The perfect not-so-fancy but still a little fancy weeknight dinner of your dreams featuring vodka, pasta, and cheese.
Do you love noodles? Do you love vodka? Do you want to drink vodka and eat it too? If the answer is yes to any of the above, this penne alla vodka is for you.
Let’s back up a bit. Just what exactly is penne alla vodka? It’s pink, it’s pretty, and it really does have vodka in it. It’s little bit retro (it was super popular in the 70s and 80s) and something you almost always see at classic old school Italian American pasta places. Vodka sauce is rich, luscious, and is one of the best homemade pasta sauces you’ll ever learn to make. If you’ve only ever had Bertolli vodka sauce, you’re in for a treat.
Vodka sauce, like so many beloved foods, has somewhat of a murky beginning. Some people say that it’s completely Italian American and some say it originated in Bologna, Italy. From what I can tell, according to the internet anyway, penne alla vodka became peak popular in America, and in fact, it’s kind of trending right now, with Gigi Hadid’s vodka sauce being all over Instagram. I love vodka sauce, so I’m here for it!
What is vodka sauce?
Vodka sauce is a tomato based cream sauce that is made with vodka. The vodka adds a distinctly sharp, bright flavor and helps emulsify the cream and tomatoes together. It’s a super comforting sauce that comes together quickly and pairs perfectly with pasta.
What does vodka sauce taste like?
Vodka sauce is creamy and rich. It’s luxurious and silky on the tongue thanks to the cream and sweet with a bit of acid from the tomato. As the sauce cooks over a low flame, the tomatoes caramelize and turn jammy, melding and combining with the vodka. The vodka flavor is in the background, with a hint of brightness and herbaceous pepperiness. In this version, tiny bites of crisped up pancetta add pops of savory saltiness too. Vodka sauce is creamy, comforting, and utterly delicious.
Is there vodka in vodka sauce?
Yes, there is vodka in vodka sauce. Lots of sauces have alcohol added to them: the alcohol bonds with fat and water, so food become smells and tastes better. Simply said, food cooked with alcohol becomes more aromatic and flavorful. Most authentic Italian sauces have wine and in this case, we switch out wine for vodka, thus vodka sauce.
Can you make vodka sauce without vodka?
Yes, you can absolutely make vodka sauce without vodka. Will it still technically be vodka sauce? No, but it will still taste pretty close. To substitute vodka in vodka sauce, add a squeeze of lemon and some extra pepper.
Is vodka sauce vegetarian?
Most vodka sauce recipes out there are vegetarian. This recipe has pancetta (Italian cured pork belly) in it but you can leave it out to make a vegetarian vodka sauce.
Can you make vodka sauce with meat?
You can definitely make vodka sauce with meat. Actually, this vodka sauce already has meat in it: pancetta. Pancetta is cured pork belly and it is absolutely delicious (and by far the best meat for vodka sauce). It adds smokiness, saltiness, and umami to the vodka sauce. The pancetta gets crisped up and when you get a bite with a little nugget of salty, porky goodness it’s like winning the lottery. Pork and tomatoes are a classic Italian combination because they compliment each other perfectly. Vodka sauce with pancetta is a good thing. If you don’t have pancetta, you can substitute it with bacon. You can also do vodka sauce with ground pork, vodka sauce with ground beef, and especially, vodka sauce with chicken, which is probably the second best option.
How to make spicy vodka sauce
If you love spicy pasta, this vodka sauce is the perfect vehicle. Just add a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes in when you’re cooking the garlic and onions – adding the pepper flakes to hot oil blooms them and releases and amplifies their spicy flavor.
Ingredients for vodka sauce
- Pancetta. Pancetta is Italian smoked pork belly. It adds smokiness, salt, and umami to the sauce. If you don’t have pancetta, you can sub in bacon in a pinch. Or you could even leave it out entirely for a vegetarian vodka sauce.
- Onion. The onion is going to add a bit of sweetness. I like to chop my onions pretty fine so the sauce is on the smoother side. If you want a really smooth and pretty sauce you can leave the onions out entirely (but it won’t taste as good).
- Garlic. Don’t skip out on the garlic though. It adds a mellow sweetness and smells amazing when you’re making this sauce.
- Red pepper flakes. Red pepper flakes are what gives spicy vodka sauce its heat. Bloom the red pepper flakes in oil to maximize their flavor.
