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American Cooking and Technique for Beginners and Intermediates

Fettuccine Alfredo – The Real Way

Posted on | February 21, 2010 | 22 Comments Print This Post Print This Post

Note 1: Feel free to skip the long introduction if you like.  It’s OK, really.  You won’t hurt my [sniffle] feelings.

Fettuccine Alfredo is a wonderful dish, an interesting bit of pop history, and a frustrating problem of linguistics (linguistics, not linguine.)  We actually know how Alfredo came about.  Unlike most origin myths we can be pretty certain about this because of its close relationship with one of the best covered events in world history – Mary Pickford’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ honeymoon.

Let’s start with the backstory. A few years before the Pickford/Fairbanks honeymoon, it seems there was this guy, Alfredo, who owned a little restaurant in Rome.  His wife got pregnant, and couldn’t keep anything down.  Not even her favorite dish, pasta al burro.  Alfredo made her a variation which involved “creaming” the butter until he almost returned it to a cream-like state (now the word “creaming” makes sense, doesn’t it?), and beating very finely grated cheese into it so the butter and cheese formed a tight emulsion.  So tight in fact, that even when the butter melted the cheese stayed emulsified.

Alfredo took the dish to his restaurant, Alfredo’s, and jazzed up the presentation by tossing the pasta and sauce tableside.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks got married.  A few years later they went on their honeymoon, which in addition to being the most closely covered event up to that stage of the 20th Century, included the Grand Tour of Europe.

In turn, their particular version of the Tour included spending a couple of months in Rome.  While in Rome, they did as Romans do and discovered a charming little restaurant owned by a charming little guy.  You’ve already guessed which restaurant and which guy.  They fell in love with Alfredo’s special version of pasta al burro, which he called (get this) “Fettuccine Alfredo.”  When Mary and Doug left Rome, as a token of their appreciation, they presented Alfredo with two golden spoons.

Of course, all of this was covered in the newspapers and fan magazines in great detail, including the recipe.  So, we know exactly who Alfredo was, and what Alfredo sauce was – at least when it immigrated.

Anyway, it got off the boat, went to work in Italian restaurants over here, and got altered.  People started making it with cream because it held better for restaurant service; with egg, to hold the cream and cheese together; as a Mornay (a Bechamel with cheese), for all the same reasons plus cost; and God knows how using God knows what for God knows which reasons.

The variations rather than the original Alfredo came to dominate the American culinary landscape, and still do to this day.  Are they Alfredo?  Certainly not in the way Alfredo, Doug or Mary thought of it, or in the way it’s still made at Alfredo’s and its progeny.  As a curmudgeonly cook who is pretty damn conservative about which is dish is what, the desire to say “no” is strong.  Yet we’re talking about a name as much as about a dish, names are language, and at some point usage becomes determinative.  At the end of the day, Who knows?  Who cares?

This is the real recipe as is and was made at Alfredo’s in Rome.  Other than attention to technique – a thorough emulsification – it’s just an al burro sauce, same as everywhere in Italy.  If you don’t emulsify, the cheese will become grainy.  If you try melt the cheese into cream without taking other measures the cheese will become stringy.

Butter, cheese, salt, pepper, lots of beating.  The dish is about two things, freshness and texture.  It is not sticky or gooey.  Rather it is creamy, comforting, and rich to the point of decadence – yet surprisingly digestible by pregnant women.

The One, The True, The Real, The Original

3 or 4 main course plates; 6 to 8 appetizers
Difficulty: A lot of work and attention to detail, but easy.


•    1 lb best quality dried or fresh fettuccine or tagliatelle
•    8 oz very good butter (2 sticks), or 6 oz if using fresh pasta
•    8 oz parmigiana reggiano cheese, or 6 oz if using fresh pasta
•    1-1/2 tbs table salt per gallon of pasta water
•    Pepper grinder (white pepper is truer, but black pepper is fine)

Note 2: Remember, good dried pasta is better than mediocre fresh.


Allow the butter to come to room temperature.

Bring a large pot of salted water (about 1-1/2 tbs table salt to each gallon of water) to a hard boil.

Note 3: Some people like to add about 1 tbs of olive oil per gallon of water, on the theory that the oil will make the cooked pasta less sticky and easier to handle.  Some people say it does nothing.  Who’s right?  Who knows?  But what can it hurt?

Meanwhile grate the cheese to a fine, soft, fluffy powder.

