Until recently my only experience with vodka sauce was the bottled stuff in grocery stores, so I had some serious misconceptions about it.   They all tasted like regular tomato sauce, perhaps with a hint of “je ne sais quoi,”  but the real McCoy, made with Russian pepper vodka,  is completely different. Its tomatoes and cream play only a secondary role to its intense vodka punch.  Pepper vodka used to be impossible to find in the US, leading to many improvisations and liberties that turned a great sauce into humble variations. The moment I saw this recipe in the Essential New York Time Cookbook,  I had to give it a try.

(adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook)

1 pound rotini, penne or your favorite pasta shape
3.5  Tbs butter
1/4 to 1/2  tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup vodka
1 cup canned, diced tomatoes with their juices
1/3  cup whipping cream
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated parmiggiano regiano cheese

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. While the pasta cooks, prepare the sauce by melting the butter on a skillet large enough to hold all the pasta. When the butter stops foaming, add the red pepper flakes and the vodka and simmer everything together for 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cream, cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper (be gentle on the pepper), keep warm.

When the pasta is al dente, add it to the sauce, heat everything together for a couple of minutes, add the grated parmiggiano cheese and serve, with additional parmiggiano at the table for those who like a little more.


to print the recipe, click here

Comments: No ‘je ne sais quoi’ in the background of this sauce. On the contrary, its flavor clearly states what it’s all about: the heat of the vodka echoes that of the pepper. I’m fond of spicy food, but Phil prefers it milder, so I wasn’t  quite sure he’d like it as much as I did. To my surprise, he asked me to make it again two days later, to which I happily complied. 😉

My main modification was – as usual – reducing the amount of heavy cream,  in this case in favor of more tomatoes.   Last year I made another pasta sauce with vodka and pepper that’s also excellent, but it’s quite different in that the tomatoes are slow roasted in the oven.  It’s hard to say which one was better, but this version is definitely perfect for a busy weeknight dinner.

ONE YEAR AGO: Pork Tenderloin and Blue Cheese

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13 thoughts on “THE REAL VODKA SAUCE

  1. We love a good homemade vodka sauce! The one we make is a true indulgance – full of cheese, butter and cream – so we reserve it for special occassions. It’s also a spicy version and doesn’t go over well with all of our dinner guests. We’ll have to give this one a try next time – the pepper sounds like an interesting change-up for us. And you’re right – homemade vodka sauce far surpasses the quality of the jarred variety.


  2. I have a carbonara recipe with enough calories to make even Ina Garten cringe a little… Come to think of it, I only made it twice in my life, but as you say, for special occasions it’s ok…

    Once the weather turns cold, I’ll make it and blog about it.


  3. Oh, I am making this very soon, never had vodka sauce, but often wonder about the bottles in the store. Good to know they are not the real thing.


    • It does seem like a lot, but the flavor is mellowed with the cooking, even if it’s a short cooking time. Quite an interesting recipe, I wonder how it would taste made with the real pepper vodka.


  4. I made this tonight and it was very good. Thanks for the recipe Sally. The only change I will make next time will be to double the sauce as my husband wanted more of the good stuff!


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