Ditch the store-bought vodka sauce! This Penne alla Vodka recipe tastes incredible, and comes together in no time. The creamy vodka sauce is prepared using kitchen staples including canned tomatoes, heavy cream, onion, and garlic. So simple, yet so good!
Years ago, when I began taking an interest in cooking, Penne alla Vodka was one of the first recipes I tried. A friend emailed me his version with a barely coherent ingredient list and shorthand instructions. In retrospect, I’m amazed the recipe wasn’t a complete disaster. For example, the ingredient list just says “1 can of tomatoes.” How big should the can be? What kind?
I can’t remember if it was through sheer luck or me asking follow up questions before diving in, but I loved how it came out. Homemade vodka sauce is like an umami bomb; full of intense tomato flavor, rich creaminess, and a perfect level of sweetness. Even better, it’s very easy to make. Beginners, this is a fabulous recipe to try if you’ve only ever prepared pasta with jarred sauce.
How To Make Penne alla Vodka
If you don’t mind multitasking, you can start preparing the sauce while the pasta is cooking. There are two steps here that make the penne itself very flavorful:
- Using well-salted water (at least 2 tablespoons for a large pot).
- Undercooking the pasta by a couple minutes so that it can finish in the sauce. This allows some of the liquid to absorb into the pasta instead of just the salted water.
The first time I prepared this recipe, I used whole peeled tomatoes, which I broke down in the saucepan using a potato masher. The second time, I used crushed tomatoes, which creates a smooth texture similar to what you’ll get in a pre-packaged vodka sauce.
While I preferred the crushed tomatoes version, I’ve included instructions for how to use diced or whole peeled tomatoes in the recipe notes incase you’d prefer a bit more texture.
Additional Recipe Notes
- I used 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, which adds a substantial kick. For a more subtle warmth, use 1/4 teaspoon.
- Instead of using only flat-leaf parsley, you could add in some fresh oregano and/or basil.
- There’s no need to use a high quality vodka for cooking, but I wouldn’t go super cheap, either. I use Tito’s or Smirnoff because that’s typically what we have.
Why Is There Vodka in Vodka Sauce?
The short version: vodka adds more flavor complexity, creating a creamier, more cohesive sauce with rich tomato flavor. Chowhound has a detailed overview on how vodka impacts flavors, if you’d like to read more about this.
Can I Make This Recipe Without Vodka?
No, you can’t. You can technically omit the vodka from the recipe, but it will no longer be Penne alla Vodka; it will be penne with a creamy tomato sauce.
What’s the difference between Penne alla Vodka and Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola?
As I was doing research for this recipe, I started coming across recipes for Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola. They looked almost identical, so I asked for clarification from my personal Italian cuisine expert (and friend) Domenica Marchetti.
She explained that Alla Vecchia Bettola is the name of a restaurant in Florence. Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola is simply their version of Penne alla Vodka. Hence the confusion!
More Pasta Recipes
Penne alla Vodka
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (see notes)
- 8 ounces dried penne, or pasta of your choice
- 1 - 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium garlic cloves, sliced thin
- 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (1/2 teaspoon has a kick)
- 1/4 cup vodka (see notes)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese for serving
- Bring a large pot of salted water (around 2 tablespoons kosher salt) to a rolling boil. Cook the penne for 2 minutes less than recommended on the package instructions (it will finish cooking in the sauce). Drain and then rinse in cold water to prevent sticking.
- Meanwhile, set a Dutch oven, saucepan or flat-sided skillet over medium-low heat (ideally you want to use a pot with a heavy-bottom). Add enough olive oil to create a thin coating on the bottom of the pan, then add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent and starting to lightly brown. Turn heat down to low, add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes, stirring.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka (away from any flames if you have a gas burner). Return the pan to the heat, and cook on medium-low until the liquid is reduced by around half, 3-5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, stir, and turn the heat up to medium-high. Once the mixture begins bubbling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently (gently scrape the spatula on the bottom of the pot to make sure nothing burns). Don’t rush this step; you want to cook the canned flavor out of the tomatoes.
- Add in the pasta, stirring to coat with the sauce. Simmer and stir for 1-3 more minutes, or until the penne is al dente. Add the cream and stir until the ingredients are completely combined. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- To serve, top with freshly grated parmesan cheese and more chopped parsley. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and enjoy within 3-4 days.
Please read my full post for additional recipe notes, tips, and serving suggestions!
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