penne alla vodka

People keep asking me how my recent vacation was, and I can’t think of any response other “so, so good.” How else do you sum up a week of playing in the waves, drinking margaritas, snorkeling, baking cookies, swimming with sea lions, watching shooting stars, eating shrimp tacos, and just basically everything that is good. I didn’t even get sunburned. I want to go back.

At least I had an easy meal planned for my first night at home. This is my ‘just got back from vacation’ dish. After traveling all day, I don’t want to spend much time cooking. There’s no time to defrost anything. We haven’t been home, so there isn’t a lot of fresh food around. I’ve been eating out all week on vacation, so I don’t want to get takeout.

This dish solves all those problems. It takes as long to make as it takes pasta to cook. There are only a couple ingredients to chop. It’s fairly healthy. And it uses ingredients that I can buy before I leave and trust that they’ll keep until I get back – pasta, canned tomatoes, onion. And of course, it tastes great.

I bet it would taste even better on vacation. Everything is better on vacation.

One year ago: Potato Tomato Tart
Two years ago: Banana Coconut Muffins

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Penne alla Vodka (from Cooks Illustrated)

You can never go wrong following a Cooks Illustrated recipe precisely. I, however, don’t, in this case. Because I almost always make this after a day of traveling, I simplify it wherever possible. Instead of pureeing half of the tomatoes and dicing the rest, I simply stick a pair of kitchen shears in the tomato can and snip away. I don’t separate the liquid and the tomatoes in order to measure a certain amount; I just pour all of the liquid in to the sauce. I like to use 2 shallots instead of half an onion. If I don’t have cream, I use milk. If I don’t have milk, I skip the dairy. If I don’t have basil, I use parsley. If I don’t have parsley, I skip the herbs or use dried. It’s tomatoes, pasta, and alcohol; it isn’t going to be bad.

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ small onion, minced (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
¼-½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
table salt
⅓ cup vodka
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
fresh parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Puree half of the tomatoes in a food processor until smooth. Dice the remaining tomatoes into ½-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine the pureed and diced tomatoes in a liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1⅔ cups). Add reserved tomato liquid to equal 2 cups.

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are light golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka. Return the pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower the heat to medium if the simmering becomes too vigorous. Stir in the cream and cook until hot, about 1 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup cooking water, and transfer the pasta back to the Dutch oven. Add the sauce to the pasta and toss over medium heat until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the basil and adjust the seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls and serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.


  1. Mmm! What sort of quality does the vodka give to the pasta? Can you use wine instead? This looks like a great meal 🙂

  2. Anshu says:

    Looks good! 1/2 what heavy cream??

  3. I love the note at the top of the recipe on how you change things based on what you have in the house. I’m a big fan of versatile recipes that can handle “life” and a possibly unstocked kitchen!

  4. I hardly ever make penne a la vodka for a certain ingredient I’m sure you can guess – it’s the cream. And substituting milk? Well I only buy skim, which might as well be like adding water to a “cream” sauce. It’s never occurred to me to skip the dairy – good to know it’s still tasty that way!

  5. bridget says:

    Wei-Wei – The vodka gives it a really interesting bite that’s almost spicy. Hard to describe, but very tasty. Wine makes for a nice sauce, but it won’t provide that same bite.

    Anshu – Oops, thanks. I corrected that typo.

    Cara – I actually thought you were going to say that it was the pasta. Duh. But I don’t really think of vodka sauce as a cream sauce; I think of it as a tomato sauce with a bit of creaminess. In that respect, I think skim would actually be fine, and your pureed cottage cheese trick (possibly diluted with milk to get the right thickness) would definitely work. Also, I never add 1/2 cup of cream. I don’t measure ingredients when I make this anymore, but I probably only use a couple tablespoons.

  6. Bridget, this looks wonderful! So warm and inviting and… comforting! Great job, and thanks for sharing this awesome recipe.

  7. I’m so glad you had fun! Did you got to Rosie’s? Did you find the grocery store and the liquor store? Tell me EVERYTHING!

  8. That’s my favorite recipe for penne alla vodka, too. Yours looks delicious!

  9. I’m not sure plain noodles, a few slices of tomato, and a shot of vodka would have the same effect, but I appreciate the substitution ideas. =)

    Now I’m excited to see if I can get my husband to add this to the menu for the week. I know we have all those ingredients.

  10. mmmmm i love vodka sauce! my husband will be excited to go buy some to use in this.

  11. JennyBee says:

    Mmmm, this looks delicious! I tend to cheat and use a jarred sauce for my pasta alla vodka (so embarrassing I know!). I will absolutely be trying this recipe soon! Thanks for sharing!

  12. I’ve been looking for a good Penne ala Vodka recipe!! I just found your site and am looking forward to trying this recipe. Love the picture!

  13. Haley E. says:

    I LOVE this recipe! I’ve made it once and added chicken and another time I added shrimp, sliced mushrooms, and spinach. So delicious. I started to use canned diced tomatoes because it was easier.