Penne alla vodka recipe: How to make pasta with vodka sauce

You wouldn't usually think that a hard spirit like vodka would go well with pasta. But in the case of this recipe, you'd be sorely mistaken. What is penne alla vodka, and how do you make it? Here's our recipe.

Penne alla vodka is a beautiful, creamy, and meaty meal.
Penne alla vodka is a beautiful, creamy, and meaty meal.  © imago/Panthermedia

Wait, are we seriously telling you that pasta with vodka is flippin' fantastic? Yes, we are, and we can guarantee that you won't regret trying out this recipe if you choose to do so. Penne with vodka sauce in an absolutely scrumptious feed, with the alcohol lending a fabulous tang to the otherwise rich, cheesy and meaty sauce.

If you're a food fan, then TAG24's brilliant penne alla vodka recipe is a great go-to. What is vodka sauce, how do you make pasta with vodka, and why should you give it a go? Let's dive in!

What is penne alla vodka?

Many will assume that penne alla vodka just has to be an American invention or, perhaps, something that came out of Eastern Europe. The reality, however, is a little more contentious and a lot more Italian. Most attest the first appearance of a vodka-containing pasta sauce to a 1974 cookbook by Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi, who included a recipe relatively similar to what we'll be cooking today.

This is, however, contentious, as some claim that the penne alla vodka was invented by a restaurant in Bologna. What's certain, though, is the penne alla vodka has become a dish widely served across both Italy and the United States (as well as many other countries, of course). It's delicious, it's tangy, and it's not something that should be missed.

At its core, penne alla vodka is a meaty pasta sauce that uses the liquor as a binding agent that brings all the flavors together, intensifies them, and helps to make the dish creamy and rich.

How to make penne alla vodka: Recipe

Penne alla vodka is not a dish that's hard to make. Indeed, this is a pasta that doesn't require much time at all, and uses just the simple utensils that you'd expect from most pasta dishes. You're not going to need much, but as with any Italian dish, the key is in using fresh ingredients and technique.

Here's the equipment you'll need when making penne alla vodka:

  • A large saucepan
  • A big pot to boil the pasta in
  • Spatula
  • Wooden spoon
  • Cheese grater
  • Measuring cup
  • Sharp knives
  • Chopping board
  • Colander

There's nothing fancy about pasta with vodka sauce. It's easy, it's quick, it's delicious, and it's something that'll keep the whole family happy (don't worry, you'll cook off the alcohol so it's kid-friendly too!).

What about the pasta? You don't have to make penne alla vodka with penne (yes, even though it's in the name). We'd recommend using other tubular pasta as well - rigatoni, bucatini, cannelloni, tortiglioni, tubetti, to name just a few.

You don't have to have penne with vodka sauce - rigatoni is a brilliant substitute!
You don't have to have penne with vodka sauce - rigatoni is a brilliant substitute!  © IMAGO/Pond5

Penne alla vodka recipe | Ingredients

As with many Italian dishes, the quality comes down to a combination of fresh and flavorful ingredients (not necessarily anything expensive) and the right technique. Penne alla vodka is no different, and is comes down to making an emulsion between the vodka, tomato, pasta water, and cheese, therefore creating a creamy and flavorful sauce.

Here are the ingredients you need to make penne alla vodka:

  • Penne rigate, enough for the two of you
  • 1 medium-large onion
  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 1 can of peeled tomatoes or passata, 24oz
  • Pancetta, 10oz
  • Heavy cream, 5oz
  • Pecorino Romano cheese (or parmigiano regiano), 8oz
  • Vodka, 3-4oz
  • Basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

On the proportions: We have measured these out for an easy two-person feed. If you want to cook for more or less people, add or subtract ingredients while simply making sure that the ratios stay the same. Be careful with the vodka, though, and taste before you ever add more than we quoted.

Penne alla vodka recipe | Instructions

It's unbelievably easy to whip together this instant classic. Allow yourself about 30–50 minutes of cooking time, maybe a little bit more if you're a slow chopper. Remember that the dicing here doesn't need to be super fine either, just give everything a simple chop and chuck it in there!

