How to Make Perfect Penne alla Vodka
It's the ultimate Italian-American comfort food!
There's no denying that penne alla vodka is a fabulous, comforting meal. The sauce, which is an intoxicating combination of crushed tomatoes, garlic and onions, vodka, and heavy cream, is beloved far and wide. It's most often served as is, but you can add sautéed vegetables and seared proteins such as shrimp or chicken for a heartier entrée. Or switch up the pasta using rigatoni, orecchiette, or pappardelle, each of which holds the sauce well so you can enjoy every last bit. Ahead, we're explaining how to cook penne alla vodka like a pro.
How to Make Penne Alla Vodka
"Growing up, I thought of vodka sauce as jarred spaghetti sauce with heavy cream and vodka, but there's much more to it than that," says Mark Jeffers, chef and culinary director of Fifth Group. To make penne with vodka sauce, start by sautéing garlic and onions (or shallots) in olive oil until they start to release their sweetness and become translucent. Next, add whole or crushed canned San Marzano tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes start to release their juices and break down further. Feel free to add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste for an even greater depth of flavor. Then add the vodka, cooking just until the alcohol has cooked off and the sauce has thickened. Stir in heavy cream, add plenty of fresh herbs like oregano and basil, and let it reduce until you've achieved your desired consistency, though vodka sauce should resemble a thickened cream sauce.
Finally, add the pasta. Jeffers says the key to making perfect penne alla vodka is cooking the pasta until it's just al dente. "It's important to undercook the pasta because it will continue to cook once you add it to the warm vodka sauce," he says. James Beard Award-winning chef JJ Johnson says not to skimp on adding pasta water to the sauce either. "When you put the pasta in the vodka sauce, be sure to take some of that pasta water with you so that you can get that beautiful starchiness," he says.
Use the Right Ingredients
In a vodka sauce, the most important ingredients are tomatoes, cheese, and, you guessed it, vodka. When it comes to choosing the right alcohol, turn to your bar cart. "You should use whatever vodka you love to drink—whether that's Grey Goose, Belvedere, or Ciroc—because that will give your sauce the best flavor," says Johnson. As for choosing which cheese to grate on top of the finished dish, the three most commonly used varieties are Grana Padano, Parmesan, and Pecorino Romano. "I like Pecorino Romano because it has the sharp, peppery nuttiness that adds the depth of flavor, but you can also use Grana Padano for the saltiness," says Jeffers.
When it comes to the tomatoes, both Jeffers and Johnson agree that crushed San Marzano tomatoes are best in terms of their texture and sweet flavor.
If you want to dress up penne alla vodka with protein or vegetables, add sautéed shrimp, seared chicken, or roasted vegetables at the end of the cooking process. Stir quick-cooking frozen vegetables like peas into the warm sauce and pasta just before serving to avoid them becoming mushy. To get straight-from-the-sea flavor in your pasta, Johnson suggests finely mincing shrimp and stirring it into the sauce to cook for just a couple of minutes. The shellfish will add texture and naturally infuse the sauce with briny flavor.
Cream-based sauces do not reheat well, as they generally break or separate due to the combination of acidic tomatoes and heavy cream. To make vodka sauce in advance, simply prepare a basic tomato sauce with vodka and then add heavy cream just before serving. "You can combine all of those original steps of sautéing the garlic and onions and cooking down the tomatoes, which gives you a little bit of a shortcut the next time you want to make penne alla vodka. However, you don't have to worry about how well it holds up," he says.
Jeffers says you can also create a new dish entirely with penne alla vodka. Add the leftover pasta to a gratin dish, top with more tomato sauce and cheese, and bake it in the oven until it's bubbling and golden brown, essentially giving you an extra-rich baked penne alla vodka.