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This easy Vodka Sauce recipe makes creamy, luscious pasta sauce that is totally addictive. The recipe came straight from my neighbor’s Italian mother, so you know it has to be the best! Make penne alla vodka with result or gluten free noodles, or try it with spaghetti squash or zoodles for a keto-friendly low carb option.
Authentic Homemade Vodka Sauce
Where I grew up in New Jersey, there was a large Italian-American population. We had local pizza and pasta restaurants (some actually named Pizza & Pasta, coincidentally) on pretty much every corner. The restaurants are run by families who, if they weren’t from Italy themselves, were only a generation or two removed from Italian immigrants. So while Italian-American cuisine does have some differences from authentic Italian dishes, the roots of these recipes are the same.
I was also lucky to have friends from that heritage throughout my life, and this helped drive my passion for this food and making Italian-inspired fare in my own kitchen.
It’s not always completely authentic, like when I have to make lasagna with gluten free noodles (links at the top of this post!) or have to forego baked ziti for a spaghetti squash casserole because of my gluten allergy.
Yet it is still made from the heart. Which, if you’ve ever been to Italy or you know an Italian-American family, is truly what makes their food so special and delicious.
But this, my friends, is as authentically Italian-American as it gets. This incredibly luscious homemade vodka sauce recipe comes directly from my old next-door neighbor’s Italian mother.
What is Vodka Sauce?
Classic Vodka Sauce is similar to a pink sauce or tomato cream sauce, but with something a little extra – vodka. It is often served as part of a traditional Penne alla Vodka, which is a staple on the menu of many Italian restaurants.
Vodka sauce starts with a simple tomato sauce, then made extra creamy with butter, heavy cream, parmesan cheese. Lastly, the vodka goes in!
Yes, it is sinfully rich. Personally, I think a little of this sauce on my noodles goes a long way. So the indulgence is totally okay with me every once in a while. You can cut the butter a little, but if you are going to make it, then make it for a special treat and go all out. Trust me. The creamy deliciousness is worth it.
Try my Lightened-Up Penne with Tomato Cream Sauce. You still get some of that creaminess and zing because it is made with Greek yogurt, but it definitely cuts a few calories.
Why does vodka sauce have vodka?
The vodka in vodka sauce helps emulsify the water in the tomato sauce with the fat from the cream and butter. Thus making for a smoother sauce, as well as enhancing the flavors. And the tangy zing balances the richness of the dish.
Also, as it cooks, the alcohol evaporates. So while it does not taste like vodka, the evaporation of the alcohol helps carry the aromas into the air. This helps to both intensify and balance the flavors.
Can you get drunk on vodka sauce?
This vodka sauce recipe makes about twelve servings and calls for a total of two-thirds of a cup of vodka (for reference, this is about three and a half shots, or one-third of a shot per serving). Vodka is typically 80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume. This would mean that prior to cooking, there are about 4 Tablespoons of alcohol in the sauce or about a teaspoon per serving.
For those who are concerned, based on the amount of time this dish simmers, 60% of this would cook off. Thus leaving less than a half a teaspoon of pure alcohol, of the equivalent of less than one-tenth of a shot.
So no, you won’t get drunk from vodka sauce.
What You’ll Need
Now that we have talked about what it is and why it is so delicious, let’s talk about how to make it. First, let’s start with a quick look at what goes into vodka sauce:
- Butter – I typically use unsalted butter.
- Vodka – Any brand will work just fine, but be sure it is not a flavored vodka.
- Red pepper flakes – You can omit this if you are sensitive to spice, but it isn’t very spicy. It just adds a nice bit of background warmth to the dish.
- Canned crushed tomatoes – I recommend Tuttorosso Canned Crushed Tomatoes. It has been my favorite for years and is the only one I use in this recipe.
- Heavy cream – For the best flavor and creaminess I do not recommend substituting this with anything else like milk or half and half.
- Grated parmesan cheese – I prefer to freshly grate it or buy a store-grated parmesan cheese that does not have added fillers.
How to Make Vodka Sauce
Here is a brief overview so you can see just how easy it is to make. Scroll down to the printable recipe card for the full quantities and details.
- Melt butter in a saucepan.
- Add the vodka and red pepper flakes.
- Bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes to cook out the alcohol.
- Add the crushed tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened.
- Stir in the cream and cook to heat through.
- Stir in the cheese.
How to Serve Vodka Sauce
- Pasta: Vodka sauce has so much flavor that you can simply serve it as-is over past for a fabulous meatless meal. In fact, the traditional way to enjoy it is penne with vodka sauce, where penne pasta is simply coated with this delicious sauce, and then simply topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
- Spaghetti Squash or Zoodles: It’s a keto friendly meal with these alternative to noodles. Check out the 5 ways to cook spaghetti squash.
- Add Protein: If you are looking to add more protein, it’s great with bits of crispy prosciutto, sliced sausage, or sliced grilled chicken if you want some meat, or shrimp for a seafood dish.
- Add Veggies: Peas or broccoli are also a common and tasty addition, especially if you like to add some vegetables and a little pop of color.
- Use it on Pizza: You can even use it instead of tomato sauce on a Gluten Free Pizza!
Is Vodka Sauce Gluten Free?
Yes, you can easily make this vodka sauce recipe gluten free to serve over your favorite gluten free pasta or zoodles for a delicious gluten free pasta dinner!
Most of the ingredients are gluten free foods you can eat without concern. In particular, the dairy products – butter, heavy cream, and parmesan cheese – are naturally gluten free. The only real caution is that some brands of pre-grated parmesan cheese could add gluten-containing fillers.
The same is true for the red pepper flakes and canned tomatoes, though most are fine. Just make sure you know what to look for when reading labels for foods that contain gluten.
Vodka is typically distilled from raw foods like potatoes and corn, meaning it is gluten free. However, some brands are distilled from the gluten grains of wheat, barley, and rye. While the distillation process removes the alcohol from the gluten, some Celiacs may have an adverse reaction to it. However, there are many brands of gluten-free vodka available, such as Tito’s, Smirnoff, Ciroc, Dixie, Deep Eddy, and Crystal Head, to name a few.
Make it a Meal
Wondering what goes with pasta alla vodka? Here are some ideas for what to serve with it:
- Roasted Balsamic Vegetables
- Air Fryer Zucchini Fritters with Balsamic Roasted Tomatoes
- Meatballs with Red Gravy
- Italian Wedge Salad or a simple tossed salad with Creamy Balsamic Dressing
- Spinach Artichoke Cauliflower Breadsticks
- Rosemary Focaccia from Curious Cuisiniere
- Tomato Caprese with Burrata from Casa de Crews
Best Homemade Vodka Sauce
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter (2 ounces or 1/2 stick)
- 2/3 cup vodka
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
- 28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes (I use the Tuttorosso brand which has basil in it. If you use another brand without basil, you may want to add a pinch)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Pasta or zucchini noodles for serving
- In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
- Add the vodka and red pepper flakes (if using), bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes to cook out the alcohol.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, bring to a simmer and cook for about five minutes, or until slightly thickened.
- Stir in the cream and cook for another five minutes, then stir in the cheese.
- Serve over pasta or zucchini noodles.
More pasta and sauce recipes
- Eggplant Parmesan Pasta Casserole
- Bolognese Sauce
- Italian Noodle Casserole
- Vegan Vegetable Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas
- Cauliflower Pumpkin Alfredo
- Bucatini with Roasted Garlic Tomato Sauce from The TipToe Fairy