This basic sauce contains onions or garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, crushed tomatoes, seasonings such as herbs, and vodka. To prepare the sauce, you want to use a wide, shallow saucepan so that the sauce cooks evenly and the ingredients don't stack up in the pan... 

best vodka sauce recipe

Penne alla vodka is a staple dish on many Italian-American restaurant menus. This hearty creation gets its signature flavor from the combination of crushed tomatoes, garlic, and onions, paired with a vodka and heavy cream base. 

While chefs most often serve vodka sauce over pasta, adding sauteed vegetables and proteins such as chicken and shrimp can significantly enhance this dish. Learn the techniques behind making an exceptional sauce every time.

How to Make a Vodka Sauce

This basic sauce contains onions or garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, crushed tomatoes, seasonings such as herbs, and vodka. To prepare the sauce, you want to use a wide, shallow saucepan so that the sauce cooks evenly and the ingredients don't stack up in the pan. The shallow pan depth helps the sauce ingredients evenly reduce as they cook. This even reduction concentrates the flavor in the sauce due to the increased surface area available in the pan. 

Basic pasta sauces generally begin by sauteing garlic or onion in olive oil. This sauteing begins to build flavor in the sauce; be careful not to let the garlic or onion burn, which creates an unpleasant burnt taste in the finished sauce. Additional flavor enhancements could include a pinch of red hot pepper flakes or Italian herbs, such as basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley, and thyme.

Whole tomatoes, such as Italian plum or San Marzano tomatoes, create a hearty base for the sauce. Here's a tip: Cutting up the tomatoes before adding them to the saucepan ensures they evenly cook as they break down into the sauce. Don't overlook the importance of choosing the right type of tomato: San Marzanos are ideal because of their texture and slightly sweet flavor.

You can cut some of the acidity in the tomatoes by adding a pinch or two of granulated sugar. To create a concentrated depth of tomato flavor to the sauce, you can add a few tablespoons of canned tomato paste. 

Next, you'll add the vodka to the sauce, cooking until the alcohol evaporates and the sauce has thickened. Enrich the sauce by adding heavy cream, and let the mixture reduce until the sauce reaches your desired consistency. A well-made vodka sauce should resemble a thickened cream sauce. Allow the sauce to cook over medium to medium-high heat for at least 30 minutes to achieve the correct consistency.

For a finishing touch, you can add a light grating of cheese. Grana Padano, Parmesan, and Pecorino Romano all make excellent choices that add a depth of flavor to the sauce you use in your dishes. Pecorino Romano offers a piquant, peppery bite to the sauce, while Grana Padano delivers a bit of saltiness that offsets the tones of the vodka and cream.

Choose Your Vodka

In any vodka sauce, the essential ingredients are tomatoes, cream, and, you guessed it, vodka. When you're choosing vodka, look no farther than your bar cart. Use a vodka that you would like to drink because the vodka will give your sauce the best flavor. As the vodka cooks into the sauce, the alcohol in the vodka evaporates, leaving behind a rich, nuanced flavor.

Although Americans commonly see dishes such as penne alla vodka appearing on menus at their favorite Italian restaurants, vodka is not a common ingredient used in traditional sauces prepared and served across Italy. Adding vodka and cream to traditional Italian tomato-based sauces is an Italian-American interpretation. 

Pick Your Proteins and Your Pasta 

You can embellish a vodka sauce that you serve over pasta by adding ingredients such as sauteed shrimp, grilled chicken, or roasted vegetables. The following tips will help you maximize your ingredient additions to your pasta sauce:

  • Stir vegetables such as peas into the sauce just before serving to prevent the vegetables from becoming too soft as the sauce cooks.
  • Add seafood such as shrimp and scallops to the sauce in the last few minutes of cooking before you're ready to serve to avoid overcooking the seafood. Seafood adds a bit of saltiness, cutting some of the richness of the sauce.

Whether you're preparing penne alla vodka or another pasta dish with the vodka sauce, you'll want your pasta cooked until it's al dente, Italian for "to the tooth." When preparing the pasta, cook it at least two minutes less than the package directions. The pasta will continue to cook once you add it to a warm vodka sauce. Before you drain the pasta, save some of the water you've used for cooking the pasta. The starchiness of the pasta water allows the sauce to cling to the pasta, enabling you to enjoy the sauce's richness with every bite of pasta. 

Pasta shapes like penne are good for this type of sauce. You can prepare dishes using other types of pasta such as rigatoni or pappardelle to create specialties such as rigatoni alla vodka, lobster alla vodka, and pappardelle alla vodka.

When selecting pasta, consider artisanal pasta, which differs from its mass-produced counterpart. Artisanal pasta is made by extruding pasta dough through special types of dies that create the shape of the pasta and give the pasta its distinctive rough, chalky texture. The textured surface of the pasta allows sauce to cling to the pasta better than the smooth surfaces of commercially produced pasta available in grocery stores and supermarkets.

Tips for Reheating a Vodka Sauce With No Separation 

Cream-based sauces like vodka sauces are challenging to reheat. That's because the sauce tends to separate or break down when stored. This separation results from the combined acidity of the tomatoes and the heavy cream. 

If you need to make the sauce in advance, you'll prepare the sauce with the tomatoes and vodka but omit the heavy cream, adding it just before serving. Transfer the sauce to airtight containers and refrigerate until you're ready to use it. You'll appreciate the convenience of being able to create a hearty pasta dish with sauce you've prepared in advance.

Once you master the art of making vodka sauce, you can delight in the rich, nuanced flavors of dishes with which you choose to serve it.

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