Pasta with Vodka Sauce — Make an Italian restaurant-worthy pasta dish EASILY at home in 30 minutes! Pasta is tossed in a tomato-forward sauce that includes red pepper flakes, onions, garlic, spinach, heavy cream for RICHNESS, and of course, vodka! A family FAVORITE comfort food classic recipe that’s doable for busy weeknights, for entertaining, or for date night at home!
Easy Vodka Sauce Pasta Recipe
Pasta with vodka sauce is a guilty pleasure that you may think is difficult to make at home. However, my straightforward recipe for pasta with vodka sauce is easy and straightforward.
For those not familiar with vodka sauce, there’s an abundance of tomato forward flavor, onions, garlic and red pepper flakes, along with heavy cream which makes such a silky sauce.
And oh yes, there’s also vodka in this homemade vodka sauce.
After this decadent sauce is ready, toss your favorite al dente cooked pasta in it (I used fettuccine but you can use pick your favorite), garnish with fresh Parmesan, and get ready to dig into a big bowl that feels like a hug, especially during chilly weather months.
And this family favorite comfort food dinner recipe is ready in 30 minutes which makes this a do-able recipe on busy weeknights.
Or save the recipe for family Sunday dinner or impress your partner with your cooking prowess for date night at home.
Who needs a fancy Italian restaurant when you can make this homemade, luscious, rich and creamy vodka sauce in your own kitchen!
What Does Vodka Sauce Taste Like?
Let’s cover this right away because I know you many of you who’ve never had this classic Italian recipe may be wondering if vodka sauce tastes like vodka?
The answer is no, vodka sauce doesn’t taste like vodka.
As a sidebar, vodka is a pretty darn neutrally flavored liquor, unlike say whiskey or gin, making it a great choice to use in cooking akin to wine in my famous Garlic Butter Chicken recipe or in a classic Beurre Blanc Sauce.
The alcohol content from the vodka burns off during the simmering process and so what you’re left with is an aromatic depth of flavor, minus the harshness of actual vodka.
You cannot get drunk from the 1/4 cup of vodka that’s buried in many pounds of food, and then split over at least 8 servings. The amount of actual vodka that any one person is consuming, even if you didn’t boil it off, is a teaspoon or so.
The dish is safe to serve to children in my opinion because again, the actual alcohol is boiled off. However, do as your instincts tell you to do.
Ingredients in Pasta alla Vodka
When it’s time to make this Italian pasta dinner recipe for pasta alla vodka, you’ll need the following common and fridge and pantry ingredients:
- Fettuccine or another pasta (penne, rigatoni, etc.)
- Red pepper flakes
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Olive oil
- White onion
- Red chile pepper
- Canned fire-roasted tomatoes
- Vegetable broth
- Tomato juice (or Bloody Mary mix)
- Fresh spinach
- Pasta water
- Heavy cream
- Salt, to taste
- Fresh parsley, optional for serving
- Fresh Parmesan cheese or pecorino, optional for serving
- Diced tomatoes, optional for serving
Note: Scroll down to the recipe card section of the post for the ingredients with amounts included and for more complete directions.
How to Make Pasta with Vodka Sauce
Making spicy vodka cream sauce and pasta is easier than you think and faster, too! In less than an hour you’ll be enjoying this Italian recipe, so let’s get started.
Step 1: Boil the water and cook the pasta according to package directions for al dente pasta. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water. Drain, rinse, and set aside the cooked pasta.
Tip: While the pasta is boiling, start the rest of the recipe to save time.
Step 2: To a separate, large, dry skillet, add the red pepper flakes, black pepper, and toast over medium-high heat in a dry skillet for 2 minutes.
Step 3: Add the olive oil, onion, red chile pepper, and saute over medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes.
Step 4: Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute.
Step 5: Pour in the canned tomatoes (drain them if you want a thicker sauce), broth, tomato juice, vodka, and simmer for 5 minutes.
Step 6: Add the spinach, pasta water, and cook for 2 minutes, or until wilted.
Step 7: Reduce the heat to low, add the heavy cream, check to see if it needs salt, and allow the mixture to simmer very gently for about 2 to 3 minutes.
Step 8: Add the pasta to the vodka sauce, toss well to coat evenly, and cover the skillet for 2 minutes so the flavors can meld.
Step 9: Optionally garnish with any combination of parsley, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and serve!
Can I Make Vodka Sauce Less Spicy?
There are three ingredients that give the pasta sauce a spicier kick. However, you can reduce, omit, or alter those ingredients as follows:
- Red pepper flakes – I only use 1 teaspoon but you can use less (or none). However, if you want just a trace of heat and nothing more, this is the ingredient though that I would leave alone and use the indicated 1 teaspoon.
- Red chile pepper – Remove the seeds and the placenta to reduce the heat. Most people think the heat is only in the seeds but this is false! Most heat is actually contained in the chile’s placenta, which is the white-ish or lighter colored sac at the top of the chile (after you halve it vertically) where the seeds attach. Google Images is great here if you need a visual. Alternatively, you can use half of the chile, a quarter of it, or none at all.
