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Best Penne alla Vodka Recipe

Hear me out. To make the best version of penne alla vodka the first step is to peel the skin from a lemon. Hand cut the peel into the thinnest strips (no pith!) and then place the zest into your vodka while you prep the rest of your ingredients. Using lemon-scented vodka flecked with zest in your creamy tomato vodka sauce is a game changer. There are a number of other considerations that I’ll outline below that help when you want to throw together this one-pot crowd-pleaser!

penne alla vodka in a large bowl

What Makes Great Penne all Vodka?

If you want to make great penne alla vodka, focus on the sauce. There are a number of ways to approach this Italian (and Italian-American) classic, popular in the 1980s. You’ll see versions made with canned tomatoes, while others exclusively use tomato paste. Some recipes call for a lot of tomatoes, others barely any. Some really go for it with heavy cream, I like to use just enough cream to create a rich, silky sauce without diluting the tomato flavor excessively. This recipe delivers a bright, rich tomato vodka sauce that clings beautifully to the pasta. The flavor has dimension from the two types of tomatoes used, and the scent (and bursts) of lemon zest.

Penne alla Vodka: The Ingredients

  • Dried penne pasta: Use a good-quality dried pasta here. Penne is the classic pasta shape to use, but rigatoni is another favorite. Something bite sized with lots of surface area for the vodka sauce to cling to is the key. For a bit of added nutrition, explore whole wheat pastas, or pasta made with lentils or chickpeas. A forever favorite of mine is the Monograno Felicetti Farro Penne Rigate.
    ingredients for cooking penne alla vodka including tomato paste, dried pasta, basil, and garlic
  • Tomato Paste: I tend to use the tiny cans of tomato paste here, because I use about ~1/3 cup. But if you have enough in a tube, that’s fine.
  • Canned Tomatoes: Look for good-quality whole canned tomatoes. I call for a 14-ounce can, but sometimes all you can find are 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes. In this case, use
  • Heavy Cream: A pro-tip here is, avoid going overboard with the heavy cream. I see some recipes calling for upwards of a cup. You can use less, and maintain the creaminess you’re after. A bonus is your sauce will maintain beautiful color. Add too much cream and the sauce quickly changes to a soft pink, while the tomato flavor weakens.
  • Olive Oil or Butter: I tend to use olive oil when I make penne alla vodka, but butter is also wonderful. Use either.
  • Vodka: The vodka in penne alla vodka plays a few important roles. It heightens flavors when certain alcohol soluble compounds in the sauce ingredients are released by the vodka. It also helps to keep the sauce beautifully silky and emulsified. And yes, much of the vodka cooks off with a bit of time simmering.
  • Garlic, Onion, Chile Flakes, etc: I dial up the garlic for this recipe. It has time to soften and mellow, so don’t be alarmed. And the onions are diced, I like a really small dice here. So you’re getting onion bits throughout the sauce and not larger chunks.
penne alla vodka being served on a marble table set with plates and a cloth napkin


Here are some favorite variations on penne alla vodka that I’ve cooked over the years.

  • Penne alla Tequila: Quite honestly, I don’t tend to keep vodka in my pantry. So I have to plan ahead when I want to make this. In a pinch, if you have tequila and not vodka, go ahead and make the swap. Super good.
  • Make it Spicy: My favorite way to make penne alla vodka spice is to add a bit of spicy Calabrian pepper paste (the one I buy most is called Bomba di Calabria)) to the sauce at the same time the tomato paste is added. Go easy, some of these pastes are wildly spicy. A finishing drizzle of a spicy chile olive oil can add dimension and another layer of heat. I like Brightland’s chili olive oil for this (not sponsored, just a fan), or drizzle a few drops of oil from the jar of Calabrian pepper paste.
  • Make it Vegan: You can make this recipe vegan by skipping the Parmesan, using olive oil to simmer the onions, and using a cashew cream in place of heavy cream. To make cashew cream, soak 1 cup of cashews in 1 cup of water for thirty minutes or so. Puree in high-speed blends until silky smooth.
penne alla vodka in a bowl with creamy sauce finished with lots of Parmesan cheese

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