The garlickiest, butteriest, simplest pasta sauce

This recipe needs only three ingredients. And yes, you should make it tonight

Published January 4, 2021 2:37PM (EST)

Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)
Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)

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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.

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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.

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.

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.


Recipe: Pasta With Garlic Butter

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Serves: 2


  • 1 head garlic
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/2 pound your favorite pasta
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • Optional bonuses: roughly chopped parsley, red pepper flakes or freshly ground black pepper, or grated Parm


  1. Set a pot of water over high heat to come to a boil. While that's in the works, peel and mince the garlic cloves. 
  2. When the water is boiling, generously season with salt and add the pasta. Cook according to the package instructions, until al dente. 
  3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, then add the garlic. Sizzle, stirring or swirling occasionally, for 3 to 7 minutes, just until the garlic turns golden. Immediately dump into a serving bowl (the garlic quickly turns from golden and sweet to brown and bitter). 
  4. Use a spider or tongs (depending on the shape) to transfer the pasta to the garlic butter. Toss and add pasta water as needed to create a silky sauce. Mix in or top with any bonuses if you're using them and serve immediately.


By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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