- Vodka. The quality of the vodka isn’t so important here, so if you aren’t a drinker and don’t have a usual brand of vodka, just buy the cheapest one you can find. Sobieski or Stolichnaya are both good bets.
- Whole tomatoes. We love Mutti peeled whole tomatoes, but whatever brand you like will work. Switch out for canned cherry tomatoes for a sauce on the sweeter side, or switch out for fresh tomatoes to get a really bright poppy sauce.
- Tomato paste. We like the kind that you squeeze out of a tube (doppio concentrato) because no recipe ever calls for a whole can of tomato paste, including this one.
- Heavy cream. The cream is what gives the sauce body. You can’t switch it out for milk or broth because you’ll end up with a runny sauce.
Which pasta shape is best for vodka sauce?
This creamy, spicy, delicious vodka sauce will pair well with any pasta, but we especially love it with short pasta. Penne alla vodka is the classic but you could use any short pasta you love.
- Farfalle: Bow ties for the win! Some say bow ties (or butterflies, depending on who you are) are for kids but I say they’re for everyone! Farfalle actually traditionally go with a cream or tomato sauces so they’re perfect with vodka sauce, which is a combo of both.
- Fusilli: Fusilli are curly twirly corkscrews that is perfect for cream sauce. The grooves grape the sauce and they’re just a fun shape.
- Rigatoni: These tubes have nice ridges that the creamy vodka sauce can cling to. They look almost like penne but are bigger and have straight instead of diagonal edges. I really like vodka sauce with rigatoni. Pictured below are calamarata, which are like a distant cousin of rigatoni.
- Shells: Um, shells might be the perfect shape for vodka sauce because of the little scoop inside where the sauce can snuggle up. More sauce equals more life, amiright?
How to make vodka sauce
- Render the pancetta. Cut the pancetta into cubes. Add a drizzle of olive oil into a large deep sauté pan over medium heat and render out the fat in the pancetta, stirring occasionally. You want the pancetta to be slightly crispy.
- Add your aromatics. Add the onion and garlic and cook until slightly soft. Add the crushed red pepper flakes too, if you’re making spicy vodka sauce.
- Add the vodka. This is the fun part! Add the vodka, stir to deglaze the pan and let it cook down and reduce by half.
- Add the tomatoes. Add the tomatoes (crush them as you go) and tomato sauce then let everything come to a simmer. Cover and cook to reduce and concentrate the flavors.
- Add the cream. Stir in the cream until the sauce emulsifies and becomes a beautiful rosy pink. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. It’s ready for pasta!
Why you should make homemade vodka sauce
- You love Italian food
- You’re a noodle lover
- You have a bottle of vodka that you have no idea what to do with
- You want to impress someone you love
- You’ve been spending too much money on store-bought vodka sauce
- You love rose sauce and want to up your cooking game
This is going to be the best vodka sauce recipe you’ll ever make. If you’ve only had jarred vodka sauce, you need this vodka sauce recipe in your life. The pancetta is a game changer – that classic combination of pork and tomatoes (much like in amatriciana) is out of this world delicious. Please make this! You will fall into a happy pasta coma and realize that everything is right with the world.
Retro pasta dishes forever!
Make the sauce. In a large deep sauté or frying pan, heat up the oil over medium heat. Add the cubed pancetta and cook, rendering the fat out of the pancetta, until it is crisp. Skip this step if you’re making vegetarian vodka sauce.
Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally for 1-2 minutes. If you’re making spicy vodka sauce, here is where you add the red pepper flakes so they can bloom and release their flavor.
Add the vodka and bring the heat up to medium high and cook until the vodka is reduced by half.
Stir in the tomato paste, then the canned tomatoes, crushing them with the back of a wooden spoon. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 30 minutes to reduce and concentrate the flavors.
Mix in the cream and 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water and let bubble, stirring occasionally. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Keep on very low heat while you cook the pasta.
Cook your pasta of choice 1-2 minutes shy of al dente in a large pot of salted water over high heat. Save 3/4 cup pasta water and drain well. The pasta will continue to cook in the sauce. Bring the sauce up to a simmer over medium high heat to reduce slightly. When reduced, add the drained pasta and cook, stirring, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce is very velvety and clings to the pasta, 1-2 minutes. Add extra pasta water by the tablespoon if the sauce gets too thick. Enjoy immediately with crushed red pepper flakes, freshly cracked black pepper, fresh basil, and parmesan cheese, if desired.