty, and extremely bacon-y.
Guanciale vs Pancetta vs Prosciutto vs Bacon
So what is the difference between guanciale, pancetta, proscuitto, and bacon then? The simplest answer is that bacon is smoked, which is awesome but not always a desireable taste for other dishes as the smoke overpowers any other flavors. When I was younger I used to make carbonara with bacon, and it mainly tasted like bacon.
- Guanciale (originally from Umbria and Lazio) is pork cheek that’s been cured with mainly salt, sugar and pepper. At 90% fat with a sugar cure, it’s the fattiest and sweetest of the big 3.
- Pancetta is pork belly that’s been cured in the same way as guanciale, minus the sugar. It’s – ironically – a little less fatty, a little less sweet, and less dry. Pancetta, due to cost and popularity, tends to be widely made and sold everywhere.
- Proscuitto are those iconic legs of ham you see hanging in Italy (and elsewhere in the Mediterranean), cured in much the same way as pancetta, except for an extended drying process that ages the meat and produces amazing flavors. It’s the most expensive, driest, and its subtlety is lost when you’re talking about making pasta sauces. It’s great on its own as a starter, though.
The best substitute for guanciale
I always recommend people give guanciale a try. It’s the least known of the big 3 Italian cured meats and that’s a shame, since you can even get it online these days. But, if it’s expensive where you live or impossible to find, pancetta is the best subsitute for guanciale. Most of the time I try to get pancetta in the deli department (vs prepacked) and ask for them to cut it into 1/4-1/2” slices for me, which I then cube at home.
How do you cook with capers
When Steph and I first started dating, as all couples do, we introduced each other to our foods. She introduced me to tonkatsu and Japanese curry, and I introduced her to mustard and olives that she actually liked, and dim sum for 2.
I also introduced her to capers as a good thing though, which she hated before me. It turned out that she just never had them properly, which is to say, you should rinse your capers and squeeze them dry before cooking, and use them sparingly. They taste a like raw onion + garlic, with a little pickley briny funk. Once you’ve cooked with them though, you’ll see why they are a classic secret ingredient in many sauces and braises. They add just the right pop to brighten up any dishes, but most especially rich creamy ones.
They aren’t even a secret ingredient per se, restaurants (and home cooks) just leave them out of the description because so many people are wrongly turned off by them. But they are a tiny, incomparable little pop of brightness in a sea of rich sauces.
If your capers have little white spots on them, that’s ok. Those are intense flavor molecules.
What to substitute for capers
Capers are available almost everywhere, so the only reason to substitute them is if you really don’t like the taste. Like with Steph though, that’s probably because you haven’t had them properly prepared. But, let’s say you just don’t like them, if you need to sub them in this recipe, I would go for green olives, which are like capers-lite, without the bite, and personally, I would add a tiny bit of lemon juice as well.
Tips & tricks for the best pasta
- Take your time to reduce the wine and cream. Even if your pasta is done, it can sit in the colander or even in the water off the heat while you wait. Reducing the wine properly is the difference between a complex tasting sauce, and a sauce that tastes like wine. Reducing the cream properly is the difference between a milky soup and an actual sauce.
- Finish in the sauce. Read the section above about how to sauce pasta. Plain pasta with the sauce ladled on top firmly belongs in the 90s. We’re smarter people now.
- Salt your pasta water. Salting your pasta water infuses the pasta with salt and brings out the taste of the wheat.
- Don’t rinse your pasta. The starches on the pasta allow sauce to cling to the noodles and forms a stronger, more robust sauce. If your homecooked pastas always seem a little wetter than the ones you get at restaurants, this is usually the reason why.
- Prepare the sauce in advance. Especially if it’s for a big group or dinner party. The recipe as written is meant for a couple or small family. If you’re preparing for a larger group, you can make and hold the sauce in advance. Then it’s just a matter of how many nonstick skillets you own. Add about 1/4 cup of sauce (plus chicken and bacon) to each portion of pasta.
- Make some extra guanciale and snack. For real, I do this every time. Just drain the little cubes of guanciale onto some paper towels and you have tiny crunchy pops of heaven.
What to serve with creamy chicken pasta?
If you want to make an occasion out of this (which you should), you can serve this creamy chicken pasta up with some antipasti. Our favorites include: sourdough with good olive oil, focaccia, garlic knots, charcuterie at home, burrata and kale, or this awesome peach, melon, and burrata salad.
And of course, I had to do it up as an old school classic creamy chicken penne, complete with dried parsley flakes.
-Living la vida fideo
- 7 oz pasta I used spaghettoni
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 oz guanciale chopped
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 2 tbsp capers rinsed, squeezed, and chopped
- 2 chicken thighs cubed
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup cream
- 1 oz high quality aged cheese such as parmesan
- 1 tbsp freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook your pasta according to package directions minus one minute.
Heat the olive oil and guanciale in a large skillet over medium heat for 2-3 minutes until the fat renders.
Add the garlic and capers. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1-2 minutes.
Add the chicken and wine. Bring the heat up to medium high and cook until the wine is reduced by half, 2-3 minutes, flipping the chicken to ensure even cooking.
Add the cream. Reduce the cream by half, stirring occassionally to form an emulsified, glossy sauce, 2-3 minutes.
Reduce heat to low or remove from heat, then add cheese and black pepper. Whisk until cheese is melted, 1 minute.
Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain the pasta and add to the pan. Turn the heat up to medium high and gently toss pasta for 1 minute or until every strand or piece of pasta is properly coated. Add pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed.
Serve immediately, with extra grated cheese on top
The Creamiest Creamy Chicken and Bacon Pasta Recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 252
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 9.2g58%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.