Delicious chicken spinach pasta with golden brown pieces of juicy, lean meat tossed in a creamy parmesan cheese sauce. A hearty Italian meal that’s easy to prepare!
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A big pot of this creamy chicken spinach pasta is a quick meal for those busy weeknights. Nothing is more comforting than a bowl of saucy noodles. I add tender chicken pieces and plenty of spinach to make each serving more filling.
To make this fast meal, I synchronize the cooking of the chicken and sauce. The timing will be perfect for bringing all components together. My tried-and-true alfredo sauce inspired the creamy sauce in this recipe. And the delicate leafy greens and sundried tomatoes for sweetness complement the savory pasta.
I use short-cut, tubular penne pasta because it has tiny grooves on the surface, helping the sauce coat the top and disperse inside. If desired, you can use other types of pasta like cavatappi, small shells, or elbows.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water to season it throughout. The target texture should be al dente, tender with some slight resistance. They will cook further when combined with the hot sauce. Save that starchy pasta water to add to the sauce!
Cook the chicken
Use lean, boneless skinless chicken breast cut into 1-inch pieces. They cook quicker, so they don’t dry out from prolonged exposure in the pan. I keep the seasoning simple with salt and pepper. Cook the chicken in olive oil over medium heat.
To properly sear the protein and create a golden brown surface, arrange the pieces in a single layer, and don’t move them! Let the crust form. It will take about 3 minutes on each side. This technique adds a delicious flavor to the exterior of each piece.
Make the sauce
There will be some flavorful golden fond at the bottom of the pan after searing the chicken. Don’t waste it! Instead, incorporate it into the parmesan cream sauce. Saute the minced garlic in fresh olive oil to add some zing.
Stir in heavy whipping cream. It contains at least 36% milk fat. When the cream reduces, it creates a rich and velvety texture without the need to add a thickening agent like flour or cornstarch. This process only takes about 3 minutes. It should just start to cling to a spoon.
Cook the spinach
Baby spinach is very tender and mild in flavor. The leaves contain over 90% water, making them wilt down quickly in the hot cream sauce. Add in the sundried tomatoes at the same time. The fruit’s natural sugars are concentrated, which provides a hint of sweetness in the dish.
Add the cheese
To gently melt the cheese, stir it into the sauce with the heat off. I also add in the nutmeg for warm spiced notes to the dish. If the sauce reduces too much, add in the salty and starchy pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time to thin it out. I typically add about ¼ cup of it.
Toss the pasta
To finish, add the penne and seared chicken to the cream sauce. Mix it all to coat the ingredients thoroughly. I like to garnish with fresh herbs like basil, parsley, or oregano to add Italian seasoning right before serving.
Serve this with
Yes, boneless dark meat can be used instead of white meat. Be sure to trim any excess fat so that it doesn’t make the dish too greasy.
Any type of short-cut pasta can be used. Elbows, shells, cavatappi, fusilli, rotini, or farfalle work well. Long strands do work, but just make sure it’s about 8 ounces.
Defrosted frozen chopped spinach can be used instead of fresh baby spinach. Use 3 ounces, about ⅓ cup in the recipe.
Can I use whipping cream, half-and-half, or whole milk?
Heavy whipping cream contains at least 36% milkfat. Whipping cream containing 30 to 36% is a good substitute. It will just be slightly lighter in consistency. Half-and-half is a diluted cream with milk, between 10.5 to 18% fat, while whole milk is only 3.5% fat. Both would give a very light sauce but have a higher risk of curdling. You need to add a thickening agent like a roux or cornstarch to thicken the sauce.
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Chicken Spinach Pasta
- 2 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
- 8 ounces dried penne , 2 ½ cups
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast
- ¾ teaspoon black pepper, divided
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 ½ cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 cups baby spinach, packed
- ¼ cup sundried tomatoes
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon sliced basil
- Cook the Pasta – In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add 1 ½ teaspoon salt and stir to dissolve. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes, or according to the manufacturer's directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the starchy liquid to make the cream sauce.
- Prepare the Chicken – Cut the chicken breast into about 1-inch cubes. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
- Cook the Chicken – Set a large skillet over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chicken in a single layer, and cook without moving until the surface is golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a clean bowl.
- Saute the Garlic – Using the same skillet to cook the chicken, adjust the burner to low heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and minced garlic, and saute until fragrant, 30 seconds.
- Reduce the Cream – Stir in the heavy cream, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Frequently scrape the sides and bottom of the pan to ensure it does not curdle. Reduce the sauce until it just starts to thicken and lightly coats the back of a spoon, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Cook the Spinach – Stir in the spinach and sundried tomatoes. Cook until the spinach is wilted, about 1 minute.
- Finish the Sauce – Turn off the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese and nutmeg. If the sauce is too thick, add the reserved pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Toss the Pasta – Add the pasta and chicken to the sauce, gently stirring to combine.
- To Serve – Garnish with sliced basil and serve warm.
- Recipe Yield: About 8 cups
- Serving Size: About 1 ⅓ cups
- Storing: Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
- Reheating: Reheat in a microwave on the high setting in 30-second increments until hot, stirring in between.
- Make it Gluten-Free: Substitute gluten-free pasta.
- Using Frozen Spinach: Defrost 3 ounces of frozen chopped spinach, about ⅓ cup, and drain well. Stir into the sauce with the sundried tomatoes.
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