Here's how to make penne alla vodka

Step 1: As always, let's start with the chopping. You want to evening dice up your onion so that it is relatively small, but don't worry if you're not great at chopping. Grab your pancetta and chop it into thin strips that have a little bit of fat and a little bit of meat in each one. Grate your cheese and dice your tomatoes as small as you can.

Step 2: Now get cooking. The first thing that you want to do is add olive oil to your big saucepan and bring it up to a medium-high temperature. Add your onion and sauté for around 5–7 minutes or until golden and slightly translucent, but not caramelized.

Step 3: Now add your pancetta, mixing it with the onions and letting the fat render into the pan. Stir and cook until a little bit crispy and incredibly fragrant.

Step 4: If you are using canned tomatoes, toss them in a bowl, season them with salt and pepper, and crush them up using your hands until they are chunky but not a purée.

Step 5: Once your pancetta is crispy, turn the heat down a bit (you don't want it to be ripping hot for this) and add your vodka. Cook for 6–7 minutes or until most of the vodka has evaporated.

Step 6: Now add your diced tomatoes and turn up the heat again. Stir vigorously until the sauce becomes thick, then add in your passata or canned tomatoes. Continue to cook for another five minutes.

Step 7: Add about a cup of water, reduce the temperature to a simmer and continue cooking for at least 30 minutes, stirring regularly and letting it reduce. If it starts to get too dry, add a little extra water.

Step 8: While you wait, bring up a pot of water to the boil, season with salt, and boil your penne (or whatever pasta you are using). It's best to cook it for two minutes less than recommended on the package, or until al dente.

Step 9: Roughly chop up the basil and stir it into your sauce about five minutes before the end of that 30-minute simmering session.

Step 10: Add cream to the sauce and mix it in until the sauce has a pink color. Keep cooking on a very low heat while stirring for five minutes.

Step 11: Add your pasta to the sauce, along with a spoonful of that beautiful and starchy pasta water. Mix it until all the pasta is well coated and then add your cheese. Again, combine until even creamier and dissolved.

Now it's time to serve! Chuck it in a bowl, sprinkle some cheese on top along with a crack of pepper, and enjoy it with a lovely glass of red wine.

How to make jarred vodka sauce better

Jarred vodka sauce can be good, but you should add a little pizzazz!
Jarred vodka sauce can be good, but you should add a little pizzazz!  © IMAGO/Pond5

Making jarred pasta sauce better is a must, as most of these products are pretty awful. You want things to taste fresh, well-seasoned, and complex, not sweet or gluttonous. As a result, we've compiled a few tips and tricks that you can use to improve your jarred vodka sauce before you serve it up to the family.

Here's how to improve your jarred vodka sauce

Tip 1: You should add some water to the sauce and increase the volume when heating it up. Chuck it in a pot along with about a cup of water and then reduce it down again as if you were cooking the sauce itself.

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Tip 2: Season, season, season. You should avoid serving unseasoned food - it's bland, boring, and just simply not that tasty. The best way to do this is to taste it yourself, concentrating on salt and pepper. Feel free to also modify it with some herbs or even chili flakes.

Tip 3: Never add the sauce directly to your cooked pasta. The sauce is cold when it's in the bottle or can, you need to decant it in a pot, make additions and changes, and then mix the two together.

Tip 4: Think about the creaminess. Does it need some more cream or is it too creamy already? If the latter, add some water, if the former, add some cream.

Ultimately, you shouldn't bother with jarred pasta sauces. They usually contain a bunch of sugar and preservatives, they don't taste good, and they aren't that much quicker than making it from scratch.

Why should you make penne alla vodka?

You don't need to worry: You're not going to taste the vodka in penne alla vodka. Similarly to how stock or wine works in a variety of other recipes, the vodka here simply concentrates the flavors that are present and works as a binding agent that thickens the sauce and makes it incredibly creamy.

So, to answer your rather poignant question: You should make penne alla vodka because it's absolutely brilliant. This creamy, rich and tangy pasta dish will keep you and whole family well-fed and unbelievably happy. Bon appétit!

Cover photo: imago/Panthermedia

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