The most dreamy pasta! Penne alla vodka is unbelievably creamy and flavorful. This pasta looks fancy, but it's actually one of the easiest and quickest pasta dishes. Everyone should learn how to make penne alla vodka!
Let me start by saying that I more recently learned how to make penne alla vodka. I, probably like many others, always thought penne alla vodka sounded so fancy, so I assumed it was a complicated dish. I was very wrong. And maybe you're thinking, "complicated? I thought you were a food blogger?" Well, I'm not a fancy girl. I'm a farm girl. Fancy isn't me. So I tend to keep my distance when it comes to overly complicated, fancy foods.
I did some research on penne alla vodka, and there's a few methods to making it. I did some experimenting, and now I'm sharing my favorite way to make it with you! Some recipes call for crushed or diced tomatoes and others call for tomato paste. The first time I made penne alla vodka, I wanted to use diced tomatoes, but I only had tomato paste on hand. Man, I am glad that was the case because tomato paste is way to go! Tomato paste gives you a rich, creamy, hearty sauce. The stick to your ribs kind of sauce. I'm all about that. Also, a lot of recipes call for using like half a can of tomato paste. Well, I don't know about you, but I hate having open cans sit in my fridge for 2 weeks before I throw them away. So, my penne alla vodka recipe calls for a whole 6 ounce can of tomato paste. Same goes for heavy cream. Once I open a pint of heavy cream, I want to use it all. So, this recipe calls for 2 cups of heavy cream. The perfect amount of tomato to cream ratio.
To add a little some extra to the pasta and give it some crunch, I made parmesan herb breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top. Sticking with the simplicity of penne alla vodka, the breadcrumbs are equally as easy to make. In a small skillet, heat olive oil, crushed croutons (or breadcrumbs), herbs and parmesan cheese for a few minutes and you're done! Super easy.
Penne alla Vodka Ingredients.
Pasta. I used penne, but you can really use any short pasta noodle you would like!
Olive oil. For frying the onions, garlic and herbs.
Onion. Half a yellow onion or you could use a white onion or shallot.
Garlic. Three cloves of fresh garlic. You can use dry garlic powder if you're in a pinch.
Ground oregano & ground basil. Half a teaspoon of each, or you could also sub a teaspoon of Italian seasoning. You can be pretty flexible here. If you're out of oregano or basil, it's not going to ruin the pasta. You can also use fresh if you have it.
Red pepper flakes. I like to use half a teaspoon, but it makes the pasta a little spicy. I like a little spice, but for Nate it's a little too spicy. If you're sensitive to spice, I recommend just a pinch or quarter teaspoon of red pepper flakes.
Tomato paste. One whole 6 ounce can of tomato paste because I hate having an open can of tomato paste in my fridge. The trick is to cook the tomato paste for a few minutes before adding the cream, allowing the flavors to develop.
Vodka. Half a cup of vodka gets added after the tomato paste to amp up the flavor and add a bite to the sauce. I don't recommend any substitutes.
Heavy cream. One pint of heavy cream adds so much creaminess.
Parmesan cheese. I like to mix a little grated parmesan cheese into my pasta sauce, plus extra shredded parm for sprinkling on top!
Butter. Mixing in a couple tablespoons of butter into the pasta before serving adds to the creaminess.
Pasta water. Reserve at least a cup of pasta water to mix into the sauce.
Tips & tricks.
Red pepper flakes quickly add heat. I like to use ½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes - this make it a little spicy. It's the perfect level of spice for me, but a little much for Nate. So do what you will with that information, and use more or less depending on your taste buds.
Remember to reserve pasta water. This is key. Remember to reserve at least a cup of starchy pasta water. You'll mix the pasta into the sauce when the pasta is al dente, so it can finish cooking in the sauce and absorb all those flavors. Once the pasta is mixed into the sauce, you'll add the pasta water to the sauce/pasta to thin out the sauce and give the pasta water to soak up while it finishes cooking. I like to scoop my pasta out of the water and transfer it directly to the sauce vs straining the pasta, this way I have all the pasta water I want!
What if you forget to reserve pasta water? If you forget to reserve pasta water, you can try thinning the sauce with regular water or chicken broth.
Do you need vodka for the sauce? The vodka cooks off quickly but enhances the flavors in the tomato paste and balance the sweetness. If you would prefer, you can replace the vodka with water and a squeeze of lemon.
Can you use half & half or milk instead of heavy cream? I haven't tried either substitution, so I can't say for sure. You could get away with using half & half if it's all you have on hand, the sauce just won't be quite as creamy. However, I would not recommend using milk, it isn't nearly creamy enough.
Can you make the pasta ahead of time? Whenever I'm working with heavy cream in a sauce, I prefer to serve the the pasta when the sauce is freshly made. However, when I took these photos I made the pasta and sauce in the middle of the day, but I wanted to serve it for dinner that night. So I transferred the pasta in the vodka sauce to my slow cooker. I let it sit on warm for about 5 hours. The sauce stayed creamy, but I did have to add more pasta water a couple times. The noodles got a little soft but it was so much better than reheating the pasta. This dish doesn't do well reheated. BUT, I recommend serving the penne alla vodka fresh - it's best that way and takes less than 30 minutes to make!!
More of my favorite date night pasta dishes!
Penne alla Vodka with Parmesan Herb Breadcrumbs
Parmesan herb breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup regular seasoned croutons (or 1 cup of regular or Italian breadcrumbs)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Penne alla vodka
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ yellow onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (½ teaspoon is slightly spicy)
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried basil
- 1 pound penne pasta (or any short pasta noodles)
- 6 ounces tomato paste
- ½ cup vodka
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons salted butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup grated parmesan, plus more for serving
- fresh basil, roughly chopped, for serving
Parmesan herb breadcrumbs
- Crush the croutons in a food processor or blender.
- In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the crushed croutons, oregano and basil. Mix together and cook for 2-3 minutes until toasted. Mix in the parmesan and cook another 30-60 seconds until melted. Set aside.
Penne alla vodka
- Add a large pot of water to the stove over high heat.
- Add oil to a large skillet with tall sides and heat over medium. Add the onion and cook until it begins to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, oregano, and basil; cook another minute.
- Add your pasta to the boiling water. Cook until al dente, about 2-3 minutes less than the suggested amount of time on the packaging. Reserve at least 1-2 cups of pasta water. While the pasta cooks, continue making your sauce.
- Add the tomato paste to the skillet and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously. Pour in the vodka and let cook off for a 1-2 minutes. Reduce to medium-low heat and add the heavy cream, whisking to combine.
- Once the pasta is al dente, transfer the pasta to the vodka sauce and add a ½ cup of pasta water. Mix together and let the pasta continue to cook in the sauce for about 3-5 minutes, adding more pasta water as needed to thin the sauce.
- Mix in the butter and parmesan until melted.
- Serve with fresh basil and extra parmesan!