Big Little Recipes

The Garlickiest, Butteriest, Simplest Pasta Sauce

December 22, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, we’re going from garlicky to garlickiest.


When my kitchen is out of milk and eggs and greens and, most concerningly, coffee, I can still count on these staples, sturdy as they come: pasta, garlic, and butter. This weeknight dinner needs nothing more.

The littlest of Big Little Recipes—the lowest of the low-maintenance, the chillest of the chill—share their ingredients via their titles. Think: Chicken Noodle Soup with just chicken and noodles. Chocolate–Peanut Butter Mousse with just chocolate and peanut butter. Broccoli-Cheddar Sauce with just broccoli and cheddar. Cream of Mushroom Soup with just cream and mushrooms.

You know where this is going, right? The garlickiest, butteriest, best garlic butter sauce for pasta comes together with just garlic and butter.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I start off with 2-3 TBS of EVOO, in a saute pan on med low, add garlic stirring occasionally until edges are carmelizing and a smaller bits are light brown, I then remove from heat and immediately toss in 4-6 TBS of Salted butter and stir till butter is melted and all the garlic bits a golden brown I then add black pepper and a pinch of crushed red pepper before returning pan to the heat raise heat to med high and add in the cooked and drained cavatelli. Then toss in pan for a minute or two so pasta absorbs some of the sauce and serve. My grandmother would always have a small bowl of "mui"(breadcrumbs lightly browned in butter on stovetop) to sprinkle over the pasta which I usually do, But first....I always have a block of Ricotta Salata on hand to freshly grate a light snowfall worth over my bowl of yummy garlicky goodness!.....Enjoy!😃”
— Joseph G.
Comment

But the amount of garlic is key. For half a pound of pasta (aka two servings in our pasta-adoring household), we’re using a whole head of garlic (aka a dozen cloves, give or take). I know. I know! Stay with me.

Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

When raw, a couple of cloves is more than enough to carry a crowd’s worth of Caesar dressing. But when cooked, garlic undergoes a metamorphosis—from stingy-sharp to nutty-sweet—not unlike a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or Hilary Duff’s iconic 2003 album.

“When onions and their relatives are heated, the various sulfur compounds react with each other and with other substances to produce a range of characteristic flavor molecules,” Harold McGee writes in On Food & Cooking. “Cooking at high temperatures in fat produces more volatiles and a stronger flavor than do other techniques.”

Think about how you only need a sliver of onion on a sandwich, yet could eat a basketful of fried onion rings with ranch. When minced into bits and butter-sizzled until golden, garlic goes from a less-is-more ingredient to a more-is-more showstopper.

This sauce gets along with any pasta shape, from something short and chunky to long and twirly, whatever you have around. And while the world is your oyster with the accessories—chopped parsley, grated Parm, red pepper flakes, you name it—I hope you’ll take at least one bite without any of the distractions. Simply, confidently, blissfully unadorned.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Fritz900
    Fritz900
  • BAL11
    BAL11
  • Paul Zurowski
    Paul Zurowski
  • Kate Runyon
    Kate Runyon
  • Kathy Wymore
    Kathy Wymore
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

25 Comments

Fritz900 January 3, 2021
Would you double the ingredients if you were doubling the pasta? Two heads of garlic?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 4, 2021
Yes! For one pound of pasta, I'd do two heads of garlic.
 
Fritz900 January 5, 2021
Thank you
 
BAL11 December 30, 2020
Instant pot for me. But, the first recipe I saw called for 16 minutes and not 10, and I find that perfect - no lumps at all and I hand mash after. I quarter the potatoes, use a mix of Yukon Gold and Russett (halve them for small potatoes), also throw in many garlic cloves, after cooked add tiny bit of half and half, lotsa butter, and some salt. So good.
 
BAL11 December 30, 2020
Haha! I posted this comment on the completely wrong page.

Um, never mind. Yay pasta
 
Paul Z. December 27, 2020
Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against garlic. But, all of these childhood memories reminded me of my grandma on my Dad’s side. She was not a great cook, but when she babysat me, she made me a simple pasta dish of just bread crumbs browned in butter. That’s it. Oh what memories that brings back! We had a very special bond.
 
Kate R. December 24, 2020
I’ve been a life long vegetarian who would have possibly gone vegan years ago if butter didn’t exist...and it’s stinky, yummy cousin cheese! If I bleed, I believe it would be melted butter! Being Italian, this is the dish I grew up on in lieu of the blue box most kids here in America enjoy so much. It was the go to on many nights when mom was juggling 4 tired and hungry children in the kitchen after a long day chasing us around. When the bowls hit the table, utter silence as we went at it getting those greasy grins when your sucked up spaghetti simply drenched in that golden goodness. Sometimes mom would use less butter with the garlic and in a separate pan, heat up more to till it browned and then top the noodles with the two butters. Ahhhh...heaven.
Now that I’m grown up...or should I say at least added some years to my resume of life...I make both of these dishes after my own long day at work. My husband and I also still get those shiny grins!
 
