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Penne alla Vodka

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Penne alla vodka, or penne with a bright tomato sauce enriched with heavy cream, makes a quick, family-friendly dinner.

Penne alla Vodka

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

From my cookbook Weeknight/Weekend, this penne alla vodka, or penne with vodka sauce, is one of those no-food-in-the-house dinners that I make over and over again. Aside from the fresh basil—and even that grows abundantly on my patio during the summer—every ingredient for this dish is always on hand in my kitchen.

The vodka sauce, a bright tomato sauce enriched with heavy cream, comes together in the time it takes to boil the pasta. You won’t really taste the vodka; it’s simply there to cut the richness of the dish without adding a distinct flavor of its own. Some people believe the dish was created by vodka manufacturers to sell more vodka!

“I made this recipe tonight and it was so delicious. My husband said it was better than eating it in an Italian restaurant.”

Judy

What You’ll Need To Make Penne Alla Vodka

penne alla vodka ingredients
  • Butter: Used to sauté the onions and garlic and adds richness to the sauce.
  • Onion and Garlic: These aromatics provide the base flavors of the sauce.
  • Red Pepper Flakes: Introduce a subtle heat to the sauce; feel free to adjust to your liking.
  • Canned Whole Peeled Tomatoes: Form the base of the sauce. For best results, seek out San Marzano canned tomatoes, which are renowned for their sweet flavor, vibrant color, and low acidity.
  • Tomato Paste: Deepens the sauce’s tomato flavor and enhances its color and thickness.
  • Vodka: Cuts the richness of the dish without adding a strong flavor.
  • Penne Pasta: The traditional pasta of choice for this dish as its tube shape holds the creamy sauce well. Feel free to substitute other short pastas, like rigatoni or ziti.
  • Heavy Cream: Adds richness and creates a creamy texture, balancing the acidity of the tomatoes.
  • Basil: Provides a fresh, aromatic finish to the dish.
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, for Serving: Adds a nutty, salty layer of flavor when sprinkled on top before serving.
  • Jump to the printable recipe for precise measurements

Step-by-Step Instructions

Before getting started, crush the tomatoes. You can either use kitchen shears to cut them directly in the can or pour the entire contents of the can into a resealable freezer bag, press out any excess air, seal tightly, and then squish by hand.

crushing the tomatoes for penne alla vodka

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Heat the butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat until shimmering.

melting butter

Add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.

softened onions

Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds more. Do not brown.

adding garlic and red pepper flakes

Add the tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, salt, sugar, and vodka.

adding tomatoes, tomato paste, vodka, and seasoning

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

simmering vodka sauce

While the sauce simmers, boil the pasta according to the package instructions until just shy of al dente.

boiling pasta

Before draining, ladle out about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot.

penne in pot

Stir the cream into the sauce.

stirring cream into the vodka sauce

Simmer, uncovered, for about 3 minutes more. Using an immersion blender, purée the sauce until mostly smooth, leaving some small chunks. (Alternatively, ladle some of the sauce into a blender and purée until smooth. Be sure to remove the center knob on the blender and cover with a dish towel to avoid splatters, then add back to the pan.)

blending the vodka sauce with an immersion blender

Pour the sauce over the penne. It may seem a little soupy; that’s okay. Bring the sauce and pasta to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently; cook until the sauce is reduced and thickened enough to cling to the pasta, a few minutes. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if the pasta seems dry.

simmering penne alla vodka

When combining a sauce with cooked pasta, always cook them together in the pot for a minute or two before serving. This marries the flavors and helps the sauce cling to the pasta. Stir in the basil, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

adding basil to penne alla vodka

Spoon the pasta into serving bowls and pass the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

Frequently Asked Questions

Why go through the trouble of chopping canned whole tomatoes instead of just using canned diced tomatoes?

Diced canned tomatoes are treated with a chemical that prevents them from breaking down during cooking. When making a smooth tomato sauce, it’s preferable to use canned whole tomatoes and chop them yourself, as they break down more easily and create a richer, more cohesive sauce.

Can I make penne alla vodka without vodka? What does the vodka do in the recipe?

