My first experience with Penne alla Vodka with Chicken was cooking a “gourmet” meal for a group of college friends in our dorm’s basement kitchen. Looking back, I’m not sure which impresses me more: our resourcefulness (that kitchen was equipped with little beyond a hot pot and a few forks someone had “donated” from the dining hall) or our audacity—we made vodka sauce on a campus that doesn’t allow vodka. After one bite, we felt validated. The pasta tasted creamy, glorious, and absolutely worth the risk.

A fork resting on a plate of creamy penne alla vodka with chicken

While I don’t remember anything else we ate—my hunch is the full menu included the penne alla vodka with chicken, wine (from a box), and cake (also from a box)—penne alla vodka has been one of my favorite comfort food dishes since.

Every time I eat it, I’m transported back to that fun, silly night and the joy of good company.

If you aren’t familiar with penne alla vodka or are wondering how to make a vodka sauce, it is a luxurious mix of crushed tomatoes and cream that you can cook quickly on your stove top.

While normally opposite ends of the sauce spectrum, in penne vodka, tomatoes and cream meld together to create something truly fabulous. The secret of their union is the dish’s namesake.

As its name suggests, penne alla vodka is made with vodka, which is cooked down. The vodka prevents the acidity of the tomatoes from causing the cream to break and separate. This is culinary science at its most magnificent.

A large skillet full of penne vodka and chicken

The high count of classic penne alla vodka calories typically puts it on the “special indulgence” list. While that might be true of traditional recipes that use heavy cream, today’s vodka sauce recipe uses a sneaky swap to turn it into a more healthy pasta that you can enjoy regularly.

In fact, this sneaky penne is entirely dairy free, and if you decide to skip the chicken, it’s (gasp!) vegan too.

Here’s my promise: you won’t feel like you are sacrificing in the least.

Like the other healthy twists on Italian favorites you’ll find here (Crock Pot Chicken Marsala, Garlic Shrimp Pasta, and Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore being but three of many healthy pasta recipes), this lightened up penne alla vodka tastes like everything you are hoping for when you decide to make it in the first place: rich, full of flavor, and absolutely scrumptious.

What Does the Vodka Do in Penne alla Vodka?

Contrary to what the name suggests, penne alla vodka does not taste like vodka. Instead, the vodka acts as a flavor balancer. The alcohol burns off during cooking.

  • In vodka sauce, the vodka does two very important jobs. It keeps the “cream” from separating, and it helps release additional flavor from the tomatoes.
  • As the vodka cooks down, it also adds a light bite to the sauce, balancing the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and cream.

If you’re able, I highly suggest trying this recipe with the vodka. However, if you need a substitute for vodka in penne alla vodka, you could try omitting it or using water with a squeeze of lemon juice instead. *I have not tried this swap before, so it would be an experiment. If you decide to play around and make the penne without vodka sauce, I’d love to hear how it goes!*

A plate of noodles with a creamy tomato-based sauce

The Best Penne alla Vodka with Chicken Recipe (Done Lighter!)

 A few of the skinny swaps in this penne alla vodka with chicken recipe were simple, such as replacing the regular penne with whole wheat penne for an extra boost of nutrients, fiber, and protein.

The largest challenge (and thus the one I most wanted to tackle) was what to do with the full cup plus of heavy cream called for in many classic penne alla vodka recipes, both the versions I’ve read in cookbooks and the ones by celebrity chefs (like penne alla vodka by Giada).

My solution? A “cream” made of ground almonds and almond milk.

Almond milk used to make almond "cream" for an easy and healthy penne alla vodka recipe

The Almond “Cream” Sauce

  • Almonds + Almond Milk. The secrets to our dairy-free creamy vodka sauce. Almond milk has long been my go-to ingredient to give sweet and savory recipes (like this Healthy Chicken Pot Pie and Creamy Polenta with Zucchini and Tomatoes) richness without adding excess calories. Combined with the bulk and healthy fats in the ground almonds, it creates the most incredible “cream” that, once stirred into the vodka sauce, is a dead-ringer for the Italian classic. Plus, almonds are a wonderful source of fiber and protein.

