As with many Italian American dishes, the specifics of the best vodka sauce recipe depend on who you ask. Some cooks use onions for flavor and texture, others say that defeats the purpose of a silky-smooth sauce. Traditionalists may find the very idea of a red sauce with vodka blasphemous, while adherents believe that vodka sauce is a rightful part of Italian American culinary heritage.
Whether you choose to engage in this debate, or simply want an easy dish to get on the table in 30 minutes or less, this vodka sauce recipe is thoroughly customizable. It doesn’t require pasta water, so feel free to have it on flatbread, with vegetables or make it well in advance of serving. (Sealed vodka sauce will last 3–4 months in the freezer.)
Love garlic? Add another clove to the mix. Hate onions? Skip them. Even the namesake liquor can be omitted if a booze-free version is better suited to your kitchen.
What Is Vodka Sauce?
At its most basic, vodka sauce comprises some combination of tomatoes, vodka and cream. There can also be aromatic ingredients like onions or garlic, and some cooks add butter, Parmesan and/or chopped herbs like basil or oregano. Certain recipes call for some of the starch-infused water used to cook pasta to be added as a sauce thickener, too.
The Purpose of Vodka in Vodka Sauce
“There are lots of theories as to how vodka came to be used in Italian cooking,” write Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli in Italian American (Clarkson Potter, 2021), a cookbook with a recipe for an unusual white vodka sauce they liken to Alfredo.
According to one legend, a Roman chef invented a vodka-laden sauce in the 1980s at the behest of a liquor company trying to break into the Italian market. This “may or may not be true,” write Rito and Tacinelli, “but the origin story aside, the spirit definitely helps the ingredients emulsify into a smooth sauce.”
In addition to emulsifying the sauce, some cooks find that vodka adds a peppery bite to balance the tangy tomato and rich cream.
It’s worth noting that the alcohol content of the vodka isn’t entirely eliminated when you cook this sauce. So, if you’re serving guests who don’t drink, or simply want to create a booze-free version, omit the vodka and substitute with ¼ cup of water plus 1–2 drops of white vinegar or a squeeze of lemon.
How to Make the Best Vodka Sauce Recipe
Put olive oil, onion and garlic in medium-sized pot and approximately 1 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until onions are translucent, stirring occasionally.
Add tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Use ¼ cup water to rinse tomato can and add to sauce. Raise to simmer, stirring occasionally.
Add vodka and stir, then simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in cream and butter until evenly incorporated. Salt to taste.