A Genius Technique for the Best Vodka Pasta (And Better Marinara, Too)

February  3, 2016

Sure, you could sling together penne alla vodka in half an hour and it will taste just fine—there's spice and cream and tomato and, mysteriously but necessarily, vodka (we'll come back to that).

But if you're going to commit—to the cream, the vodka, all of it—you can do a whole lot better than just fine. Especially when you nestle up under the wing of Ina Garten.

This pasta is Garten's version of one that's been on the menu at Nick and Toni's in East Hampton for more than 20 years, and so loved that she featured on her show The Barefoot Contessa and in her 2012 cookbook Foolproof.

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The recipe title technically doesn't even have the word vodka in it, but it's the first vodka sauce that comes up every time I try to ask the world for a good one.

It starts the usual way sauces do—sauté onion and garlic, add some chile flakes, then booze, then tomatoes, but then it swerves off course. Here's the secret to its success: You take this perfectly adequate sauce and roast it in the oven for an hour and a half.

The sauce concentrates and the tomatoes caramelize and turn jammy, melding with all the other flavors more conclusively than they would in a speedier stovetop number.

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Top Comment:
“It'll just take longer to cook the sauce down if it's added. :)”
— Bethalie G.

The vodka can only help the process along. It may be a humble liquor, but it's also an abundant source of ethyl alcohol that "during cooking, can react chemically with acids in the food to form fragrant, fruity compounds called esters," according to food science writer Robert L. Wolke. So the boozed up sauce isn't just a marketing ploy from the 1970s Italian vodka industry, as some legends would have it, though beyond that the sauce's origins are murky.

(Wolke also bursts the bubble on the belief that alcohol used in cooking actually extracts otherwise untapped aromas and flavors from foods—it needs to be in a much higher concentration, as in vanilla extract, to do that. But who needs extraction when you've got esters!)

At the end, you'll blend the darkened, reduced sauce, to help it coat the pasta generously and tuck into all the ridges, tubes, and crannies. Then you'll slip in some cream and fresh oregano—or not.

And that's the kicker: I first encountered this recipe on Alexandra's Kitchen, where Ali Stafford ditched the oregano for basil and cut the cream down dramatically, which leads me here: This oven-roasting technique is a boon to tomato sauces everywhere—not just vodka. Try it on marinara, puttanesca, amatriciana, maybe even Marcella.

Anytime you have a bit more time, and don't want to stir and mind the stovetop, put a lid on your sauce and throw it in the oven. As Ina would say: How easy is that?

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52's Contributors Editor Sarah Jampel for this one!

