This easy penne alla vodka recipe is a restaurant-quality dish with a silky tomato cream sauce. It only takes 20 minutes to make, so it's a perfect way to elevate busy weeknights!
Love these classic flavors? You might want to make my One Pan Gnocchi alla Vodka or Easy Pink Sauce Pasta next.
Why you'll love it
Penne alla vodka is one of those recipes that seems super fancy, but in reality it only takes as long to cook the sauce as it does to boil the water for the pasta! It's quick and easy, and you'll appreciate how few ingredients you need for it.
The key to making creamy vodka sauce extra amazing is using tomato paste. It's a total game changer. I've tried everything from fresh tomatoes to canned tomatoes, but nothing comes even close to the luxurious, velvety taste when using tomato paste. An added bonus is that you don't need to spend ages cooking the sauce down like you would with other varieties of canned tomatoes.
Who invented penne alla vodka?
- I've read that the origin of it actually isn't clear. Apparently, it was a popular dish in the early '80s in Italy, and then it became a hit in America shortly thereafter. The dish's invention has been attributed to multiple people, including a chef who worked for a vodka company!
Ingredients you'll need
- Penne - this is the classic variety for this dish, but if you can't find it, another similar sized shape will be fine
- Olive oil and butter - for sautéing
- Onion and garlic - our flavorful aromatic base. I like sweet Vidalia onions best, and this garlic press makes mincing the garlic totally effortless.
- Vodka - the signature flavor in the sauce. You don't need to buy a premium one by any means, but I'd avoid the very cheapest too. Any clean and neutral brand will be fine. We like SKYY or Absolut.
- Tomato paste - it gives the best taste and consistency. I like a good-quality tube, not the canned kind. Try Mutti or DeLallo. It's a vibrant and concentrated tomato flavor.
- Heavy cream - for that irresistible creaminess
Does vodka sauce taste like alcohol?
- Nope! The alcohol is actually cooked off, leaving behind an indescribably delicious and distinctive taste that plays well with the cream and tomato flavors. You're definitely not going to get tipsy on this pasta dish.
How to make penne alla vodka
This is an overview with step-by-step photos. Full ingredients & instructions are in the recipe card below.
Boil the penne. Meanwhile, sauté the onion in butter and olive oil until softened, then add in the garlic, followed by the vodka. Let it bubble for about 30 seconds or so, and then stir in the tomato paste, then add the cream.
Stir until combined, and then let the vodka sauce warm through and thicken. Toss with the drained cooked penne. Before serving, add some fresh basil if desired, and season with salt & pepper as needed.
- This recipe makes 4 reasonably sized servings. With that said, I know many people like to eat more than the suggested 2 ounces of dry pasta per person, which is the standard recommended portion size, so if you've got hungry bellies to feed and you're not serving this with anything else, you may want to double the recipe.
Substitutions and variations
- I don't recommend subbing the heavy cream out for something like milk or half-and-half. The sauce will not be the same, and the acidity from the tomatoes is likely to separate/curdle it.
- As mentioned earlier in the blog post, I have experimented using fresh and canned tomatoes in penne vodka, but the best results by far are from tomato paste. If you're really in a pinch, you could use either fresh or crushed canned tomatoes or tomato purée. You'll need to cook the sauce down for longer, though, and it won't have that smooth and creamy texture.
- I love penne alla vodka as-is, but you can always add some leftover roast chicken or rotisserie chicken to the sauce if you wish. I suggest adding it right near the end and letting it warm through.
- Want to make it spicy? Add in some crushed red pepper flakes.
What to serve with it
- You can't go wrong topping it with some freshly grated parmesan cheese. I love my Microplane grater for this purpose. My mom always put fresh basil in this dish, so I like to as well.
- It's always a good idea to pair pasta with a side salad. Try some mixed greens with this Easy Italian Dressing, or make this Super Simple Parmesan Arugula Salad.
- I'll never say no to a slice of baguette or this Easy Garlic Bread recipe to round it all out!
Leftovers and storage
- This pasta will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days no problem.
- Reheat in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring occasionally. Don't heat it up too quickly, or the sauce may break.
- Leftovers won't freeze well because of the cream in the sauce, and the pasta won't hold up either when thawed.
Try these pasta recipes next
I hope you will love this easy penne vodka recipe! Questions, or did you make it? Let me know in the comments below.
The Best Penne alla Vodka
- 8 ounces uncooked penne pasta
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 small onion chopped finely
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 1/4 cup tomato paste see note
- 3/4 cup heavy/whipping cream
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Fresh basil, sliced thin optional, to taste
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese optional, to taste
- Boil a generously salted pot of water for the penne and it cook al dente according to package directions.
- Meanwhile, add the oil and butter to a skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onion for about 5 minutes or until softened (ok if it lightly browns).
- Stir in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.
- Add the vodka and let the sauce bubble for 30 seconds or so.
- Stir in the tomato paste until you've got a smooth mixture.
- Stir in the cream, and reduce heat to medium-low. Let the sauce warm through. I find this sauce thickens up very quickly (within a couple minutes), but feel free to cook it a little longer to thicken it up even more.
- Season with salt & pepper as needed. Stir in the fresh basil if using. Toss with the drained pasta (if needed, thin the sauce out a bit with a splash of hot pasta water prior to draining it). Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese if desired.
