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Do you actually put vodka in Penne alla Vodka?

Penne alla vodka is a classic Italian pasta dish made with a creamy tomato sauce infused with vodka. The name suggests that vodka is a key ingredient, but how much vodka do you really need to make an authentic version? Here’s a closer look at whether and how much vodka goes into penne alla vodka.

What is Penne alla Vodka?

Penne alla vodka originated in the 1970s as an Italian-American dish, likely created by a chef in New York City. It’s made by cooking penne pasta and tossing it with a tomato-based vodka sauce. The sauce is creamy and pink due to the addition of heavy cream and vodka.

Traditional recipes call for tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, heavy cream, parmesan cheese, and of course, vodka. The sauce often includes pancetta or bacon. Fresh parsley and basil are usually added at the end for freshness. The vodka adds an extra layer of flavor but does not make the dish alcoholic.

Part of the appeal of penne alla vodka is its rich, indulgent sauce coating the tubular pasta. The creaminess comes from the addition of heavy cream, which thickens the tomato sauce. The vodka adds a subtle kick and depth of flavor.

Does Penne alla Vodka Sauce Really Contain Vodka?

Yes, authentic penne alla vodka does contain vodka! The vodka is a key ingredient in the sauce, adding a complexity you can’t quite achieve without it. However, the amount used is actually quite small.

Most recipes call for anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup vodka for a pound of pasta. That may sound like a lot, but once simmered for a while, the alcohol cooks off and you’re left with the wonderful flavorsextract

The vodka adds hints of pepper and burn to the sauce that you don’t get from just tomatoes and cream alone. Good quality vodka works best. Stay away from bottom shelf vodkas, which can give the sauce an overly chemical taste.

How Does the Vodka Change the Flavor?

When added to tomato sauce, vodka brings out flavors and aromas you don’t typically get from just tomatoes. Here’s how the vodka enhances the sauce:

  • Slight spicy kick
  • Layer of peppery flavor
  • Bright, tangy undertones
  • Slight burn when initially added
  • Helps bring out aromas of the tomatoes and other ingredients

The alcohol in the vodka helps extract flavors from the tomatoes and other ingredients during simmering. As it cooks, the alcohol burns off but leaves behind complex notes.

What Happens If You Leave Out the Vodka?

You can certainly make a penne with tomato cream sauce without vodka. But it won’t have quite the same depth of flavor. The sauce will lack the subtle heat, aroma, and zip from the vodka.

Without vodka, the sauce will be more one-dimensional. You’ll mostly taste creamy tomatoes without as much complexity. It may also be more dull and flat compared to a vodka-infused sauce.

That said, a vodka-free version can still be delicious! It just won’t have the nuanced flavors that the spirit brings to the dish. The amount of heavy cream could be increased to make up for the missing vodka richness.

Vodka-Free Substitutes

If you want to mimic the effect of vodka, you can try adding a splash of these liquids instead:

  • White wine
  • Chicken or vegetable broth
  • Lemon juice
  • Vermouth

A combination of chicken broth and lemon juice can provide some of the richness and acidity from vodka. Just add them in small amounts until you achieve the desired flavor.

How Much Vodka Goes in an Authentic Recipe?

Most traditional penne alla vodka recipes call for between 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup vodka for a pound of pasta. Here are a few guidelines for how much to use:

Amount of Pasta Vodka
1/2 pound 2-3 Tablespoons
1 pound 1/4 – 1/2 cup
2 pounds 1/2 – 1 cup

For a super vodka-forward flavor, you can opt for 1/2 cup per pound of pasta. Most recipes top out at 1/2 cup for a single batch. More than that risks the alcohol overwhelming the other flavors.

Keep in mind the pasta will absorb some of the vodka sauce as it cooks. So you want enough vodka infused to provide sufficient flavor.

Will I Taste the Vodka?

You won’t taste overt vodka flavors in the final dish. The alcohol cooks off, leaving behind aromatic compounds that enhance the sauce’s other flavors.

All you’ll taste is a rich, bright tomato sauce with a slight peppery kick. The vodka adds complexity but doesn’t make the dish taste boozy.

Tips for Cooking With Vodka

To get the most flavor out of the vodka, follow these tips:

  • Use a vodka you enjoy drinking. Avoid bottom-shelf vodkas with more burn.
  • Add the vodka after sautéing onions and garlic. Let it simmer for 2-3 minutes to cook off the alcohol.
  • Add freshly chopped basil at the end for brightness.
  • Start with less vodka and add more to taste if needed.
  • Don’t let the vodka boil or simmer too long once added or the flavors will dissipate.

With higher quality vodka and the right technique, the spirit will infuse the sauce with extra depth, aroma, and complexity.

What Type of Vodka Works Best?

A mid-range vodka is ideal. Stay away from well vodkas, which can give the sauce a plasticky flavor.

Look for a vodka with some character such as:

  • Russian Standard
  • Belvedere
  • Tito’s
  • Ketel One
  • Absolut
  • Grey Goose

A potato or wheat-based vodka tends to work better than corn or citrus. But feel free to experiment with your favorite!

Is All of the Alcohol Cooked Off?

Most of the alcohol does burn off during cooking, but a small amount may remain depending on how long you simmer it.

Here’s a rough estimate of how much alcohol remains based on cooking time:

Simmering Time Alcohol Retained
5 minutes 50%
10 minutes 40%
30 minutes 25%
1 hour 10%
2+ hours Less than 5%

Most penne alla vodka recipes simmer for at least 10 minutes, which cooks off most of the alcohol. Simmering for longer ensures even less remains.

Is it Safe for Kids?

Yes, penne alla vodka is completely safe for kids! By the time the sauce finishes simmering, most of the alcohol content has burned off.

What little remains is a trivial amount spread across many servings. There is more alcohol in a serving of juice or kombucha than a properly cooked penne alla vodka.


Vodka is more than just a boozy addition to penne alla vodka. When added in the right amount, it provides depth and complexity you can’t achieve without it. The spirit brings out the flavors of the other ingredients for a sauce that sings.

Aim for 1/4 to 1/2 cup vodka per pound of pasta. Simmer for at least 10 minutes to cook off the alcohol. Top-notch penne alla vodka uses just enough vodka to extract flavor without overwhelming the dish.

While you can skip the vodka, the sauce won’t have quite the same pizzazz. For the best flavor, include a splash of quality vodka and simmer gently to let the spirit work its magic.