The wide variety of store-bought Alfredo sauces available is proof that Alfredo sauce is a convenient pantry go-to for time-pressed home cooks. Some versions feature roasted garlic, others basil, while yet others tout aged Parmesan cheese or a four-cheese blend. And you don't need to limit the jar to saucing pasta. Think: mac and cheese casseroles, cannelloni, chicken or salmon, or even white pizzas. Basically, Alfredo sauce is a creamy white cheese sauce and a useful staple-like marinara sauce-for quick meals or recipe shortcuts.
What is Alfredo sauce, exactly? It's an American invention, based on an Italian dish. Fettuccine Alfredo is a Roman specialty. Legend has it that the dish was created some time back in the early 1900s based on an older recipe for pasta with cheese and butter. Alfredo di Lelio, owner of restaurant Alfredo Alla Scrofa, made the dish using nothing but pasta, a splash of pasta water, butter, and young Parmesan cheese (which easily melts and emulsifies into a creamy coating), for his wife who had no appetite after giving birth to their first son. It soon took off as a popular menu item at his restaurant, where it was prepared tableside.
American versions of the sauce, on the other hand, are made with a sauce that uses cream. Store-bought versions usually have some thickening ingredients such as modified cornstarch, egg powder, or xanthan gum, and a variety of different spices such as bay leaves, black pepper, or nutmeg. Most of them include water and oil, "natural flavors," and a variety of other unappealing ingredients such as stabilizers and preserving agents. High in salt and fat, the recommended serving is no more than ¼ cup. Here are some to seek out, and one to skip altogether.
For Seafood: Trader Joe's Limone Alfredo Sauce
This is a TJ's fan favorite, and for good reason. While traditional Alfredo has no lemon, this rendition provides a nice tangy lift for a rich, indulgent sauce that's predictably high in fat and sodium. It's made in Italy, uses real Parmigiano Reggiano, has the fewest unpronounceable ingredients, and is truly delicious. You can really taste the true flavor of the cheese and it is so thick and luscious you'll want to thin it down a bit with pasta water. Can you serve this to discriminating foodies? Yes, you really can.
For Pasta: Bertolli D'Italia Alfredo Sauce
Possibly the only supermarket brand made in Italy with authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, this Afredo sauce is relatively low in salt, and the flavors of the cheese really shine through. Unlike many brands that can linger in the fridge for a week or more, the label indicates that the sauce should be used within 3 days of opening. An Italian food snob, I was impressed by the caliber of this sauce, and would buy it again. It coated pasta nicely, and had a light, fresh quality that most brands lack.
For Every Day: Trader Joe's Alfredo Pasta Sauce
A combination of Parmesan and Romano cheese plus onion, garlic, and nutmeg give this sauce a little more depth than the competitors. Though not something you'd serve to guests, it's a step up from the bargain brands. The sauce is thicker than most, and clings well to pasta and vegetables. It's also not as much of a salt bomb as other store-bought brands.
Best for Garlic Lovers: Rao's Roasted Garlic Alfredo
Rao's, which includes Parmesan and Romano cheese, is by far the most expensive sauce. Buyer beware, though: If you've been pining to dine at the exclusive and eponymous restaurant-the original NYC location doesn't take reservations-know that there is no Fettuccine Alfredo on the menu! I'm a fan of this one: This garlicky Alfredo is rich and creamy, with the garlic's sweetness making the sauce seem less salty despite being high in sodium. Because the combination of sweet roasted garlic and savory cheese are so robust, it's a particularly good option for serving with plain vegetables in need of a little pizzazz.
Best Gluten-free: Classico Creamy Alfredo
Classico Creamy Alfredo contains heavy cream, Parmesan cheese, and a healthy dose of black pepper. Like any store-bought sauce, it's nowhere near as good as what you'll make from scratch or find in a restaurant, but this one is free from the (gluten-containing) autolyzed yeast extract some jars contain. Paired with a gluten-free pasta, it makes a convenient and comforting meal for someone who is celiac or just avoiding wheat.
Best for Recipes: Prego Homestyle Alfredo
Cheddar cheese, bay leaves, and wine are some of the curious ingredients in a sauce made by Campbell Soup Company-a brand that knows its way around a casserole dish. It's thicker than the store brand and suitably creamy, but tastes more salty than cheesy. That said, it's not a bad choice for a white pizza, spinach lasagna, or enchiladas suizas.
For Bargain Shoppers Only: Kroger Four Cheese Alfredo Sauce
This affordably priced store brand comes with a money-back guarantee-which is a good thing, since despite boasting a mix of Parmesan, ricotta, Romano and provolone, it's terribly salty, thin and one-dimensional. (Amazingly, you can't taste any of those four cheeses in it!) As if that wasn't bad enough, the label says it includes a "bioengineered food product," which is federally required for products that include genetically modified ingredients.
When it comes to Alfredo sauces, perhaps not surprisingly, the jars with the fewest, best-quality ingredients were the clear winners. Find one you like and it could become a favorite weeknight dinner staple.