Photos by Bobbi Lin

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Sandra C. December 10, 2018
Would this sauce freeze well? Maybe before adding the cream?
Bethalie G. February 14, 2016
Step #3 gives you the choice to drain the canned tomatoes before squishing them into the pan or
adding their liquid. It'll just take longer to cook the sauce down if it's added. :)
Blork February 14, 2016
Right. You need to click through to the full recipe to see that. (I always forget how Food52 managed to make a recipe straddle two separate pages.)
Blork February 14, 2016
The photos in this article show the tomatoes being drained, but the recipe doesn't mention it. Is draining recommended for this particular technique?
Marian B. February 8, 2016
can't wait to try this :)
Deborah B. February 8, 2016
We grow a zillion tomatoes. I control the glut by frequently making sauce in the slow cooker, where it reduces over hours, darkens and goes all yummy on us. I suspect this method is similar.
Bethalie G. February 8, 2016
I made this last week after seeing Ina's episode. Very easy and flavorful! I wasn't crazy about blending the roasted sauce in a blender, though. It was cooked down too low to use the immersion blender and risk getting red sauce splattered all over the place. This made more than enough to sauce 16 oz. of Dececco penne rigate plus my addition of 12 oz. browned Italian sausage.
jodyrah February 8, 2016
I used to make my own pasta until I discovered Cipriani dried pasta. It is nearly indistiguishable from homemade. It comes in a large rectangular box. Most varieties cook in 2-4 mins. Here in New Orleans it runs around $8/8.82oz.
Lisa B. February 7, 2016
I've been making Patricia Wells' version in her book, Trattoria, for over 20 years, and I think Wells' recipe is closer to its namesake at Alla Vecchia Bettola in Florence. Doesn't mean Ina Garten's take won't be good (haven't tried it yet), just different.
Nancy H. February 7, 2016
Does all the alcohol cook off? I'd like to serve this at a dinner party but must be aware that some guests must not have any alcohol.
Chief February 7, 2016
No. It is almost impossible to cook ALL the alcohol out. It will not have an intoxicating effect. If your guests are Muslim or Mormon you should check with them first.
brigitte February 7, 2016
I have been making this sauce from Ina's cookbook for many years--our favorite! The slow roasting makes all the difference in flavor!! Have never tried vodka pizza, but will for sure.
Stefanie P. February 7, 2016
Would popping it in a slow cooker have the same effect?
Daryle T. February 7, 2016
Gin has a very pronounced taste that would be detected in the final sauce. I would have my gin on the side ... with tonic and lime.
garyzanemurg February 7, 2016
Now there's a thought lol
garyzanemurg February 7, 2016
What about Gin instead ?
Daryle T. February 7, 2016
As a retired bartender, I know that Vodka has no taste. None! So don't waste your hard earned money on a top-shelf brand, buy something from the speed rack. The sauce won't know any differently.
Rob T. February 4, 2016
Do you roast it covered or uncovered?
Smaug February 5, 2016
BrainSturtz February 7, 2016
Why though? Wouldn't this impede evaporation, and ultimately the concentration of flavor?
theresa C. February 7, 2016
I also wonder about the "covered" part. I would think the condensation would make the sauce more liquid instead of evaporate.
Megan February 3, 2016
What kind of vodka do you recommend using?
Moire February 7, 2016
Use a good vodka. We keep Stolichnaya on hand for cooking tomato sauces. The cheap stuff has has a harsh, grain alcohol taste. Yes, Stoli is expensive, but you're worth it.
Sarah J. February 3, 2016
It is my dream to "nestle up under the wing of Ina Garten."
Smaug February 3, 2016
The whole box is usually 12 oz. these days.
Kristen M. February 3, 2016
Really? What brands? I usually still see 1-pound boxes, though I've heard gluten-free pastas usually come in 12-ounce packages.
devoeas February 3, 2016
I see that a lot for whole wheat or veggie-based pastas from the usual grocery brands, so they can be the same price as the standard pasta. but I'm also seeing more and more of those boxes go back up to 16oz.
Smaug February 3, 2016
Well, I'm mostly stuck shopping at Safeway these days- the standard brands, Golden Grain, Barilla, Safeway brand all come mostly in 12 oz. boxes. Of course everyone's coming out with all sorts of gluten free, instant cook, vegetable based etc. that I haven't really looked into.
Kristen M. February 3, 2016
Thanks Smaug, this is really interesting and good to know. No wonder more and more recipes are calling for 12 ounces. Either way, you'll have plenty of sauce in this recipe.
Smaug February 4, 2016
I should think so; that's twice the tomatoes I'd ordinarily use with a pound of pasta.
healthierkitchen February 4, 2016
Does it freeze well? Maybe before the cream?
Smaug February 4, 2016
Back from Safeway- I note that DeCecco, a brand they recently added, does come in 16 oz. boxes.
Rhonda35 February 7, 2016
I buy Barilla weekly - it comes in 16-oz. boxes, unless you choose one of their specialty lines, such as Protein Plus, Whole Grain, White Fiber, Gluten-Free, etc. The regular ol' Barilla pasta is sold in 16-oz. boxes. Our grocery store brand (Krogers) also comes in 16-oz. packages.
ajicito February 3, 2016
This sounds like a fantastic way to make pizza sauce without having to baby it on the stove for hours. (Though admittedly I do like a thicker sauce for most pizzas.)
Kristen M. February 3, 2016
Yes! Also vodka pizza is one of my favorite foods of all time, thanks to living near Pomodoro Pizza in Little Italy circa 2008. I made my own with the leftover sauce from this!
Alexandra S. February 3, 2016
Why have I never had vodka pizza?! Oh my. I need to take care of that. I have yet to make a batch of this sauce this winter, and I now have all the inspiration I need. Yum.
Ali S. February 3, 2016
What do you put on your vodka pizza, K?
Kristen M. February 3, 2016
Just lots of sauce and gobs of fresh mozzerella. When we used to order it from Pomodoro, it was such a runny mess that it looked like they'd made a mistake, but oh no.
Smaug February 4, 2016
What makes it vodka pizza, just the sauce? I often use some red wine in pizza crust, do I need to try vodka?
Catherine L. February 3, 2016
well that's dinner then.
Kristen M. February 3, 2016
Frank February 7, 2016
Funny and true>