If you’ve ever wondered how Vodka Sauce came to be, here is the answer. Vodka is a distilled creation perfected in Russia and handed down through the generations, and the various classic tomato sauces are the domain of the Italian peninsula and surrounding regions – so how did the two come together? We reveal the origin of this sauce and show you how to make the very popular Penne alla Vodka Sauce dish.
Ingredients for Penne alla Vodka Sauce
My first stop in recipe research was some old & classic cookbooks – the obvious being The Talisman Italian Cookbook by Matilda Pei. First published in 1929, this book makes no mention whatsoever of a vodka-based sauce. Was it a newer creation? I then searched my 1963 copy of the Gourmet’s Menu Cookbook (Published by the Gourmet Distributing Corporation, Inc.) and reviewed their 89 listed varieties of sauces – it wasn’t there. I followed my Cousin Frank’s advice and turned to Arthur Schwartz (The Food Maven) for the answer.
Arthur is arguably one of the most knowledgeable authorities on cuisine of southern Italy in the world – his cookbook, The Southern Italian Table – Authentic Tastes from Traditional Kitchens, is widely regarded as a must-have for any chef, whether aspiring or a master. Naturally, we have a copy in our kitchen. His credentials are extensive, and we will examine his books in future posts – but for now, let’s focus on the origins of, and then the recipe for, Vodka Sauce.
The Origin of Vodka Sauce
According to Arthur, he was somewhat present at the invention of Vodka Sauce. It seems that in the 1970s, Vodka producers had provided some restaurants in Italy with promotional items with which to serve Vodka; out of this grew a recipe contest for Italian Chefs that included the use of Vodka as an ingredient. The resulting Vodka Sauces became a staple in modern culinary circles, especially here in the United States. This would also explain why this recipe is non-existent in the older cookbooks that pre-date the 1970s.
In my research I have found literally dozens of different recipes for Vodka Sauce. All use the same staple ingredients (cream, vodka, tomatoes), but there are nuances you can add (or refrain from) to customize the taste of your sauce. Here is our recipe – it is different from Arthur Schwartz’s Penne alla Vodka recipe* in that ours includes shallots, peas and a hint of pancetta.
Ingredients for Vodka sauce (Serves 8)
- 1 28-oz can of crushed plum tomatoes
- 1 28-oz can of diced plum tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons of salted butter
- 3 shallots (diced)
- 2 cloves of garlic (sliced)
- ½ Teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 1 cup of premium Vodka
- 1.5 cups of heavy cream
- 12 fresh basil leaves (finely chopped into flake size)
- 1/4 cup each of grated Parmesan, Asiago and Romano cheeses
- 1 14-oz can of green peas
- 1 ounce of Pancetta (minced finely)
- 2 pounds of Penne Pasta
Preparing Penne alla Vodka Sauce
In a large sauce pot: Sauté the garlic, shallots and minced pancetta in a high-quality olive oil until the garlic is golden brown. Then Lower heat to minimum to allow the oil to cool a bit – this keeps your tomatoes from splattering when you add them to the pot. Add both cans of tomatoes to the pot and increase stove-top heat until you have a gentle simmering/bubbling going on. Then add the cream, vodka, butter, red pepper flakes (to taste), basil, peas and grated cheese – simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Originally published on September 17, 2014; republished September 10, 2022, with updated content & linking.