Vodka sauce is an Italian-American staple. The mix of heavy cream, tomato paste, and vodka is unique to the red sauce houses of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. and doesn’t really have a parallel back in old-world Italy. It seems to have simultaneously appeared in New York, Bologna, and the cookbook of Italian heartthrob Ugo Tognazzi in the mid-70s, either thanks to coincidence or overeager vodka marketers, depending on which story you believe.
If you were pressed to go back further, you could perhaps trace the roots of vodka sauce to Neapolitan Pomodoro sauce (which itself descends from the Americas), made from ripe tomatoes, butter, and fresh basil. The foundation is the same — tomatoes plus fat equals sauce — but the end result is drastically different. Then, of course, you have the vodka.
The addition of vodka to pasta sauce has no precedent before the swinging 70s in Italian cuisine. The booze is used as a de-glazer and an emulsifier. Truth be told, you can use white wine for the exact same purposes and that will add a little more depth and flavor (that bright, fruity sharp chardonnay taste, for example), versus a relatively neutral vodka. You can also use brandy if you want deeper, heartier flavors.
Still, the name of the dish is “vodka sauce,” so we’re using vodka today. As for the rest, the dish is pretty easy to make, which perhaps explains why it’s been such a hit on TikTok. #VodkaPasta has trended on the platform off and on for months, including a particularly uninspired recipe by model/influencer Gigi Hadid. There are 18.2 million views on the hashtag to date, which feels like a lot for a recipe this easy.
One of the biggest perks of vodka sauce, and perhaps why it lends itself to so many TikToks, is that it takes about the same amount of time to make as boiling your noodles. You do need a little technique and patience with the base of onions and garlic and then the emulsification of the tomato and cream, but other than that it’s a simple, straightforward weeknight recipe. Easy to execute in 20 minutes or less, depending on your knife and sauteeing skills.
As with any sauce, this one is also highly permutable. You can alter it to suit your taste by adjusting the spice to your liking or leaning into either the cream or the tomato paste elements. Add in some crumbled Italian sausage for more oompf. Toss it with ravioli or tortellini instead of penne or rigatoni. Want to take a week to infuse some oil with chilis and really amp the heat up?
Go for it. You do you.
Rigatoni with Spicy Vodka Sauce
What You’ll Need in the Kitchen:
- Heavy-bottomed pan
- Large pot
- Small pot
- Slotted spoon
- Kitchen knife
- Wooden spoon
- Cutting Board
- 1/2-lb. Rigatoni or Penne
- 1 yellow onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/8 cup vodka
- 1 tube tomato paste
- 1 cup heavy cream (32%)
- 1-tbsp. hot pepper flakes
- White pepper
- Black pepper
- Olive oil
- Fresh basil
There’s really not a whole lot to say here besides: Buy fresh, quality ingredients. Shitty parm or olive oil or tomato paste will leave you with a shittier version of this meal. Also, you don’t need to double up flavors or fats. If you’re already using fresh garlic, you don’t need garlic powder. If you’re already using whole-fat cream, you don’t need butter (the same thing). Keep things simple and dialed in.
You’re also going to want a broad, tube-shaped pasta. The more surface area you have, the better this sauce will stick. Rigatoni and penne are common — I’m making rigatoni because my editor has a vendetta against penne. Orichette would work, too. Rotini is fine but perhaps too dense.
The first step is to gather all your ingredients and then get a big pot of water on the flame. I’m using a 4-liter pot that’s filled 1/2 way with water and has a good punch of salt added.
While that starts to warm up, I do my prep. This entails peeling and dicing one onion and smashing and peeling four cloves of garlic. I cut the hard, root end off the garlic cloves and smash them with the face of the knife. The peel will slide right off. If you’re cooking for a date and want your garlic to be milder, you could pre-roast it — submerged in olive oil, low and slow at 200-degrees for three-ish hours.
The last bit of prep is to put the cream in a small pan on low heat. When you add the cream to the tomato base later, you want it to be warm (not hot or boiling). That way the cream won’t curdle in the pan when it hits the acidic tomato. Again, do not boil the cream. Just warm it up.
I’m using a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I pour in a layer of olive oil and bring it up to medium heat — don’t go higher than medium-high. I add in the onions with a pinch of salt and maybe a half-cup of the water from the pasta pot.
The water will simmer off the onions and speed up their softening while also not allowing them to brown or go bitter. There’s a term in Italian cooking that’s something like “tornare all’olio” which means “return to the oil” in braising. Essentially, you know the dish is ready to move on when the watery liquid is all evaporated and the oil is all that’s left in the pan.
Once the onions are very soft and translucent, add in the smashed garlic and sautee another three or so minutes, making sure not to brown anything. I use the wooden spoon to further break up the smashed garlic cloves. Keep the heat low-ish.
By this point, the water should be boiling, so I add the pasta to the water and give it a stir. I also turn the cream off as it’s warm enough and I don’t want it to boil.
Now, it’s time to make some sauce.
I add in about half of the red pepper flakes (saving the rest for service). I let them bloom in the pan until they’re very fragrant, about 30 seconds.
I then add in the vodka and stir everything with the wooden spoon until there’s a bit of thickening as the oil and vodka combine.
Next, I add in the tomato paste. I stir that in until the whole thing is combined. I keep the heat on medium and let that base completely heat through to help the tinniness of the tomato paste fade away. Give this a few minutes and taste it to make sure you’re not getting any tin can flavor.
Next, I slowly stir in the cream, adding it in a steady and slow stream from the small pot it was warmed in. As soon as that’s all in, I add in about a half-a-cup of pasta water and stir until completely emulsified.
Lastly, I check for seasoning and add in a good pinch of salt and a few shakes of fine white pepper. Stir and taste again.
I kill the heat. It’s time to make our dish!
You’ll want the pasta about one or two minutes shy of the on-the-box cook time to be proper al dente. I usually just fish out a piece and try it (please don’t burn yourself). It should still have a bite — the tube ought to have a lot of spring — but be nearing soft. Don’t worry, it’ll finish in the sauce.
This is important: you don’t want to drain off the pasta. You want to bring a bit of the pasta water into the pan as you toss the pasta with the sauce to finish.
I use a slotted spoon to transfer all of the pasta into the waiting pan. Once it’s all scooped out, I add about a dozen fresh basil leaves. I then use the wooden spoon to mix it all together. The sauce should create a creamy sheen and stick to the pasta without a problem.
I then dish the pasta into a warmed bowl. I sprinkle a pinch of red pepper flakes over the dish and crack some black pepper. I then finish with a grating of young parm. We’re ready to tuck in.
This takes me back to those long lunches and birthday dinners at Maggiano’s in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside of D.C. It’s a hefty dish that’s obviously f*cking delicious. Come on, it’s cream, tomato, garlic, and chili pepper. What’s not to love?
The biggest complaint I could possibly levy on this dish is that it’s pretty heavy. You don’t need a lot and this will easily serve six, especially if it’s a primi (first course).
Still, it’s tomato-y, creamy, spicy, garlicky, and really, really velvety. It’s also pretty easy to make and quick. Plus it’s got that pink hue and a nice luster to it. It feels sexy on some level — great for social media, obviously, but even better for IRL dates, when that’s a thing again.