Cream the butter with an electric beater or a French whisk to cream it. Cream the butter some more.  More than that, even.  That is, about four minutes with an electric beater, six minutes with a whisk if you’re powerful, and eight minutes with a whisk if you’re normal.

Note 4: A piano wire, pear shaped whisk is marginal.  Don’t use a balloon whisk, it will wreck the tines and take forever.  You can use a wooden spoon if you wish, but it will go slowly and the lousy handle shape will exhaust your hand.

Cream the cheese into the butter in three additions.  Continue creaming until the butter and cheese are totally emulsified.  About two or three minutes with an electric, and about four or five more minutes by hand.  It’s the thorough incorporation which make it so luscious.

Put about two-thirds of the sauce in the bottom of your mixing/serving bowl. Set the remainder aside in an attractive dish, near the dining table.

Cook the pasta al dente.  A typical, dry fettuccine, takes about 9 minutes.  Look at the pasta directions and start taste testing the pasta at 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time.  As a rule, pasta package directions are usually right on (at least at sea level).

Working quickly, ladle 1/2 cup of pasta water into the mixing bowl. Drain the pasta. Add the drained pasta to the mixing bowl on top of the sauce and water.

Carry the mixing bowl to the table, along with a nice, long-handled pair of serving spoons or spoon and fork. Add the reserved sauce to the top of the pasta. Toss rapidly until the sauce melts and the emulsion clings to the pasta. Dress with salt and pepper. Pass the salt cellar, pepper grinder, and extra cheese around the table.

Restating the obvious: Once you get the pasta out of the water, it’s important to work very quickly because the sauce melts and emulsifies with the reserved heat from the pasta and pasta water. That’s the only heat there is. So have everything in place and ready to go.  If you try to melt the “sauce” over direct heat, the emulsion will break and you’ll be left with a mess.  Don’t do it.

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22 Responses to “Fettuccine Alfredo – The Real Way”

  1. Jordan
    March 2nd, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    Why does fresh pasta require less butter and cheese?

  2. BDL
    March 2nd, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    Because dry pasta absorbs water during the cook. A pound of dry pasta, once cooked, is the equivalent of aboiut 1-1/3 lbs of fresh.

  3. DC Sunshine
    March 19th, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    Great history there. And, as we have come to expect, great methodology plus the reasons behind it – much appreciated.

    So much butter! Apart from all the whisking – remarkably simple. If using electric it would shorten the time as you say.

  4. Malch
    September 12th, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    Made this today, and it was a tad salty. A large tad, to be honest. I used unsalted butter and didn’t add any salt at the end so the problem had to be the pasta water. I must have overestimated the saltiness of the sea, and added too much salt. My fault, but it would be helpful if you gave proportions of salt and water. To help us beginners.

    Another suggestion is to add a description of how the sauce should look before you add the water and pasta. Like an idiot I procrastinated and started with cold butter, so I didn’t know when it was ready for pasta. Even if I started with soft butter the sauce in the bowl wouldn’t look anything like it does on the pasta (right?). The good news is it fully emulsified and did what it was supposed to. Perfect amount of sauce. And so simple! Excellent recipe, but I think you could sacrifice some flow and laconicism for detail. I’ve never read a recipe that’s too detailed (actually, some of your recipes are the most detailed I’ve seen, but they still don’t come close to being “too detailed”). Not to mention you can sell a thicker book for more ching ching.

    Keep up the good work,


  5. BDL
    September 12th, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    My bad. Too poetic, insufficiently specific. About 1-1/2 tbs per gallon water for pasta. Maybe a little more if you’re using kosher salt because you’re out of table salt.

    Rule of thumb on salt: In solution, it’s all the same. Don’t use expensive salts like sea salt, colored salts, or even kosher salt if you have regular table salt available. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking about when I posted the recipe — it’s an old one, I’ve had around for a long time, but that’s no excuse.

    I edited the recipe to incorporate the changes.

    Thanks Malch,

  6. gobblygook
    September 26th, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    Do you have any suggestions on grating the cheese mechanically? How do I know when it’s emulsified? I had been using a box grater and grating into fine shred. I know that Kraft powdered parmesan won’t melt with a blow-torch, so I assumed I’d have the same issue with “real” parmesan. If I can use a food processor or such to powder it, even better.

    I’m trying to wrap my mind around how to emulsify a hard cheese into a soft butter. Once chilled, will it still separate?

