Growing up I ordered penne alla vodka every time my family dined out. I love vodka sauce because it is rich and creamy with a touch of sweetness. I also love how the sauce gets trapped inside the penne and bursts out in my mouth!
Although it’s hard to pinpoint the origin story of penne alla vodka, it has become an American food staple featured on Italian American restaurant menus around the country. I find myself reaching for foods that are familiar and consistent whether dining out or entertaining at home. I hope this becomes a go-to pasta for you too!
What is Vodka Sauce? Plus, Tips!
Classic penne alla vodka is so simple—the smooth and creamy vodka sauce can be made in the same amount of time it takes to cook the pasta. Even those who don’t deem themselves vodka lovers will like the flavor of this sauce. Once the alcohol cooks off, the bitterness of the vodka dissipates and blends right into the richness of the tomato sauce.
Vodka sauce is made with tomatoes, heavy cream, and vodka. It’s lightly sweet and ever so tangy. The vodka provides a clean subtle taste once the alcohol is cooked off—reduce it by about half. It helps brighten the tomatoes. Is vodka necessary? The short answer is yes and here is why.
Use any brand of vodka you enjoy drinking; it doesn’t have to be a top-shelf fancy brand, but don't use flavored vodka. I use Absolut Vodka or Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
Helpful Tips for Making Penne alla Vodka
- Season the garlic with black pepper as it cooks—the black pepper will toast in the oil, adding a touch more character to the sauce.
- Add 2 tablespoons of butter into the sauce at the very end to make it velvety and rich.
- To ensure every single bite is cheesy, add the Pecorino when you toss the pasta and the sauce together.
There are so many ways to go about this classic pasta:
- Add sautéed mushrooms.
- Add pieces of fresh mozzarella for gooey melted cheese.
- Add sweet peas—this is a popular way to brighten up the pasta with pops of color and sweetness.
- Add grilled chicken or sautéed shrimp for a boost of protein.
- Rigatoni and pipe rigate are great pasta shapes because their tubular shapes catch the sauce just like penne.
- Many penne alla vodka recipes call for pancetta or sausage, but it’s not necessary. Cut the pieces as big or small as you’d like and brown them before cooking the onions.
Make the Sauce Ahead
It’s easy to prepare the sauce ahead for a weeknight meal or if you’re getting ready to entertain a weekend crowd. Vodka sauce can be stored for up to 3 days in the fridge or for weeks in the freezer. If you are worried about the sauce breaking once thawed, add the heavy cream right before serving.
Reheat the sauce on the stove top over low heat while you cook the pasta right before serving.
More Beloved Classic Pastas
Penne alla Vodka
I prefer penne rigate which has ridges for the sauce to stick to. Good-quality pre-grated Pecorino works just as well as grating it yourself. Plus, it will save you some prep time.
- 1 pound dry penne rigate
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 8 large garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup vodka
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
- 1/4 cup finely chopped basil leaves (about 15 large leaves)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Cook the pasta:
Fill a large pot of water (about 4 quarts) and salt it generously. Set it over high heat and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, following package instructions. Drain the pasta into a colander set in the sink.
Meanwhile, start the vodka sauce:
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the olive oil and once it’s hot, add the garlic, salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook until soft, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, about 4 minutes.
Pull the pan off the heat and add the vodka. You’re doing this off the heat to avoid a flare-up, especially if you have a gas stove. Return the pan back to the heat, now medium-high, and cook the alcohol off, about 2 minutes. The vodka should be reduced by half.
Add the crushed tomatoes:
Pour in the crushed tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes until the raw tomato flavor cooks off.
Add the heavy cream:
Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the butter and heavy cream. When the butter has melted, take the pan off heat and blend the sauce with an immersion blender until smooth. You may need to transfer the sauce into a narrower container to do this. You could use a blender instead.
Transfer the sauce back into the pan and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper.
Toss the pasta in the sauce:
Add the drained pasta into the sauce. Sprinkle in 1/4 cup Pecorino, the basil, and parsley. Stir the pasta in the vodka sauce until evenly coated. Serve with more cheese sprinkled on top.
Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat it on the stovetop over low heat with a splash of water or cream.
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