Penne Alla Vodka – perfectly hearty and tender penne pasta is tossed with a creamy and vibrant, San Marzano tomato based and vodka infused sauce that’s seasoned with fresh herbs and parmesan. Talk about delicious dinner recipe!
So what flavor does vodka add to the vodka sauce? Well, since all lot of the alcohol is cooked off you aren’t left with a alcoholic vodka taste, rather it just boosts and intensifies the flavors of the tomatoes.
This easy vodka sauce tastes vibrantly tomatoey, deliciously herby, lightly peppery and faintly smokey if you opt to use pancetta. And with the red pepper flakes it also has an exciting spicy little kick to it on the tip of your tongue.
Then when you finish it with a final enhancement of richly flavored, aged Parmigiano Reggiano and this dish becomes worthy of a fine dining restaurant!
It’s a classic Italian-American recipe that you can perfect at home with just a few easy steps! And this isn’t like a bolognese sauce, no simmering for hours here. You can have this dish ready in about 30 minutes!
Ingredients Needed for Penne with Vodka Sauce
- Canned San Marzano tomatoes – these are an Italian grown variety of tomato that have less acidity and better sweetness, I don’t recommend substitutions unless you don’t have access to them. Then go with canned plum/Roma tomatoes and add a pinch or two of sugar.
- Extra virgin olive oil – don’t use standard refined olive oil here. We want that stronger extra virgin flavor in this dish. It really compliments the tomato flavor.
- Yellow onion – mince these up fine so they’ll become tender with a brief saute and simmer period.
- Prosciutto or pancetta – this cured Italian ham is optional but it does add a delicious flavor.
- Garlic – only use freshly minced for best flavor.
- Salt and pepper – add to taste but remember the sauce will reduce some so don’t overdue it.
- Vodka – a must in this recipe. With leftover vodka I like to make homemade vanilla.
- Red pepper flakes – if you don’t like spicy food you can omit this. If you love spicy double or even triple the amount.
- Heavy cream – I don’t recommend lower fat substitutions here.
- Fresh basil and fresh oregano – if you don’t want to purchase both you can use one or the other but I love the blend here. If you have leftover use it to make pizza sauce or marinara.
- Shredded parmesan cheese – want to add extra flavor to the sauce? Simmer a parmesan rind with the sauce.
- Penne pasta – cook to al dente and be sure to reserve some of the starchy pasta water before draining, which is used to loosen the sauce as needed.
How to Make Penne alla Vodka
- Boil water: Bring a pot of water to a boil to cook pasta. Season water with salt.
- Saute aromatics and prosciutto: Heat oil in a separate large pot over medium heat. Add onion and prosciutto, saute 4 – 5 minutes, add garlic and red pepper flakes and saute 1 minute longer.
- Add tomatoes and vodka, simmer: Remove pan from heat and add tomatoes, vodka, season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to medium-high heat, bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until strong alcohol scent has cooked off, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Cook pasta: Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
- Mix cream, herbs and parmesan into sauce: Stir cream into sauce and let just heat through, about 1 minute. Stir in parmesan, basil and oregano.
- Toss vodka sauce and penne: Add drained pasta to pot with sauce, toss to coat, while thinning sauce with a little pasta water as needed. Serve warm with more parmesan and garnish with more basil if desired.
Tips for the Best Vodka Sauce
- Use good quality ingredients. It will only taste as good as what you put into it.
- Be sure to let it simmer long enough to cook off most of the alcohol or you’ll taste alcohol and it will really overpower the dish.
- Crush tomatoes fine for a smoother, less chunky sauce. If preferred you could even blitz them in a food processor.
- Don’t use dried herbs or bottled garlic. These fresh ingredients really help make this vodka sauce perfect.
Can I Freeze Vodka Sauce?
Yes. This can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Or it will keep in the fridge for about 3 – 4 days.
- Add grilled chicken or rotisserie chicken.
- Sub bacon for the pancetta, it has a different flavor but who doesn’t love bacon?
- Skip the pancetta, add browned ground veal, beef, pork or Italian sausage.
- Add shrimp, another delicious pairing option.
- Try substituting it in place of marinara sauce in a dish like lasagna or chicken parmesan.
- Use another pasta in place of penne such as rigatoni, ziti, mostaccioli, elicoidali, fusilli, or even just go with spaghetti. Really just about any pasta would work.
What Sides to Serve with Creamy Penne alla Vodka?
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Penne alla Vodka (Best Vodka Sauce!)
- 1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed finely with hands*
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup minced yellow onion
- 3 oz. proscuitto or pancetta, diced (optional)
- 1 Tbsp minced garlic (3 cloves)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup vodka
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup finely shredded parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 14 oz. penne pasta, plus reserved pasta water for thinning sauce as needed
- Bring a pot of water to a boil to cook pasta. Season water with salt.
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and prosciutto saute 4 - 5 minutes, add garlic and red pepper flakes and saute 1 minute longer.
- Remove pan from heat and add tomatoes, vodka, season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to medium-high heat, bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until strong alcohol scent has cooked off, about 15 minutes**, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
- Stir cream into sauce and let just heat through, about 1 minute. Stir in parmesan, basil and oregano.
- Add drained pasta to pot with sauce, toss to coat, while thinning sauce with a little pasta water as needed. Serve warm with more parmesan and garnish with more basil if desired.
- *For a smoother sauce you can blitz the tomatoes in a food processor or buy crushed San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them.
- **Be sure to allow enough time for sauce simmer or it will taste strongly of alcohol and that will overpower the flavors of the dish.
- Sauce can be frozen up to 3 months.