My first experience with Penne alla Vodka was cooking a “gourmet” meal for a group of college friends in our dorm’s basement kitchen. Penne noodles tossed in a crushed tomato cream sauce, it’s easy to make at home and positively decadent.
Looking back at that culinary experience, I’m not sure which impresses me more: our resourcefulness (that dorm kitchen was equipped with little beyond a rusty pot and a few forks “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!
When I think of meals that are “worth it” penne alla vodka is the epitome.
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 stovetop.
Tomatoes and cream rarely appear together in the same pasta sauce, for good reason: the acid in tomatoes can make cream curdle.
In penne vodka, however, they meld together to create something truly fabulous.
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 three very important jobs.
- It keeps the cream from separating.
- It releases 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.
This is culinary science at its most magnificent!
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 large amounts of heavy cream, today’s vodka sauce recipe uses a sneaky swap to turn it into a somewhat more healthy pasta that you can enjoy regularly.
Instead of cream, I use a reduced amount of half-and-half.
- Half-and-half is half milk/half cream (hence the name).
- With this swap, there is still enough cream to keep the sauce from breaking and make it taste rich.
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.
How To Make Penne Alla Vodka
Don’t be fooled by this recipe’s simplicity.
Penne alla vodka is easy to make and the results are nothing short of spectacular!
- 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 half-and-half for a richly flavored sauce.
- Half-and-Half. Instead of making penne sauce with cream, I opted for half-and-half. This slims the recipe down, while keeping it satisfying.
- Parmesan. While optional, I love adding cheesy flavor to my penne vodka.
- Fresh Herbs. A shower of basil or parsley adds a nice touch of freshness and color.
- Cook the onion, salt, and pepper in oil. Add the garlic.
- Pour in the vodka, scraping along the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Let cook until reduced by half.
- Add the tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Let simmer until thickened. Stir in the half-and-half.
- Cook the pasta, reserve some of the cooking liquid, then add to the sauce.
- Toss to coat, adding pasta water as needed. Stir in the Parmesan. ENJOY!
Pair this penne alla vodka with Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Chianti.
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken. Prior to sautéing the onion, sauté 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs until cooked through; remove to a plate, then add with the pasta at the end.
- Penne alla Vodka with Vegetables. Stir steamed broccoli or Roasted Broccoli into the pasta at the end. Or, 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 Shrimp. Prior to sautéing the onion, sauté 1 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp; remove to a plate, then add with the pasta at the end.
- Penne alla Vodka with Pancetta, Prosciutto, or Bacon. Take penne alla vodka to the next level. Sauté 4 ounces of diced pancetta, prosciutto, or bacon with the garlic and onion.
- Penne alla Vodka with Sausage. Prior to sautéing the onion, brown 1 pound of crumbled or chopped Italian sausage (removed from its casing). To keep the recipe on the healthy side, use chicken or turkey sausage. Add to the pasta at the end.
- Spicy Penne alla Vodka. Add a pinch (or a few!) of crushed red pepper flakes to taste.
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. Refrigerate leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container for up to 4 days.
- To Reheat. Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
- To Freeze. Freeze penne alla vodka in an airtight, freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
What to Serve with Penne Alla Vodka
- Salad. A green salad, such as this Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad always goes well with pasta and vodka sauce.
- Vegetables. Either Roasted Brussels Sprouts or Roasted Frozen Broccoli would be delicious as a side dish.
- Bread. Don’t let any of the scrumptious vodka sauce go to waste! Sop it up with a crusty loaf of your favorite bread (we love this Rosemary Olive Oil Bread and No Knead Focaccia).
- Italian Appetizers. Begin the meal with a tasty appetizer such as Mozzarella Sticks to complement the pasta.
Recommended Tools to Make this Recipe
- Dutch Oven. A worthwhile investment piece. It’s great for making Chicken Cacciatore or pasta dishes like this one (and all of these).
- Wooden Spoon. Great for stirring and scraping.
- Colander. Perfect for draining the pasta noodles.
High-Quality Dutch Oven
A Dutch oven is one of the most versatile, useful, and long-lasting tools you can have in your kitchen. This one is beautiful and heavy-duty!
Frequently Asked Questions
For a vegan vodka sauce without cream or half-and-half, see my Dairy Free Penne Alla Vodka.
Penne Alla Vodka
- 3/4 cup vodka
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 cloves garlic minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 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
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
- Thinly sliced fresh basil or chopped fresh parsley
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta. Measure the vodka and keep it near the stove.
- In a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Once it is hot and shimmering, add the onion, salt, and black pepper. Cook until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Carefully add the vodka (be especially cautious if your stove has an open flame). Scrape with a wooden spoon or spatula to deglaze the pan, then let the vodka cook until reduced by half, about 3 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. Adjust the heat as needed so that the sauce simmers gently so it continues to reduce but does not bubble aggressively. Let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and let simmer 5 minutes more.
- 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, adding a bit of the pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce as needed. Stir in the Parmesan. Serve hot, sprinkled with basil or parsley.
- TO STORE: Refrigerate leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container for up to 4 days.
- TO REHEAT: Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
- TO FREEZE: Freeze penne alla vodka in an airtight, freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
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