Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Penne With Vodka Sauce

My parents are visiting - so it's a good time to test out some savory recipes. Vodka sauce seems like a staple for a soused chef - also it is really easy to make. I love recipes that are easy but make you look like a rock star in the kitchen. This only took me an hour to make.

Oddly, all the recipes I read for vodka sauce said something to the effect of "Don't worry, you can serve this to your kids - all the alcohol cooks out!" So I'm wondering - if that is the case, and vodka is odorless and tasteless for the most part, why even bother using vodka in this recipe? Time to give a high five to Google and the Internet. I found two threads on ChowHound that answered this very question! The New York Times also had a good answer. According to one "ChowHound" post, this is how the vodka sauce story goes, complete with original spelling and grammar...

"I was born and lived most of my life in Italy, My grandparents own a little resturante in Italy for almost 60years. salsa alla vodka panna "Vodka sauce" is not a gimmick, nor, was it invented to sell Vodka. My grandparents were making vodka sauce since before it was "Offically" invented in Bologna, Italy in the 1970's. The Vodka is used to release the acids and flavor in the sauce and also to enhance the sweetness of the cream even vodka dosent have a flavor on its own when mixed with the other ingredeints it has a flavor enhancer."

In short, some acids and flavors are water-soluble, some are fat-soluble, and others are soluble in alcohol. Vodka helps to bring out alcohol soluble flavors. The ChowHound post goes on to say how Italian vodka sauce is more complex than how Americans make it. Enough of that, we're not here to put anyone down....we're here to cook!

I made a number of changes to the original recipe. One of the things I hate is when a recipe calls for can sizes that don't really exist - you either short change the recipe, or you have leftovers that you need to find a use for. My intentions were to give you whole can amounts, but I ran into a soupy sauce and decided to add tomato paste to thicken it up. Many apologies for using a partial can of tomato paste, and a partial carton of heavy cream. I added the tomato paste before the cream and I do wonder if the cream by itself along with some extra simmering is enough to thicken it up.  I'm also providing you with some more specific measurements for the seasonings to help you cooking novices. Oh, and parsley? Sure does look pretty, but it was too bitter - I am opting out next time.

By the way, it's not entirely true that all of the alcohol will evaporate off. A study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory measured the percentage of alcohol remaining in a dish based on various cooking methods. Simmering for 15 minutes only removes about 60% of the alcohol. When you are only using 1/4 cup (or 2 ounces), it ends up being a shot of vodka in several quarts of sauce. No worse than vanilla extract I suppose.

Penne with Vodka Sauce
Source: Epicurious

Makes 6 servings* 

4 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon...mmmmm, bacon) (totally optional)

1 teaspoon of Salt (or to taste, add more if you opt out of pancetta))
2 x 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes with their liquid
1 pound penne
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole garlic, peeled (about 10 cloves)**
5 to 7 shakes of Crushed hot red pepper (this makes a sauce with a little kick, add more or less to your taste)
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons fresh chopped basil or frozen basil cubes (I heart you Dorot!)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup vodka
3/4 cup heavy cream (if you want a creamier sauce, add 1 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil for finishing the sauce, if you like
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (optional)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for passing if you like


1. Slice up pancetta and cook in a frying pan as you would cook up regular bacon. When done, remove from heat.
2. Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.
3. Pour the tomatoes and their liquid into the work bowl of a food processor. Using quick on/off pulses, process the tomatoes just until they are finely chopped. (Longer processing will aerate the tomatoes, turning them pink.) This is also a safe time to use an immersible blender - pour the tomatoes and their liquid into a large bowl or stock pot. Put the blender on the lowest setting (#1) and place the wand over each whole tomato and blend for a second or two. 
4. Stir the penne into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. (I used a dutch oven.) Whack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife and add them to the hot oil.** Cook, shaking the skillet, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. ***
6. Lower the work bowl with the tomatoes close to the skillet and carefully — they will splatter — slide the tomatoes into the pan. Add tomato paste. Stir to mix in tomato paste
7. Bring to a boil, add bay leaves, basil, and season lightly with salt and generously with crushed red pepper, and boil 2 minutes.
8. Pour in the vodka, and add pancetta, lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer, and simmer until the pasta is ready. (The timing of this was a little off for me, my penne finished right as adding the vodka - simmer for at least 15 minutes.) Check the seasoning and add salt or red pepper if needed.
9. Just before the pasta is done, fish the garlic cloves out of the sauce and pour in the cream. Add the 2 tablespoons butter or oil, if using, and swirl the skillet to incorporate into the sauce.
10. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and gradually pour in the sauce until your pasta is sufficiently coated. (You may have about 1 to 2 cups of extra sauce leftover).
11. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat the pasta with sauce. You can add more sauce if your pasta is not "coated." Check the seasoning, adding salt and red pepper if necessary.
12. Sprinkle the parsley over the pasta (****) and boil until the sauce is reduced enough to cling to the pasta.
13. Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle 3/4 cup of the cheese over the pasta, and toss to mix. Serve immediately, passing additional cheese if you like.

Photo one - sauce before adding cream
Photo two - sauce after adding cream
Photo three - penne coated with sauce

*Since I did increase the amount of tomatoes, you do end up with more sauce than you need for the pasta. I decided to try freezing it, but I just remembered that cream based stuff doesn't freeze/thaw well. I'll keep you updated on the outcome of that.
**Eventually you will smash each garlic clove - if you cut off the base of the garlic clove, and smash while the skin is still on, the skin easily comes loose after smashing, making it much easier to peel.
***If you just use a whole garlic, be sure to count the number of cloves you put in, so you can know how many you need to fish out of the sauce at the end.
****I actually sprinkled the parsley on top, just before serving. It was too bitter. I would leave out entirely next time.


  1. I'd be afraid to know how many calories are in that wonderful looking sauce...

  2. I would have to agree about the calories, I really love vodka penne though. Maybe there is a 'lite' version! :)

  3. This is a blog about cooking with alcohol, avoiding gluttony isn't a goal :)