    Finally, since the intent of the original was to be bland, do you have any suggestions for seasonings? I’ve tried garlic and black pepper (the parmesan offers enough saltiness already).

  7. joey
    September 29th, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    why do you need to salt the pasta water at all? i’ve always tried to figure out why people do that, and it also seems to me a waste of good oil to oil the water as well..seems like it may make it a ‘scooch’ easier to handle, but in this case you are not really handling the pasta and i think that the extra oil gets absorbed into the noodles, so that to me, means that less sauce gets absorbed as well…if the pasta was being held, then i can see a splash of oil, but it is not…..other than that, i will give this a spin…..i love simple, simple…..thanks bdl

  8. BDL
    September 29th, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    Hi Joey, great to see you here.

    Salting the pasta water makes the pasta taste good. It doesn’t hurt the water as an ingredient in the sauce either.

    You’re almost certainly right about the oil. Old dog, new tricks, but I’m reevaluating the whole oil in pasta thing. When I change my evil ways, probably this week, I’ll edit the recipe.


  9. Hayford Peirce
    October 14th, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I’ve had Alfredo three times in my life at various Alfredo’s in Rome, in 1953 as a kid, in 1968 with my Tahitian wife, and in 1975 with my French wife. In all three cases it was fantastic. Nothing like the glop served in the States. I’ve now, over the years, perfected a couple of other great pasta sauces, including carbonara and caccio e pepe, and will now attack Alfredo, using, of course, the above METHOD more than “recipe”.

    As a tip to everyone here, go to the NYT website of Sept. 15, 2010, find the Harold McGee article called “Achieving a Distinct Flavor, Without Going to Extremes.” He tells you how to make “alkaline noodles” or “alkaline pasta” — nothing but semolina flour, water, and BAKED baking soda. It’s fantastic, the best pasta you’re ever gonna make by yourself. It rolls out paper thin and retains its strength and shape perfectly. Elastic and tasty. Fabulous. His recipe makes about 14 ounces. Once you’ve made this, you’ll never make pasta any other way…

  10. Hayford Peirce
    October 14th, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    PS — when making McGee’s pasta, you’ve got to put the dough through the machine many times (10 times at least per small portion) before thinning it out successively. Also, here in Tucson, Arizona, where it’s super-dry, I had to use at least 25% more water than he does. But if you’ve made pasta dough before, you’ll know all this instinctively….

  11. BDL
    October 14th, 2010 @ 2:49 pm


    Baked baking soda, eh? Who knew? Thanks for posting that here.

    So I looked it up at the NYT site, and at The Curious Cook, McGee’s blog. Here’s a link to the post at The Curious Cook. It doesn’t require a membership; AND it has the pasta recipe included.

    Nice catch on the “method more than recipe” thing too. Breaking down technique is exactly what I’m trying to do in general as well as with Alfredo specifically.

    Lastly, the “two thirds plus the remaining half” paradox was corrected with some nifty higher mathematics.


  12. Hayford Peirce
    October 14th, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    Well, if I hadn’t already decided to eat some more of the Hunan red-cooked pork belly that I made a couple of days ago for dinner tonight, I would try your Alfredo. Tomorrow, I guess — but I’ll have to make the pasta first — I’ll try putting the sheets through the #6 roller before then putting them through the fettucini cutter. I have a 35-y/o Atlas machine that still works perfectly….

  13. Hayford Peirce
    October 15th, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    I’ve got two questions before I make my Alfredo for dinner tonight:

    1.) Above you say, “Put about two-thirds of the sauce in the bottom of your mixing/serving bowl. Set the other half aside in an attractive dish”.

    Do you mean, “Set the other THIRD aside”?

    2.) I will be making my pasta around 2 o’clock, letting the dough rest for an hour, and cutting the strands around 3:30. They will then rest on a cloth in the 80-degree kitchen for about four hours until dinnertime. Do you consider this to be “dried” pasta or “fresh”? It will dry some during that time, but not become as dry as what comes out of a package.

    Thanks for your comments on this!

  14. Malch
    October 16th, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    I guess this is too late, but I would just weigh the pasta after you cut it so you know how much fresh pasta you have. Then it doesn’t matter if it dries out.

  15. Hayford Peirce
    October 16th, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Well, I think he’s not concerned with the *weight* of the pasta, but with the *texture* of it — ie, dry pasta will absorb more water from the cooking and will therefore need more sauce. I was just wondering if my own homemade stuff should be considered dried or fresh.

