penne alla vodka

I don’t think I’d ever had/heard of vodka sauce before moving to the Northeast. For the similarly uninitiated, vodka sauce is a basic tomato sauce, plus vodka, plus some heavy cream, and it is generally served over penne. One can’t really single out the flavor that the vodka contributes, but it adds a certain something that makes the pasta more exciting than just a tomato or tomato-cream sauce.

I was tired and scatterbrained last night as I was preparing this, and started off by nearly burning the pancetta after overheating the pan. Very little of the pancetta actually burned, but somehow this was enough to send billowing smoke all over the apartment, forcing us to open a window to the 15 degree weather outside. I later tried to put all four servings of sauce onto the two servings of pasta we were eating, and had to fish the pasta out of the sauce since I wanted to save some sauce for tonight. But then, still forgetting that I had intended for there to be leftovers, I dumped all the pancetta into the pasta that we ate last night, meaning there will be no pancetta tonight. After that, I made a comically disastrous attempt at whole wheat pitas, which went wrong in too many ways to list. If that had been my first time working with yeast doughs, I’d probably vow never to deal with yeast again. The pitas are more or less edible, although instead of being perfectly round, as the picture from the recipe I used suggested they should look, they are more like weird alien amoebas. Oh well, not every cooking experiment can go smoothly. In any case, despite creating one disaster after another last night, this sauce came out perfect – smooth, flavorful, a little spicy. And, yes, I think your serving size should be a lot bigger than the one shown in the picture.

Penne alla Vodka

This recipe can easily be made vegetarian by omitting the pancetta; see the note at the end for more explanation. There’s no need to use expensive vodka here; I used Smirnoff and the sauce was delicious. I made a few changes to the original recipe, mostly in terms of method. I love Cook’s Illustrated, but sometimes they come up with the fussiest way of executing a recipe imaginable. Sometimes the fussiness is worth it; other times it just strikes me as fussy. Their recipe recommends that you start with whole canned tomatoes, puree half of them, and cut the other half into 1/2 inch pieces and remove the cores. Alternatively, one could just start with a can of crushed tomatoes, which is what I recommend. If you like your sauce chunky, no pureeing will be needed. If you want the sauce smooth (I usually do with vodka sauce), you can send the whole sauce through the processor/blender/immersion blender/food mill/pureeing mechanism of your choice – which reminds me of my, er, favorite image of food processing: when I was little, whenever we would go to the local Mexican restaurant, my dad would tell me and my sister that refried beans were mashed up by a woman in the kitchen who chewed up the beans and spit them back out. I don’t believe I have ever eaten refried beans. On that lovely and appetizing note, I give you the recipe.

Serves 4-6

3 oz. thinly sliced pancetta (or 2 tablespoons olive oil; see vegetarian option at end)
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on how much spice you like – I go with the full 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 lb. penne
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
Freshly grated parmesan cheese


Fill a large pot with water for the pasta, and start heating it to a boil. Salt the water well.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook pancetta slices until crisp. Remove to a bowl with slotted spoon. When the pancetta has cooled enough to touch, break into smaller pieces. Pour off all but two tablespoons rendered fat from the saucepan (I usually end up with a little less than 2 tablespoons myself and don’t have to pour any off).

Add onion and tomato paste to saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5-7 minutes, until onion is soft and starting to brown. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for about 30 seconds (you don’t want the garlic to brown).

Pour in crushed tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. (For the sauce and pasta to finish at the same time, you should aim to add the pasta to the boiling pasta water at this point). Put saucepan back over medium-high heat and bring sauce to a brisk simmer. Continue to simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring often, until alcohol flavor has cooked off. Stir in cream and cook 1 more minute, until hot. At this point, if you want a smooth sauce, puree the sauce using whatever method you choose (but preferably not the chewing-and-spitting-back-out method!).

When the pasta has finished cooking, drain and return to the pot. Add the sauce to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring to combine, until pasta is thoroughly coated with sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in basil and pancetta. Serve immediately, and pass around grated Parmesan.


To make this vegetarian, simply omit the pancetta. Instead, pour two tablespoons olive oil into the saucepan at the very beginning, heat until the oil starts to shimmer, then add the onions and tomato paste. Follow the rest of the recipe from there.

Adapted from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook


3 Comments on “penne alla vodka”

  1. Kim says:

    I’ve been wanting to try this for a while, but I don’t like the taste of neat vodka, so had been putting it off. But since you say you can’t really taste the vodka, I’m much more confident that I’ll like it!

  2. […] was going to post that whole wheat pita recipe along with this, but I clearly need some more time in pita boot camp before I advise anyone else […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s