While vodka is a key ingredient in the dish, it does not impart a strong flavor. It is primarily used to cut the richness of the creamy tomato sauce. If you prefer not to use vodka, you can substitute it with white wine or even chicken or vegetable broth for a non-alcoholic option, though the flavor will change slightly.

Can I make penne alla vodka ahead of time?

The sauce can be fully prepared a day ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, cook the penne pasta according to package instructions until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, gently reheat the sauce and proceed with the recipe as directed.

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Penne alla Vodka

Penne alla vodka, or penne with a bright tomato sauce enriched with heavy cream, makes a quick, family-friendly dinner.

Servings: 4 to 6
Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cook Time: 30 Minutes
Total Time: 45 Minutes

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup finely chopped yellow onion (from 1 small yellow onion)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices (see Pro Tip below)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ⅓ cup vodka
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • ⅔ cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, plus more for serving
  • Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. 
  2. Heat the butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds more. Do not brown. Add the tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, salt, sugar, and vodka; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
  3. While the sauce simmers, boil the pasta according to the package instructions until just shy of al dente (it will cook for a few minutes more in the sauce). Before draining, ladle out about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot.
  4. Stir the cream into the sauce and simmer, uncovered, about 3 minutes more. Using an immersion blender, purée the sauce until mostly smooth, leaving some small chunks. (Alternatively, ladle some of the sauce into a blender and purée until smooth. Be sure to remove the center knob on the blender and cover with a dish towel to avoid splatters, then add back to the pan.)
  5. Pour the sauce over the penne. It may seem a little soupy; that’s okay. Bring the sauce and pasta to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently; cook until the sauce is reduced and thickened enough to cling to the pasta, a few minutes. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if the pasta seems dry. Stir in the basil, then taste and adjust seasoning with if necessary. Spoon the pasta into serving bowls and pass the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.
  6. Pro Tip: Diced canned tomatoes are treated with a chemical that prevents them from breaking down when cooking, so when I want a smooth tomato sauce, I prefer to use canned whole tomatoes and chop them myself. You can crush them by hand individually as you add them to the pan, but they splatter like crazy when squeezed, so it’s best to either use kitchen shears to cut them directly in the can or pour the entire contents of the can into a resealable freezer bag, press out any excess air, seal tightly, and then squish by hand.
  7. Make-Ahead Instructions: The sauce can be fully prepared a day ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. When it's time to serve, cook the penne pasta according to package instructions until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, gently reheat the sauce and proceed with the recipe as directed.

Pair with

Nutrition Information

Powered by Edamam

  • Per serving (6 servings)
  • Calories: 491
  • Fat: 17 g
  • Saturated fat: 10 g
  • Carbohydrates: 66 g
  • Sugar: 8 g
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 12 g
  • Sodium: 453 mg
  • Cholesterol: 51 mg

This website is written and produced for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and the nutritional data on this site has not been evaluated or approved by a nutritionist or the Food and Drug Administration. Nutritional information is offered as a courtesy and should not be construed as a guarantee. The data is calculated through an online nutritional calculator, Edamam.com. Although I do my best to provide accurate nutritional information, these figures should be considered estimates only. Varying factors such as product types or brands purchased, natural fluctuations in fresh produce, and the way ingredients are processed change the effective nutritional information in any given recipe. Furthermore, different online calculators provide different results depending on their own nutrition fact sources and algorithms. To obtain the most accurate nutritional information in a given recipe, you should calculate the nutritional information with the actual ingredients used in your recipe, using your preferred nutrition calculator.

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Comments

  • Jenn, I’m thinking this is like a blush sauce. Wondering if you think this would be a good sauce on gnocchi? Thanks in advance.

    • — Dana Salvador on February 19, 2024
    • Reply
    • I do think that would be delicious!

      • — Jenn on February 19, 2024
      • Reply
  • Jenn, may I substitute dried basil?
    Your site is the only one I have saved to my desktop & favorites. I also have purchased your cookbooks as gifts. Thank you for the detailed instructions with photos!

    • — Marie M on February 6, 2024
    • Reply
    • Thanks so much for your support of the website and the cookbooks — so glad you like the recipes! I’m not a fan of dried basil, but in a pinch, you can get away with it here. You won’t need as much; I’d reduce it to 1 tablespoon. Hope you enjoy!

