This easy penne alla vodka recipe has the most silky tomato cream sauce. It only takes about 20 minutes to make! Perfect for busy weeknights.
This blog post was originally published on August 17, 2018. I updated & republished it in May 2020 with an improved recipe and new photos.
I've always loved penne alla vodka. In fact, the first time I tried it, I couldn't believe it had vodka in it. It's a taste that's difficult to describe, but it's a classic for a reason. It's really, really good and so simple to make. This recipe only takes as long to cook as it does to boil the water for your pasta, and the sauce is restaurant quality!
I don't usually do too much of a preamble in my blog posts, but I do have one for this recipe. When I published it back in 2018, I was experimenting with different titles for blog posts, and I noticed a lot of other bloggers put "the best" in their titles. I was a bit hesitant since I figured it would open me up to criticism since it's really quite subjective, right? This recipe has been in the back of my mind since then. It was good, but was it really the best? In the two years since, I've done more experimenting, research, and tweaking, and I have come up with an update to this recipe that IMO does really make it the best. Or, as close to it as I can do. 😉
The key to making vodka sauce extra amazing? Using tomato paste. I've tried everything from fresh tomatoes to canned tomatoes (crushed tomatoes are used fairly often), but tomato paste (also known as tomato purée in some places) gives the best taste and consistency. It's a vibrant and concentrated tomato flavor. And the added bonus is that you don't need to spend ages cooking the sauce down. I've seen tomato paste used in various penne vodka recipes including one from my beloved Bon Appetit magazine, and I honestly wish I tried it sooner since it's a total game changer.
Key ingredients in penne alla vodka:
- Tomato paste
My mom always put basil in this dish, so I sometimes do as well. I also like to add a clove of garlic!
I've read that the origin of penne alla vodka isn't clear. Apparently, it was a popular dish in the early 80s in Italy, and then it became popular in America shortly thereafter. The dish's invention has been attributed to multiple people, including a chef who worked for a vodka company. Interesting.
How to make penne alla vodka
- Sauté your onion in butter and olive oil;
- Add in the garlic, followed by the vodka. Let it bubble for about 30 seconds or so, and then take the pan off the heat and stir in the tomato paste;
- Return the pan to the heat and stir in the cream. Let it warm through;
- Before serving, add some fresh basil (if you wish) and season with salt & pepper as needed.
(Full ingredients list and instructions are in the recipe card below)
You can't go wrong topping it with some freshly grated parmesan cheese (I love my Microplane grater for this purpose).
Recipe notes & tips:
- 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.
- This recipe makes 4 reasonably-sized servings. With that said, I know many people eat more than the suggested 2 ounces of dry pasta per person (this 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.
- 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. With that said, if you're in a pinch, you can use either fresh or canned (I suggest crushed) tomatoes... you'll need to cook the sauce down for a bit longer, though.
- I love penne alla vodka as-is, but you can always add some cooked/rotisserie chicken to the sauce if you wish. I suggest adding it right near the end and letting it warm through.
- Try using a shallot in place of the onion if you have some on-hand.
- Want to make it spicy? Add in some crushed red pepper flakes.
What to serve with penne alla vodka:
I recommend a side salad and/or garlic bread.
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I hope you will love this easy penne vodka recipe!
Questions? 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
- 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-high heat. Sauté onion for 5-7 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.
- Take the pan off the heat and stir in the tomato paste until you've got a smooth mixture.
- Return the pan to the heat, stir in the cream, and reduce heat to medium-low. Let the sauce warm through. I find this sauce thickens up almost instantly, 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.
- 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.