- Fire-roasted canned tomatoes – If you don’t want your sauce to be spicy, definitely swap fire-roasted tomatoes for a can of plain diced tomatoes.
Tomatoes and Tomato Sauce for Vodka Sauce
As long as we’re talking tomatoes, let me clarify a few more things:
- Petite diced tomatoes are my favorite because their texture softens a bit during the cooking process, but there’s still texture. If you like texture in your sauce, use petite diced fire-roasted or petite diced plain (regular) canned tomatoes.
- If you want a thicker sauce, drain the tomatoes first.
- If you don’t like as much texture in your sauce, you can use canned crushed tomatoes. This will result in a sauce that’s a little thinner or looser, but with less chunky texture.
- You can use whole tomatoes like San Marzano tomatoes that you pulse in a blender briefly. I also recommend draining some of the juice, too.
- Bottom line for me for the easiest option (crack the can, no blending) with the best final texture and taste are fire-roasted petite diced tomatoes, lightly drained. Your mileage may vary.
What’s the Best Vodka for Vodka Sauce?
While the vodka isn’t used in large quantity in the recipe compared to the other ingredients, it’s a very important element.
Therefore, I strongly recommend using the highest quality of vodka you have on hand or will purchase.
Favorites that I have on hand in rotating degrees include Tito’s, Grey Goose, and Belvedere and they all work well in the creamy vodka sauce reicpe. Obviously there are a zillion vodkas out there, so use your favorite.
Tip: Rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t drink it in a cocktail, then don’t cook with it!
Can I Substitute the Vodka in Vodka Sauce?
There’s a reason that this recipe is called Pasta with Vodka Sauce and that’s because vodka is necessary in the recipe and you can’t substitute it.
Vodka does the following:
- Helps enhance the fruity aroma of the tomatoes.
- Balances the spiciness or heat and the overall richness of the sauce.
- It acts as an emulsifier binding the cream and tomato base together. Normally dairy + acidic foods (like tomatoes) = a curdled cream sauce. However, the vodka is insurance against this!
- Assists in making sure the sauce doesn’t break. Meaning, the dairy proteins don’t break apart which causes an unsightly sauce wrought with white flecks. You would want to toss out a broken sauce as they’re too ugly to actually eat, despite the taste being fine.
What’s the Best Pasta for Vodka Sauce?
I used fettuccine noodles for the pasta I served with my spicy vodka sauce. The two most common types of pasta for vodka sauce include:
However, you can use really whatever type of pasta floats your boat.
Can I Add Protein to Vodka Sauce Pasta?
Yes, you sure can! While your pasta water is boiling, you can sauté any of the following proteins for about 7 to 10 minutes, or until they’re properly cooked.
- Boneless skinless chicken breast (cube it into bite-sized pieces for faster cooking)
- Ground chicken or ground turkey
- Ground sausage (Italian or Hot)
- Previously cooked sausage like Kielbasa that you slice into rounds
- Bacon or pancetta
- Shrimp (cleaned and de-veined, note they will cook quickly in about 3 minutes)
Add a drizzle of olive oil for lean proteins like chicken and shrimp. Add salt and pepper to taste, too.
After they protein is properly cooked, remove it from the skillet, set it aside, and carry on with the recipe by beginning to toast the red pepper flakes and black pepper. Easy as that!
Serving and Storage Suggestions for Vodka Sauce Pasta
After you toss the cooked fettuccine noodles, or your favorite pasta, into the spicy vodka sauce, get ready to sprinkle on some fresh parsley and plenty of freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese.
Pasta with sauce is always best hot and fresh.
However, extra pasta with vodka sauce will keep airtight in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Note that the pasta will have a tendency to continue to absorb vodka sauce as it sits so don’t be surprised if there seems to be less sauce with the leftovers and that the pasta is a bit softer, since it will be the culprit that soaked up the vodka sauce.
Tips for the Best Pasta with Vodka Sauce
What I love about this pasta with vodka sauce recipe is that it comes together quickly and with relative ease. I have some common sense tips and tricks to help you achieve the best pasta with vodka sauce that’ll have your family licking their plates!
- Salting the water the pasta cooks in adds flavor to the pasta.
- Rinsing the cooked pasta under cold water prevents the pasta from cooking any further and prevents sticking.
- Reserved pasta water contains starch which will be used in a later step to help bind the sauce so make sure to save 1/4 cup.
You’re going to be combining a pound of pasta with nearly two pounds of canned tomatoes, with another cup and then some of various liquids, plus the spinach. Therefore, you need a skillet deep enough and big enough for the job.
I have three favorite skillets for recipes like this:
- LeCrueset 11.75-inches with Lid. The lid isn’t completely necessary if you already have a big skillet with a lid, but it’s a great touch.