Kathy W. December 24, 2020
I made a tactical error and used minced garlic because I thought I had fresh and had already started the linguine and chopped the parsley. I used waaaay too much garlic so I am the exception that proves the rule. Lesson learned. It actually tasted good but garlic is going to be coming out my pores for days. Tomorrow I add a bit more pasta and sauteed mushrooms to the leftovers.
 
Stephanie B. December 24, 2020
I keep frozen peas on hand for a variety of recipes but because we love frozen peas.
You could add peas to your mushrooms and add rotisserie chicken. BAM! Delicious leftovers 😋
 
Peaches December 23, 2020
Haven't tried the pasta, this is about butter. One of my grandmothers grew up on a farm im North Dakota and so their butter was always super fresh. As an adult (here in California)she only ate margarine because all store bought butters tasted too old, if not rancid, to her. So IMO it is simply a matter of personal taste.
 
Stephanie B. December 24, 2020
I grew up on a dairy farm and boy there's a huge difference between homemade butter and store bought. I made butter with my grandma every week. Each cousin had to take a to turn helping. ANYWAY...... I buy the more expensive butter and it's worth it. But the Irish butter that you can get everywhere now is so totally worth the buy.
 
FrugalCat December 23, 2020
The recipe was super easy and good. I used large elbow pasta and all the add-ins (red pepper, Parm, parsley, fresh ground black pepper). I had to dice some pepperoni on top too, as my old-school husband refuses to accept pasta as a main course unless there is some type of meat involved.
 
Hannah December 23, 2020
This conversation is too funny! I thought I was odd for having an aversion to butter once in a while. I’d smell melted butter and it would make me feel sick. Can butter go rancid in the fridge? Either my taste would be off or the butter really was rancid. And I’m talking about a decent quality Kerry Gold, not just a store brand.
 
Joseph G. December 22, 2020
Absolutely one of my favorite dishes! I prefer to use ricotta cavatelli, for a 1lb bag I normally use about 8 cloves(but more can be merrier) of garlic smashed and minced. I start off with 2-3 TBS of EVOO, in a saute pan on med low, add garlic stirring occasionally until edges are carmelizing and a smaller bits are light brown, I then remove from heat and immediately toss in 4-6 TBS of Salted butter and stir till butter is melted and all the garlic bits a golden brown I then add black pepper and a pinch of crushed red pepper before returning pan to the heat raise heat to med high and add in the cooked and drained cavatelli. Then toss in pan for a minute or two so pasta absorbs some of the sauce and serve. My grandmother would always have a small bowl of "mui"(breadcrumbs lightly browned in butter on stovetop) to sprinkle over the pasta which I usually do, But first....I always have a block of Ricotta Salata on hand to freshly grate a light snowfall worth over my bowl of yummy garlicky goodness!.....Enjoy!😃
 
Jisbless December 22, 2020
This looks Amazing! I am going to try this garlicky pasta dish. I like all pastas.
 
S.Neubeck December 22, 2020
I dislike butter so I used olive oil. I also had a habernero pepper and added that for the pasta I had buccatini which allowed the garlicky goodness to permeate the noodles.
 
Noodlenut December 22, 2020
Dear SN, did you just write you don’t like butter??????????????????????????????????????
 
Lance M. December 22, 2020
I wondered the same thing.
 
S.Neubeck December 22, 2020
Yes, butter has tasted weird since I was in booties, bonnet and nappies.
 
Molly D. December 23, 2020
I too dislike butter, especially salted butter. I thought I was the only one on earth!
 
Molly D. December 23, 2020
I cannot stand the taste or the smell of salted butter, especially when it is melted. I doubt that I am the only one on planet earth who feels this way;)
 
Rosalind K. December 23, 2020
That's too funny, because when I was a child I walked out the door with a stick of butter in my hand! My Oma raced after me to prevent me from eating the whole thing! (Can't imagine how ill I'd have been if she hadn't caught me!) I still LOVE butter!
 
Bonnie December 22, 2020
Looks like another wonderful recipe. Look forward to trying it.
 
gandalf December 22, 2020
I use similar proportions of oil and pasta when I cook spaghetti aglio e oglio, although less garlic: for each 4 oz. of spaghetti that is used, I use 2 Tbsp. oil and 2 cloves of garlic, minced, with 2 Tbsp. of pasta water at the end.

I look forward to giving the butter and garlic a try with spaghetti!
 
HS December 31, 2020
that's what I was thinking while reading this-- swap butter for olive oil, and this is the go-to spaghetti dish that sustained me through several broke years. I used the cheapest ingredients in discount stores (it was definitely not EVOO!) and it was still filling and delicious.