Other Ingredients

  • Chicken. Browning the chicken first adds wonderful, deep flavor to the dish. I think that chicken meat is best with vodka sauce, but I’ve offered some alternative ideas in the Recipe Variations section below.
  • Penne. I used whole wheat penne, but any similar whole wheat pasta noodle will work well with this vodka sauce.
  • Vodka. There is a reason it’s in the recipe’s title. While you can’t taste the vodka specifically, it plays a critical role in the sauce coming together cohesively and gives the pasta its signature taste. I promise it’s worth it!
  • Crushed Tomatoes. The tomatoes blend seamlessly with the almond “cream” for a richly flavored sauce.
  • Parmesan or Nutritional Yeast. While optional, I love adding cheesy flavor to my penne vodka. If you don’t need the dish to be dairy free, you can add a bit of Parmesan. We opted for nutritional yeast, which is loaded with nutrients and has a similar “cheesy” taste to Parmesan. (See all my recipes using nutritional yeast here.)
  • Fresh Herbs. A shower of basil or parsley adds a nice touch of freshness and color.

The Directions

  1. Soak the almonds, then add them to a blender with the almond milk. Blend until smooth.
  2. Brown the chicken, and season with salt and pepper. Remove to a plate, then sauté the onion and garlic in the same pot.
  3. Pour in the vodka (very carefully), and deglaze the pot. Add the tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then stir in the almonds.
  4. As the sauce is simmering, cook your pasta. Add the pasta and chicken to the sauce, top with Parmesan or nutritional yeast and herbs. ENJOY!

Penne alla vodka with chicken in a skillet and on a plate

Recipe Variations

  • Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Broccoli. Stir steamed broccoli or roasted broccoli into the pasta at the end.
  • Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Spinach. Stir in a few handfuls of chopped spinach leaves just before serving, allowing the heat of the pasta to wilt the leaves.
  • Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Shrimp. After sautéing the chicken in Step 2, sauté 1 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp; stir it in with the chicken at the end.
  • Vegetarian Penne alla Vodka. Simply omit the chicken. Thanks to the almonds, this pasta recipe is still plenty satisfying without it.
  • Penne alla Vodka with Grilled Chicken. Swap the sauteed chicken for grilled, diced chicken breast.
  • Penne alla Vodka with Pancetta, Prosciutto, or Bacon. Take penne alla vodka to the next level. Omit the chicken, and sauté 4 ounces of diced pancetta, prosciutto, or bacon with the garlic and onion.
  • Penne alla Vodka with Sausage. Omit the chicken, and brown 1 pound of crumbled or chopped Italian sausage (removed from its casing) instead. To keep the recipe on the healthy side, use chicken or turkey sausage.

Penne Vodka Storage Tips

This easy pasta makes a big batch and reheats well, so it’s a great recipe to cook at the beginning of the week, then keep on hand for fast, healthy meals all week long.

  • To Store. Keep leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
  • To Reheat. Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, almond milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
  • To Freeze. Store penne alla vodka with chicken in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.

What to Serve with Penne Alla Vodka

Healthy penne alla vodka on a white plate with chicken

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Healthy Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken. BEST RECIPE! A lighter version of classic vodka sauce made with tomatoes and almond "cream." Dairy free and delicious!

Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken

5 from 13 votes
Healthy Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken. An easy, family friendly dinner that everyone loves! A lighter version of classic vodka sauce — Creamy and delicious!

Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 25 mins
Total: 40 mins

Servings: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 cup raw almonds soaked in water for at least 4 hours or up to 10 hours (if you have a high-powered blended such as a Vitamix, you can skip the soak)
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil divided
  • 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 1 large yellow onion diced
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound whole wheat penne or similar whole wheat pasta
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast or Parmesan optional—use nutritional yeast to make dairy free or omit
  • Thinly sliced fresh basil or chopped fresh parsley

Instructions
 

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drain the almonds, then place them in a blender with the almond milk. Puree until smooth, thick, and creamy. Depending upon your blender, this may take several minutes and you may need to stop and scrape down the blender a few times. The mixture will be the consistency of a paste and will have brown flecks of almond skin in it. Set aside.
  • Meanwhile, in a very large, deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add the chicken. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Sauté until lightly browned on all sides and cooked through, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside. Make sure you have the vodka measured and on hand.
  • To the same pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Let warm up, then add the onion and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onion begins to soften, about 3 to 4 minutes, then add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn it.
  • Carefully add the vodka (be especially careful if your stove has an open flame). Scrape to deglaze the pan, then let the vodka cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Bring this sauce to a steady simmer, then reduce the heat to a low simmer over medium low, adjusting the heat as needed so that the sauce simmers gently (you want it to continue to reduce but not bubble aggressively). Let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the blended almond mixture until the sauce is smooth and the almond mixture is well incorporated (the sauce will turn a light, creamy red color). Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
  • While the sauce simmers, cook the pasta in the boiling water to al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and immediately add it to the sauce. Toss to coat the pasta, then stir in the chicken, adding a bit of the pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce as needed. Stir in the nutritional yeast. Serve hot, sprinkled with basil or parsley.