    As it was, his technique of emulsifying the butter and cheese is fantastic and works perfectly. However, in my own preparation last night, I made the fettucine too *thin* — which meant that it cooked so quickly that I over-cooked it. AND, because it was so thin, half a pound, which was what I cooked (227 grams, uncooked), there was an *enormous* amount of surface area of cooked, thin pasta. So this large amount of surface needed *more* sauce than I had prepared. I can correct this the next time by either using store-bought dry pasta OR by using the #5 thickness setting on my pasta machine rather than #6 — my fettucine will be thicker and with less surface area.

    Also, I cooked my pasta in *unsalted* water and then found that my final dish needed both salt AND more pepper. I will play around with this until I come up with some *specific* instructions, such as: “When you have finished emulsifying the butter and cheese, then add 1/2 teaspoon table salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper. Beat for another 10 seconds.” Or some such — it shouldn’t have to be seasoned at the table….

  16. BDL
    October 16th, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    Hayford and Malch

    It’s a real pleasure to see an ongoing dialogue here.

    You’re right that it shouldn’t need additional salt and pepper at the table. Part of being a good cook is hitting the right seasoning level. In this recipe, it’s a question of balancing the saltiness of the pasta water and the butter to get the salt right; and then the pepper is added in an amount to properly offset the salt.

    And please don’t neglect to post here what works for you.


    PS. Hayford Pierce the sci-fi writer? If so — I enjoy your stories.

  17. Hayford Peirce
    October 17th, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    “I before E except after P,” as we learned in school, hehe. Yup, the same guy….

    I’ll keep you updated with my experiments — I’m gonna perfect this rascal, it’s such a great start!

    By the way, where did you come up with the 10-minute emulsification? I’ve read *lots* of Alfredo histories and recipes and none of them talked about the emulsifying. I don’t see how you could keep a “secret” like that for over 90 years with literally thousands of people having worked in Alfredo’s kitchens during that time….

  18. BDL
    October 17th, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    There was a certain amount of extrapolation. I (a) read a description which was either from or based on an interview or discussion with the man himself (and no, I can’t find it on the net anymore), which focused on the “creaminess” of the mixture; (b) if you don’t beat it into emulsification it’s just (i) an ordinary al burro; and (ii) Alfredo’s wife would have kept puking; and (c) I kept screwing with it and screwing with it and a ton of beating is one of the only two ways I could get the emulsification to hold.

    The second is to whisk cream until it’s stiff, then whisk in the finely grated cheese and just keep beating until it’s almost butter.

    Their are advantages to this method. One is that that the nearly finished “sauce,” can be held cold in the refrigerator, then refreshed with a bit more whisking just before using — it can even be done tableside if you like. It’s a little lighter, but(ironically) not quite as creamy as the butter version.

    I think all of the “true” Alfredo histories/recipes come from a very few and very related sources. Considering that Pickford’s and Fairbank’s dinner choices were among the best covered and most avidly followed events in 20th C. journalism, and how important fettuccine Alfredo was to Alfredo’s ownership, it’s not too surprising they would all line up.

    I don’t know exactly how long Alfredo’s creams the butter and for how much longer they beat the emulsion, but I know what it takes to really get the sauce to work and just how damn far I’d go to try and keep a pregnant wife happy.


  19. Hayford Peirce
    October 18th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    As for keeping a pregnant wife happy, I would just have found her a temporary Roman boyfriend who happened to like pregnant women….

    But thanks for the explanations. Yes, I agree, probably all of the “info” dates back to one or two “ur” sources. Like all of the fantastical stories about how much Diamond Jim Brady would eat at a typical dinner all seem to date back to a single source of dubious accuracy. Then the same stories are repeated over and over, garnering a new layer of authenticity each time an earlier source is cited.

    By the way, I was telling your method to a foodie friend of mine yesterday (who thought it sounded great) and he suggested starting out with the *whipped* butter that one sees at the store. Isn’t this just regular butter with air beaten into it? You’d use the same *weight* of the butter, not the *volume*.

    I objected, however, saying that I always use the “European-style” butters, which have a higher butterfat content. More expensive, but they taste better. And Cooks Illustrated says that they’re better for baking etc. I don’t buy the *really* expensive one, just Land O’ Lakes or Challenger, whichever one it is….

  20. Hayford Peirce
    October 24th, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Last night I made a SUPERB Alfredo, the best one I’ve tasted since being at Alfredo’s in Rome in 1975 — and, as far as I can recall, it looked and tasted exactly like the real thing!

