One of the most popular Italian dishes of the 1980s, in restaurants across the United States and Italy, is coming back with a vengeance this year. Penne pasta with vodka sauce is a super quick and simple pasta dish to make and, although one of the ingredients is vodka, it can certainly be made for the entire family as the alcohol cooks off.
Keep reading to see our favorite recipe for this creamy sauce with tomatoes (often called pink sauce) and learn about the best Italian ingredients it uses so you can make it for yourself at home, just like they do at your favorite Italian restaurant.
What do you need to make this vodka sauce recipe?
To make vodka sauce, you won’t need any fancy kitchen equipment or to follow any complicated steps, just a few basic kitchen tools and you’ll be on your way. Here is a list of the equipment you’ll need to make homemade vodka sauce.
This vodka sauce recipe takes just 35 minutes from start to finish. Not even the shopping will be difficult, as you start with a fairly short list of items most of which you will likely already have in your pantry. Put the pot on to boil the pasta and in just 35 minutes you’ll be serving your penne pasta with vodka sauce.
What ingredients are in penne alla vodka sauce?
Vodka(2-4 tbsp)– acts as an emulsifier and helps prevent bad interactions between the acidic tomato and the cream. Even more importantly, it helps release alcohol-soluble flavor molecules, leading to a brighter and fresher tasting sauce. To make the best vodka sauce possible, consider buying a good-quality vodka instead of the cheapest.
Plum tomatoes(2 cups)– while we highly recommend starting with whole tomatoes, such as fresh plum tomatoes or San Marzano tomatoes, it is also possible to use canned tomatoes or even tomato puree, just be sure to purchase only high-quality canned tomatoes, even better if they are important straight from Italy.
Extra virgin olive oil(¼ cup)– we usually prefer making recipes with olive oil but because of the creaminess of this sauce we actually prefer using the unsalted butter with this recipe.
Unsalted butter(4 tbsp)– an alternative to the extra virgin olive oil and will make your penne alla vodka even creamier, so we actually recommend using butter instead of olive oil.
Garlic(2-3 cloves)– be sure to mince your garlic very finely as you don’t want to find chunks in the sauce.
Crushed Red pepper flakes(¼ tsp)– we love the spiciness the red pepper flakes add to the dish, but if you are not a fan of spicy, you can simply leave this ingredient out.
Heavy cream (½ cup)- as heavy cream is one of the most important ingredients in this dish, be sure to buy it no more than one day ahead and use it fresh, and if you can get it from a local dairy farm all the better!
Penne rigate dry pasta (1 lb)– you can also use other shapes, such as farfalle (butterfly) or other short, dry pastas, but we don’t recommend using long noodles such as spaghetti with this sauce.
Parsley – chopped, for garnishing, we recommend not overdoing the parsley as it can overpower the delicate flavor of the sauce.
Parmigiano Reggiano– grated, as desired. We love a dash of Parmigiano Reggiano grated fresh on top, but if all you can find is Parmesan cheese, then that’s okay too.
Step-by-step how to make penne alla vodka sauce recipe
Here is a step-by-step list you can follow to make this delicious Italian American favorite. An absolutely delicious homemade vodka sauce recipe, it is sure to become a family favorite.
After getting out all the necessary ingredients, set a large pot of water over high heat and add a generous amount of salt.
Heat the oil or butter (depending on your personal preference) in a large pan on medium heat.
Add the minced garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic turns golden. photo 1
Add finely chopped tomatoes to the pan and season with salt. Bring to a boil.
As the tomatoes break down (you can use pureed tomatoes to speed this up), add the vodka and simmer until the alcohol cooks off. photo 2
Put the pasta into the boiling pasta water to cook.
Approximately five minutes before the pasta is done, slowly pour the heavy cream into the pan with the tomatoes and cook over low heat for the length of time it takes to finish cooking the pasta (about 5 minutes). photo 3 – 5
Set aside 1/4 cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta.
Add the cooked penne pasta and cooking water to the pan with the sauce and stir until the pasta is well coated. photo 6
Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with parsley and grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese and serve right away.
