I’d venture to guess there are as many ways to make vodka sauce as there are “red sauce restaurants” in Little Italy. Okay, maybe not that many, but there are still a lot of ways to make vodka sauce. (I’ve personally eaten at least 75 variations.) Like many classic pasta dishes, say, carbonara or amatriciana vodka sauce has a pretty specific formula, yet people still have extremely strong opinions about how their way is the only way to make the stuff. I’ve had vodka sauce with onions and without. With lots and lots of cream or with...less (but still a lot of) cream. A punch bowl’s worth of vodka or just a splash. Finished with butter or not. Splashed with pasta water or not. Basil, sometimes. Maybe Parmesan, too.
So, I will enter into the pasta discourse with this vodka sauce recipe. But first: why vodka? It doesn’t have a strong flavor to impart, like red wine in a tomato sauce or beer in a marinade, and the dish gets its classic orange hue from the cream and tomato. So why stir it into sauce, especially when it could be poured over ice at 5 p.m. instead? Some say the vodka adds a touch of sweetness and heat; others swear it helps prevent the sauce from breaking. While there’s merit to both arguments, I think it’s mostly about preservation of the dish’s name.
This vodka sauce has onions (very finely chopped) and garlic (grated). It has cream and butter—but maybe not as much as you’d think. I prefer to amp up the creaminess with a mixture of grated Parm and pasta water, both of which are more salty and nuanced than cream, but when mixed together essentially take on a similar consistency and richness. I like this pasta on the spicier side, so I go for the full teaspoon of red pepper flakes; if you don’t like heat, use less—but do use at least a pinch to cut through some of the rich sauce. And, of course, there is vodka. (Note: The alcohol won’t cook out entirely, so if you don’t want to include it, substitute with 1/4 cup of pasta water and a good squeeze of lemon.) Presto: vodka sauce. Do I think it’s the best version? Sure, but I’m biased. You tell me. But here’s the real question: rigatoni, penne, or fusilli? —Rebecca Firkser
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Serves 3-4
short pasta, like rigatoni, penne, or fusilli
medium yellow onion, very finely chopped
garlic cloves, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
(6-ounce) can tomato paste
1/2 to 1
teaspoon red pepper flakes
(about 1/2 cup) grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- Fill a large pot with water and a big handful (about 1/4 cup) of kosher salt. Place a lid on the pot and bring to a boil. Take the cream out of the fridge and set it aside (we’re not using it yet, but you don’t want to add it to the sauce fridge-cold.)
- While the water comes to a boil, heat the oil in another large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly, until the alliums soften but don’t brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato paste darkens in color and is starting to stick to the pot, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the vodka, gently scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture has thickened.
- Very slowly stir or whisk in the cream (if cooking in a Dutch oven, use a spoon or a silicone whisk that won’t damage the enamel), then reduce the heat to low.
- Cook the pasta until just barely al dente, about 2 minutes less than what the box says for al dente. (It’s going to cook more in the sauce!) When your pasta timer has a minute or so left, scoop out 1 cup of the pasta water. Slowly stir or whisk 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water into the vodka sauce.
- Use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer the very al dente pasta directly into the vodka sauce (no need to worry about draining off any excess water). Add the cheese and butter, stirring vigorously to melt and combine into a thick mixture. If the sauce seems really thick or dry, add more reserved pasta water by the splash. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed.
- Serve immediately with more cheese and ground black pepper.