Why It Works
- Using a hefty dose of tomato paste gives the sauce the deeply sweet base notes it needs, while a small can of tomatoes adds a brighter layer of flavor.
- Very gently cooking the onions and garlic in butter makes them very sweet and mild, without any harsh onion flavor remaining in the final sauce.
- Adding the vodka to the sauce when there are only a handful of minutes left of cooking time ensures the sauce is neither overly boozy nor absent of the flavor-enhancing effects of the vodka.
A staple of Italian-American red-sauce restaurants across the United States since the 1980s, vodka sauce has a history as opaque as its densely creamy orange hue. Was it a famous Italian actor who invented it? A '70s restaurant in Bologna? A Columbia University student? Or did it come from Russia? Meh, as much as I love delving into the history of famous dishes, I can live with this mystery remaining unsolved.
What's cool about vodka sauce isn't who came up with it, but rather how delicious it is. And yes, the vodka really does matter here. We know, because we've done the tests before. Several years ago, Kenji delved into the matter of whether vodka sauce really needed the vodka, and the answer was an unequivocal yes (though the sauce is delicious without it, too).
In a series of blind tastings, Kenji found that the hit of neutral booze enhanced the fruity aroma of the sauce while bringing a background heat and sharpness that balanced out the richness of the sauce.
He also zeroed in on what he found to be the ideal amount of vodka—about one quarter cup per quart of sauce, simmered for about seven minutes before serving. My testing aligned with his, and so that's what this recipe calls for (to get the timing right, the vodka is added about a minute before the pasta is combined with the sauce, and then it's all cooked together for another few minutes; by the time cheese is stirred in and the pasta is finished, you'll be pretty close to the seven-minute mark).
That said, personal tastes vary, so if you want a boozier sauce, you can always add a little splash of vodka right before serving to bring the alcohol to the forefront.
What else makes this sauce great? Well, if you look at enough vodka sauce recipes out there, you'll find that some of them use a very large volume of tomato paste as the only tomato element in the sauce, while others go for canned tomatoes (sometimes with a couple tablespoons of tomato paste added for depth).
I tested both methods and liked aspects of each. A tomato paste–heavy vodka sauce has wonderful fruity depth that, to me, gives the sauce part of its signature flavor. But even a full tube of paste combined with a whole lot of cream can't quite make enough sauce for four servings, and leaves the onion flavor too dominant. Canned tomatoes, on the other hand, provide a brighter, fruitier tomato character, but none of that tomato paste depth; a couple tablespoons of paste aren't enough to compensate for that.
My solution: Use both an entire tube (or can) or tomato paste, plus a small can of whole peeled tomatoes. Combined, they yield a sauce that's nuanced and layered, with richness, depth, and brightness. It's a winner.
As for the pasta? Most recipes call for penne, and it's an option here, but at Serious Eats we love this sauce even more with rigatoni.
- 3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, diced
- 3 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt
- One 4 1/2-ounce (130g) tube concentrated tomato paste or 6-ounce (170g) can tomato paste
- One 14 1/2-ounce (411g) can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 cup (240ml) heavy cream
- 1 pound (450g) short tubular pasta, such as rigatoni or penne
- 1/4 cup (60ml) vodka, plus more if desired
- 2 ounces (55g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
In a large (3- or 4-quart) saucepan or small Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are very soft but not browned, about 15 minutes; lower heat if needed to prevent browning.
Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until tomato paste is fragrant and thick, about 3 minutes. Stir in canned tomatoes with their liquid. Bring to a simmer, then cook, stirring often and crushing the whole tomatoes roughly with a spoon, until sauce has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
Add cream, and stir to incorporate. Transfer sauce to a blender, and blend until very smooth (you may be able to make an immersion blender work, but in our tests the sauce level was too low to safely avoid splattering). Wipe out pot, then return blended sauce to it. Season lightly with salt.
In a medium pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until just shy of al dente, about 3 minutes less than the package directs. About 1 minute before you transfer pasta to sauce, add vodka to tomato sauce and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat.
Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer pasta directly to sauce pot along with 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta water (alternatively, reserve 2 cups pasta water, then drain pasta in a colander, then add to sauce with 1/2 cup of the reserved water). Increase heat to high, and cook, stirring constantly, until pasta is well coated in sauce and reaches the al dente stage, about 3 minutes. If sauce thickens too much before pasta is ready, add more pasta water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. [Shown here with one serving size.]
Remove from heat and stir in cheese until thoroughly incorporated into a smooth and creamy sauce. Taste for salt, and season with more if needed. If you can't detect the vodka at all, you can add a few drops more and stir it in before serving; exactly how boozy you want the sauce is a question of taste, but be careful because a heavy hand will ruin the dish. Spoon pasta and sauce onto warmed serving plates and top with additional grated cheese. Serve immediately.
3-quart saucier or saucepan or 5-quart Dutch oven, blender, spider skimmer or slotted spoon or colander
Make-Ahead and Storage
The vodka sauce can be made ahead through Step 3 (blending). Keep refrigerated in an airtight container up to 5 days. To use, reheat sauce in a pot, then resume recipe instructions with Step 4.