Notes

  • TO STORE: Keep leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
  • TO REHEAT: Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, almond milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
  • TO FREEZE: Store penne alla vodka with chicken in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating

Nutrition

Serving: 1(of 8), about 2 cupsCalories: 475kcalCarbohydrates: 46gProtein: 24gFat: 14gSaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 28mgFiber: 9gSugar: 7g

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Erin Clarke

Hi, I'm Erin Clarke, and I'm fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food that's affordable, easy-to-make, and best of all DELISH. I'm the author and recipe developer here at wellplated.com and of The Well Plated Cookbook. I adore both sweets and veggies, and I am on a mission to save you time and dishes. WELCOME!

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45 Comments

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  1. Loving this makeover, Erin! I rarely  indulge in vodka sauce because I know how many calories it packs. Yikes. Definitely puts me over the edge! But this lighter version is perfect! Using almonds and almond milk is so smart!

  2. I am so in love with vodka sauce. It’s one of my all time favorite pasta sauces. I’ve never thought to make it with almond milk – totally need to try this as I still haven’t met my summer goal weight (LOL summer is almost over).5 stars

  3. I love Almond Breeze almond milk! It really does taste the best and I can’t wait to try cooking with it! Especially in your pasta sauce, which sounds so delicious :)

  4. I really don’t frequently consider using almond-milk in savory recipes…they all look yummy even however!

    1. Hi Venio, thanks your honest feedback. The number of ads on my site is something I am constantly evaluating and rethinking. As much as I would love to remove ads entirely or even run just one or two, as I am sure you know, I am dependent on ads to generate an income and to keep my content free for you and all of my other wonderful readers to access. It is very important to me that the ads be VERY easy to close, so any time there is any sort of pop up, you’ll always see an “X” or “Close” feature to remove it. (And if you ever can’t close one, please let me know so I can look into it right away!)

  5. Do you think you could sub white wine for vodka? Don’t have any on hand right now. Thanks, can’t wait to try!!

    1. Hi Margaret! I haven’t tried it myself, but you could certainly experiment. The flavor will be different since vodka is much more neutral. If you give it a try, I’d love to hear how it goes!

  6. WOW. I am unbelievably shocked at how easy and delicious this recipe was. My husband and I are slowly transitioning omnivores to vegans, and a big issue for us was losing the creamy sauces that we enjoy so much. This. Sauce. Is. Incredible. Why didn’t I think of ground almonds?! We had already used almond milk in recipes before but was missing the creamy aspect. Made this in a jiff and had plenty leftover. Used tomatoes that I had already instead of the can. Substituted veges (artichokes, peas, broccoli) for chicken and it was delicious. Also super filling without feeling terrible, AND nutritious ! Normally I don’t write reviews but I just love this sauce so much I had to.  Will be using the almond paste to attempt an Alfredo sauce. Recommending to everyone I know! Thanks ❤️5 stars

    1. This makes my day, Jessica! I’m so happy to hear that this recipe was a hit! Thank you for taking the time to share this kind review!

  7. I happen to have some raw cashews, so think I’ll try this with the cashews blended into the almond milk. Also my almond milk has coconut as well, making it creamier. I’ll post after I make it and let you know how it worked.

  8. I made this tonight for my  son and husband and both  had no idea anything was any different then what they are used to eating when we go out!!! A wonderful addition to our rotation. Thank you Erin!  5 stars

  9. We are dairy lovers, so do not buy almond milk.  But I like the reduced fat here.  Do you think this would work with skim milk and almonds?

    1. Hi Barbara! I’ve only tested the recipe as written, so it would be an experiment. If you decide to play around with it, I’d love to hear how it goes!