Tangy tomato-y cream sauce tossed with al dente penne is nothing short of decadent; it's the perfect comfort meal. One of my favorite pasta dishes to order when dining out is penne alla vodka. It's a safe choice and you know exactly what you're getting when you order this dish. Thankfully, penne alla vodka is easy to recreate at home and in this case, better tasting than most restaurants. This classic Italian-American pasta dish is made with simple ingredients. Onion, garlic, vodka, tomato sauce, cream, parmesan, and parsley are all simmered to form a flavorful cream sauce then tossed together with penne (pasta shaped like a pen).
There are tons of recipes for penne alla vodka online. This one is adapted from a fairly straightforward recipe from Allrecipes. In my version, I season the pasta before it gets added to the sauce by sauteing some chopped garlic in olive oil and tossing it with the pasta, adding a pinch of salt and pepper- a step my aunt taught me when making any kind of pasta dish. I particularly love this step because I've had too many pasta dishes where the sauce was great but you can taste how bland the actual pasta is.
I also add some dry seasonings to the red sauce to up the flavor. Please note these steps aren't traditional to penne alla vodka, but I think it really makes the dish intensely flavored.
We're big pasta lovers in my home, and that's any kind of pasta - chickpea, quinoa and even rice pasta. I've tried many of my favorite sauces with pasta substitutes with great success, but today I'm sharing this easy recipe with regular pasta.
I already had onions, garlic, oil, and dry seasonings on hand.
Why is there vodka in the sauce and do I really need it?
Vodka is added to the sauce to help emulsify the flavors and make the sauce creamy. It brightens and enhances the taste of the ingredients. There isn't a noticeable taste of alcohol in the dish as most of it is cooked out in the beginning stage of making the sauce. However, I'm not sure what percentage of alcohol is actually cooked off because for all the alcohol to evaporate, you'd have to cook the sauce a lot longer than what this recipe calls for. So if you do not drink alcohol for religious reasons, I would leave the alcohol out of this recipe and just call your dish, "penne in tomato cream sauce" :). If alcohol is not a concern in your food, definitely add the vodka, it makes a big difference in how the flavors marry.
Pasta and dairy substitutions
Chickpea pasta works well here, but I've only had luck with certain shapes-penne, elbows, and shells from the Banza brand. Larger shapes of chickpea pasta tend to fall apart and lose their shape. Gluten free, rice, and quinoa pastas are also great options. I am not a huge fan of black bean pasta, but if you are, you can use that in place of regular pasta here as well. If you'd like to try this sauce with a vegetable "pasta," zoodles or butternut squash spirals are a good choice. And if keto is your thing, try this vodka sauce over shirataki noodles!
Unsweetened coconut milk is the best option for creaminess. A dairy free yogurt, such as soy yogurt can work as well although I've never tried it. Oat milk and cashew milk are good options for the sauce as they gets slightly creamy when cooked. I find almond milk is too watery for this recipe, but try it and see if it works for you.
- This sauce can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight glass jar or container for up to one week. It can also be frozen in a freezer bag for up to 6 months.
- Although, not traditional, I've used jarred pasta sauce instead of canned tomatoes to make a quick dish from this recipe. About one and half jars should work (anywhere between 24-36oz). Reduce salt in recipe if using this option.
- If you don't want a super creamy sauce, use light cream or half & half milk instead.
- 1lb penne pasta
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ¼ cup chopped onion, diced
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- ¾ cup vodka
- 1 28oz can whole peeled tomatoes (preferably san marzano tomatoes) OR 1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
- handful finely chopped fresh parsley
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp paprika
- ½ tsp crushed red peppers or ground cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- 8oz heavy cream
- ⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Seasoning for pasta (after boiling)
- 1 tbsp oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- dash of salt
Cook and season pasta
- Bring pot of water to a rolling boil. Add 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp oil to water. Add pasta, boil 8-9 minutes. Drain pasta and return to pot. In a small saucepan heat oil, saute garlic and once fragrant, pour over pasta. Add a dash of salt and toss to flavor and coat. Cover pot and set pasta aside.
Make the sauce
- In a deep skillet or shallow pot, heat 2 tbsp olive oil on medium heat, saute onions and garlic until fragrant (should be a minute or two). Pour in vodka. Let simmer 5 minutes.
- Add can of tomatoes to pot along with parsley and all the dry seasonings. Use a potato masher to mash tomatoes or an immersion blender to make the sauce smooth. Let this simmer for 10 minutes on low heat.
- Pour in heavy cream and grated parmesan. Stir until parmesan has melted into sauce. Let simmer 3-4 minutes.
- Add pasta to sauce a little at a time, until all the pasta is tossed in the sauce. Serve and garnish with grated parmesan and fresh parsley.
Different shapes of pasta may be used in place of penne. Preferably pasta with ridges.
Use your favorite jarred pasta sauce in place of the canned tomatoes. One and a half standard size jars should do.
Swap regular pasta for gluten free or chickpea pasta. Use coconut milk or cashew milk in place of heavy cream.