After your meal, enjoy your dessert with one of these Italian drinks:
You are sure to love vodka sauce with penne pasta, so don’t be shy about using vodka, an alcohol not usually associated with Italian food. The vodka acts as an emulsifier and helps prevent an adverse reaction between the acidic tomato and the heavy cream in the sauce. It also releases alcohol-soluble flavor molecules, leading to a brighter and fresher tasting sauce.
For this to happen, the vodka must be cooked into the sauce, adding it after cooking, even just a little bit, will make the sauce taste alcoholic and completely ruin the flavor of the dish. By simmering the sauce with the alcohol, it allows new flavors to come out of the tomatoes and makes the dish more complex.
Are there variations of this recipe, even without vodka?
Can I substitute the vodka? It’s a hard question to answer. You could get a similar effect by adding a few tablespoons of vinegar and lemon or lime juice or white wine, which will lead to some brighter flavors, but it’s not going to be the same. In the end, vodka sauce without vodka isn’t vodka sauce at all and will lack that classic flavor that makes it such a favorite.
Add Italian bacon, sweet Italian sausage, capers or even green peas to this dish. If adding Italian bacon (pancetta) or Italian sausage, add it when you first heat the pan, add capers at the same time you add the garlic, and add cooked green peas as you are adding the cream.
The short answer is yes, you can reheat it, but keep in mind that it won’t be as good as it is served hot, straight from the pan. To reheat, add a small amount of butter or oil to a pan over medium heat. When the butter or oil is hot, add the pasta alla vodka, stirring occasionally. You might add a dash of milk to perk up the pasta a bit and only heat until it is sufficiently warmed to serve. Add a dash of grated Parmigiano Reggiano or grated Parmesan and a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley and serve.
How should I store leftover pasta alla vodka?
Leftover pasta with vodka sauce should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no more than 24-48 hours. It should not be frozen, as the pasta will turn to mush when defrosted.
Will vodka sauce get me drunk?
If you are worried about serving a dish with vodka, don’t worry as vodka sauce isn’t going to get anyone drunk because the alcohol cooks off. If a person you are cooking for doesn’t drink alcohol or abstains for any reason, for example because of their religion, then you should definitely check with them before serving this dish. There isn’t any alcohol in the finished dish because it cooks off and only a small amount is added in the first place, so even kids can enjoy the creamy tomato flavors of this dish!
What wine should I drink with vodka sauce?
Like many Italian tomato sauces, vodka sauce pasta works well with bright and fruity red wines. Chianti or Chianti Classico (or other young Sangiovese wine) are all great choices. Alternatively, this vodka sauce recipe can work nicely with a Sauvignon Blanc (something from the Veneto perhaps) as the acidity and citrus notes cut through the creaminess and blend well with the bright tomato flavors.
Penne alla Vodka
This pasta dish is easy to make and one the best vodka sauce recipes around. Vodka is used to add flavor to the sauce, but contrary to what some might believe, it does not add alcohol content to the dish because it cooks off.
Gather your ingredients together and set a large pot of well-salted water on the stove-top to boil.
Heat the olive oil (or butter) in a large sauce pan.
Add the finely minced garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic begins to brown.
Add the finely chopped tomatoes to the pan and season lightly with salt. Bring to a simmer.
As the tomatoes break down (you can use tomato puree to speed this up), add the vodka and simmer until the vodka cooks off.
Put the pasta into the boiling water to start cooking.
About five minutes before the pasta is done (follow the instructions for length of time to cook pasta al dente printed on the pasta packaging), slowly pour the cream into the pan with the tomato sauce and cook over low heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove 1/4 cup of pasta water and set aside before draining the pasta in a colander.
Add the cooked pasta and pasta water to the pan and stir until the pasta is coated entirely by pink sauce.
Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with parsley and grated cheese to enjoy immediately.
Some people add pancetta, sweet Italian sausage, capers, or green peas to this dish. If adding pancetta, add it when you first heat the pan, add capers while the garlic is cooking, and add the green peas as you are adding the cream. These are not necessarily “traditional” additions, but neither is a sauce with vodka, so why not experiment?