    Of the very thin (too thin) fettucine I had made a week or so ago, I had a little left over. I air-dried it for 3 or 4 days and ended up, coincidentally, with *exactly* 2 ounces of the stuff, which enabled me to convert the master recipe above into portions exactly 1/4 the original size. So, this is what I ended up doing:

    2 oz (57 grams) very thin homemade fettucine
    1 oz (28 grams) “Challenge European Style Butter Salted”, at room temperature
    1 oz (28 grams) Boar’s Head Imported Parmegano, grated very fine in a food processor and at room temperature
    1/4 tsp table salt — but use a little less, I think, just a shade under 1/4 teaspoon
    1/4 tsp “Spice Islands Ground White Pepper” — not freshly ground, obviously
    1 TB boiling water from the pasta cooking pot
    2 quarts (8 cups) UNSALTED water for cooking the pasta

    1.) I creamed the butter in a small dish with just *one* beater in the hand-held electric mixer — 2 minutes seemed to be enough — using *low* speed.
    2.) I added the cheese in 4 equal parts, still beating on *low* speed. In about 2 or 3 minutes it was nicely emulsified.
    3.) I then added the salt and pepper and beat for another minute. Then pulled everything neatly together with a rubber cake spatula and set aside.
    4.) Brought exactly 2 quarts of UNSALTED water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan.
    5.) Heated a soup bowl in the oven at 200 degrees, turned off the heat, and left it there.
    6.) Dumped the pasta into the boiling water and set my timer. After a minute, I removed:
    7.) 1 tablespoon exactly of the boiling water and dumped it into the butter mixture. I first stirred it with the rubber spatula, then whisked it with a wire whisk. It held together nicely but thinned out a little.
    8.) At exactly 3 minutes of boiling my pasta was done. I quickly drained it and dumped it into the hot soup bowl that I had taken from the oven.
    9.) I scraped all of the sauce over it and tossed and stirred until all of the sauce had utterly vanished.
    10.) Hurried over to the table where wine, water, butter, and sourdough baguette were already waiting.
    11.) Lifted the first forkful to my mouth — UTTER HEAVEN!

    Thanks a million times for this wonderful recipe/method!

  21. BDL
    November 20th, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    Voila! Is probably the wrong word in this case. Mazel tov! Whoopie! And Eureka! will have to do.

    Whoopie works.


  22. Hayford Peirce
    February 11th, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    Update on using homemade fettuccine that had NOT been dried before cooking. I made exactly the above recipe, but doubled it. I also used my wonderful alkaline pasta noodles that I had made earlier in the afternoon, maybe only a few hours beforehand. They were still flexible and slightly moist. They cooked *very* quickly, probably in only two or three minutes. Then when I applied the butter-cheese emulsion, THEY REFUSED TO ABSORB IT. Complete disaster, a great big ball of messy noodles all knotted together swimming in white sauce! I was ready to kill myself — I had made the dish for a beautiful French girl from Tahiti who had flown over from LAX to visit me. She said that her favorite dish was pasta of any kind — and this is what I served her! I wanted to take her out to a restaurant but she refused. So we sat and ate the noodles. She had three servings. It LOOKED terrible but tasted pretty good. But even so….

    The lesson to be learned from this: treat fresh, undried noodles very differently from the dried ones, even if homemade. Cook the noodles a *much* shorter period of time. And, as BDL advises, use LESS butter and cheese on them, how much less I’m not really sure.

    The easy answer, though: make your noodles — then let them dry for a day or so. I’ve been drying them in the sun on my dining room table and after 12 hours or so they curl up and get twisty — these are noodles made with semolina and run through the #6 thickness of the Atlas pasta machine. Then run through the fettuccine blade. They are *very* thin. But, if made with semolina, not *too* thin — they are elastic and hold their shape beautifully. And barely stick together.

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    WHO IS BDL, Boar D. Laze, or whatever the hell his name is?

    A Brief Biography:

    Ex-Navy Seal; Ex-Victoria’s Secret model; Turned down a three-way with Sophia Loren and the young Marlene Dietrich (as in the Blue Angel) because had other plans; Knows who killed everyone in The Big Sleep, and why; Chaired the work-group which invented Time, Space, Gravity, Fire and Holiday Sweaters; Prefers Dickel to Jack.

    What is Cook Food Good?

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