- I don't recommend subbing the heavy cream for something like milk or half-and-half because the sauce is likely to curdle/get grainy, and it won't be as thick or delicious.
- Use a good quality tomato paste! For this recipe, I prefer the kind sold in the tubes (like DeLallo and Mutti sell).
- This makes 4 reasonably-sized portions (not huge ones, and I suggest serving this recipe with something like a salad since it's quite rich by itself). If you're feeding hungry people who will eat more than 2 oz pasta each and no side dishes, I recommend doubling the recipe.
- I used a 10.25" Le Creuset skillet to make this recipe (any skillet is fine).
- Nutritional information is provided as a courtesy only and should be construed as an estimate rather than a guarantee. Ingredients can vary and Salt & Lavender makes no guarantees to the accuracy of this information.
This recipe was originally published on August 17, 2018. It's been tweaked to be even easier, tastier, and has new photos!
I love this recipe and make it at least once a month! I saw it was recently modified--what was the original garlic and tomato paste portions? Unfortunately, my sister is allergic to onion and we don't have much tomato paste, haha!
Miranda @ Salt & Lavender says
Hi Eve! Glad it's a favorite. The modified date on a post just means we've added info for clarity, storage info, fixed a typo etc. The recipe is the same as since 2020 and has not been changed, so we're unsure what you're referring to regarding the tomato paste and onions.
Becky C says
By far, the BEST! This has become a staple in our house. I probably make this every other week. Last time, my husband grilled hot Italian sausage. I cut it up and tossed it into the pasta. Delish!
Love that addition!! 😀 Appreciate your review, Becky!
Barb Freund says
Another great recipe from Salt and Lavender. I was asked to make it again this week. Simple and delicious.
Aww I love that!! Thanks so much, Barb! Glad it was a hit. 😀
AMAZING! This was so easy and delicious!
Thank you so much, Kristi!! 😀
susan clark says
Simply Amazing Velvety smooth. the suggestion of using the tomato paste in the tube ( I used the Mutti brand from Parma Italy) GAME CHANGER will never go back to canned tomato paste ever. I have made many of your recipes they are always so delicious Thank you for all that you do With Love from Canada
I'm thrilled you enjoyed it, Susan!! Agreed - the Mutti tomato paste in the tube is so good. Hello from a fellow Canadian! 🙂
What % should the heavy cream be…18% or higher or whipping cream?
I usually make it with at least 33% fat. That's the general % for whipping cream here in Canada. Heavy cream is 36% or more, I believe.
Angel Moriset says
This was my first time trying to make vodka sauce at home. It was amazing and very easy. My husband loved it also! We used the sauce over lobster ravioli and it paired really well... We will be making it again! Thank you...
I'm thrilled to hear that, Angel!! 😀 You're welcome!
LOVE LOVE THIS RECIPE!! So simple to make and flavor is delicious. Just one addition which I picked up from a local restaurant. Fry pancetta that has been cubed into bite size pieces (not diced) then use one tablespoon of the fat from the pancetta plus butter to sauté your onions. Spectacular!!
Thank you so much, Cari! Love that pancetta idea! 😀
I made this tonight with half and half and it worked great! I simply warmed the half and half prior to adding it to the pan. Just in case someone else doesn't have heavy cream in the house!
I'm so glad you liked it!!
Made this tonight and it was delicious! Having never made vodka sauce before, this was extremely easy. Big hit with the hubby, too!
I'm thrilled to hear that!! 😀 Thanks for your 5-star review, Katie!
If I make the sauce for the future, how long can it be refrigerated?
A few days. See "leftovers & storage" section of the blog post for tips. 🙂
This recipe is a keeper. Super easy to make and delicious. I’ve been looking for an easy penne vodka recipe for a long time and the search is over.
I'm so happy you enjoyed it!! 🙂 Thanks for your review, Kristine!
I’d like to try this in lieu of red sauce for chicken along with a side of pasta. Any thoughts on approximately how many cups of sauce this recipe yields?
Hi Colleen! I'm really not sure how many cups. It doesn't make a ton... I'd say off the top of my head (this is a total guess) less than 1 cup.
I was very skeptical of making my own Penne alla vodka! Came across your recipe and I'm one of those that needs simple ingredients and directions and yours was it!
I gave a shot with all the simple ingredients that I already have (except the heavy cream) and oh my... what a hit! It was so easy to make and my son had 3 bowls, he loved it so much!! Everyone enjoyed and I will be making it for Xmas Eve and New Years Eve! Thank you soooo much!
I'm so happy you liked it!! 🙂
Can you make this recipe ahead of time? And then heat up in the oven or on a sterno?
You could make the sauce ahead of time, but I do recommend boiling some fresh pasta and then adding a splash of the hot pasta water while tossing the pasta with the sauce. I'd reheat the sauce over a low heat.
I made this without vodka and it’s perfectly delicious as is. This sauce is fast and heavenly smooth and deep rich flavor. A new staple in my kitchen thank you!
You're very welcome!
Made this tonight for dinner and it’s fantastic! I doubled the recipe for left over purposes, lol. So so good, can’t wait to make it again!!
I'm so glad it was a hit!! 😀 Thanks for your review!