      • — Jenn on February 6, 2024
      • Reply
  • Jenn, have you ever made this with pancetta? I’m thinking of browning first, adding aromatics then continuing with your recipe. Thanks in advance!

    • — Tululeh on January 9, 2024
    • Reply
    • Hi Tululeh, I can’t say I have. I’d love to hear how it turns out if you try it!

      • — Jenn on January 9, 2024
      • Reply
  • Made this tonight. Absolutely amazing! I’ve never made this on my own, just order in restaurants, but now I’m excited to add this to my recipe list. Thank you.

    • — Stacy Higgins on January 7, 2024
    • Reply
  • This pasta is beyond excellent exactly as written and loved by my pickiest eater. I also love your epic spaghetti pie recipe but my picky eater will not eat sausage or broccoli. I turned to the vegetarian version of the spaghetti pie however he doesn’t like mushrooms and prefers tomato based sauces to cream sauces. Could I make penne alla vodka into a version of the spaghetti pie by replacing penne with a pound of spaghetti, and adding the 3 eggs and cheeses required for the pie? Do you think it would work/hold together like the original version?

    • — Jennifer on December 2, 2023
    • Reply
    • Hi Jennifer, so glad this has been a hit in your house particularly with your picky eater! While what you’re suggesting may work, I really can’t say without trying it and feel like it would be a fair amount of work to have it not work out. That said, feel free to experiment with it. If you do, I’d love to hear how it turns out!

      • — Jenn on December 6, 2023
      • Reply
  • Jenn what can be used in place of Vodka?

    • — Joan on November 24, 2023
    • Reply
    • Hi Joan, You can replace the vodka with an equal amount of low-sodium chicken broth. Hope you enjoy!

      • — Jenn on November 24, 2023
      • Reply
  • My family loved this!! Everything came out perfect! Thank you for the great recipe!!

    • — Felicia on September 25, 2023
    • Reply
  • This recipe is a go to for us and all five of my children love it…which is a major win!!!! We dress it up for fancy nights and have it on busy weeknights as well! It’s a keeper!

    • — Rebecca Arthur on September 22, 2023
    • Reply
  • I love this recipe with a couple of tweaks. I use a cup of parmigiana finely grated and skip the red pepper flakes and instead just add two additional four finger pinches of salt. I own both Jenn’s book and the new one is even more of a gold mine of the amazing recipes.

    • — Andrew L Shores on July 2, 2023
    • Reply
  • Another huge win, thanks Jenn!

    • — Tyler on April 30, 2023
    • Reply
  • Hi Jen,
    Every vodka sauce recipe I’ve ever made uses whole canned tomatoes then says to crush and use an immersion blender. Why not just use a can of crushed tomatoes?
    Laurie

    • — laurie straub on April 28, 2023
    • Reply
    • Hi Laurie, crushed tomatoes are actually a mixture of diced tomatoes and tomato puree or paste, so the texture would be different. Hope that clarifies!

      • — Jenn on April 28, 2023
      • Reply
  • Can I use can of Italian crushed tomatoes instead ?

    • — Asra on February 6, 2023
    • Reply
    • Hi Asra, I don’t recommend it — crushed tomatoes are actually a mixture of diced tomatoes and tomato puree or paste, so the result will be different. Sorry!

      • — Jenn on February 6, 2023
      • Reply
  • Very tasty. Will definitely make this again. I used passata sauce instead of whole canned tomatoes and was able to skip the cutting of the tomatoes and immersion blender steps so it was quicker.

    • — Catherine on February 3, 2023
    • Reply
  • Really good, but could be more flavorful. Needed a lot more salt and more garlic.

    • — Uzma Knouss on February 1, 2023
    • Reply
  • I made this recipe and it was absolutely delicious, easy recipe to follow.

    • — Sue on January 20, 2023
    • Reply
  • Absolutely phenomenal!!! Served with OUAC Best Grilled Chicken. Husband loved and was still raving about it long after dinner. Soo delicious. Adding to our regular dinner rotation!

    • — Sarah D on January 19, 2023
    • Reply

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