- All-Clad D5 Stainless Steel 3-Quart Pan. There are hundreds of chicken dinners you will see photographed in this pan on my site. Here is also the Amazon link for the same All-Clad 3-Quart Pan.
- All-Clad D5 Stainless Steel Essential Pan, 4-Quart. Another one that is a workhorse and my favorite thing to make in this pan is Chicken Pad Thai because it holds a ton!
Toasting the Spices
When beginning the recipe, I like to add the red pepper flakes and freshly cracked black pepper to a dry skillet and toast them for about 2 minutes before moving on.
Toasting the spices enhances their flavor and aroma in the finished dish. It also helps release some of the spiciness of the pepper flakes which tones down the overall spiciness level of the dish without losing the flavor of the red pepper flakes.
Draining the Canned Tomatoes
For a thicker sauce, drain the canned tomatoes before adding them to the sauce. Or perhaps drain some of the juice, but not all, depending on what your preferences are.
Make sure to see the above tomato discussion section about fire-roasted petite diced tomatoes vs. regular petite diced tomatoes, and so forth.
If you don’t have open or have any one hand, and you don’t want to open a can or carton for just 1/4 cup, use water instead.
Tomato Juice and Bloody Mary Mix
You can use either and they will both boost the overall tomato flavor of the dish, add saltiness, and another dimension of flavor.
If you’re tempted to use water here, you probably could and get away with it. But if you’re going to choose between the vegetable stock or the tomato juice to swap out with water, do it with the stock.
It’ll look like a lot but it wilts into nothing, and quickly. If you want to sneak in some extra greenery, use 3 cups of spinach. Use fresh spinach only, and not frozen.
- If you’ve never made any type of creamy sauce before, there are a couple things. First, fat is your friend when adding dairy to a pot of hot liquid. Fat helps prevent the sauce from separating, or breaking, which is why I do not advise using anything but heavy cream.
- I’ve seen people make vodka sauce with half-and-half but it won’t have the same rich mouthfeel.
- Definitely do NOT use milk. If that’s what you’re thinking of using, just omit it.
- Watch the heat after you add the heavy cream. Turn the heat to low and barely allow the sauce to simmer. The worst thing you could do is have the sauce going at a ripping boil because you risk a broken sauce.
Taste the Sauce!
Make sure you love the flavor of your sauce before you add the pasta. If you think it needs more salt, add some. The same is true for pepper, hot pepper flakes, more tomato juice, whatever it is, make sure you season and finish the dish to taste.
Cover the Pot
When the sauce is done and you’ve added the cooked fettuccine and tossed it, cover your cooking vessel for about 2 minutes. The steam allows the flavors to meld, marry, and everything will just taste that much better.
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Pasta with Vodka Sauce
- 1 pound fettuccine or another pasta, penne, rigatoni, etc., cooked according to package directions for al dente
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste (reduce for less spiciness)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small white onion, diced small
- 1 small red chile pepper, diced finely; or to taste*
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 28 ounces canned petite diced fire-roasted tomatoes**, optionally drained for a thicker sauce
- ¼ cup vegetable broth, I recommend reduced sodium
- ¼ cup tomato juice or Bloody Mary mix
- ¼ cup voda
- 2 cups fresh spinach, plus more to taste if desired
- ¼ cup reserved pasta water
- ⅓ cup heavy cream, do not substitute
- Salt, to taste; optional
- Fresh parsley, optional for serving
- Fresh Parmesan cheese or pecorino, optional for serving
- Diced fresh tomatoes, optional for serving
- To a large stockpot, add the water, salt the water according to package directions, and cook the pasta as directed for al dente pasta.
- Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water; set aside.
- Drain the pasta into a large colander, rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process; set pasta aside.
- To a separate, large, dry skillet (Tip - make sure it's sufficiently large, you're making many pounds worth of food), add the red pepper flakes, black pepper, and toast them dry over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes to both release the flavor and temper the heat in the finished dish. Stir frequently.
- Add the olive oil, onions, red chile peppers, and sauté over medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until vegetables are beginning to soften. Stir frequently.
- Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Stir constantly.
- Add the tomato juice or Bloody Mary mix, broth (water may be substituted), vodka, and cook simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Add the spinach (I add more like 3 cups because it wilts down so much and I like the texture it adds), reserved pasta water, and cook for 2 minutes, or until spinach has wilted. Stir frequently, smashing the spinach down into the hot liquid to encourage wilting.
- Turn the heat to low, add the heavy cream, and allow the sauce to simmer very gently for about 2 minutes. Tip - DO NOT allow the sauce to come to a fast boil because you risk the cream breaking (the dairy proteins will break, the sauce looks terrible, and you'll have to start over). Just let it simmer very gently. Stir frequently.
- Taste the sauce and if you think it needs salt, add some now, to taste. Tips - Make any other necessary seasoning adjustments as well, such as additional black pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, whatever you think it needs based on your preferences.
- Add the cooked pasta into the sauce (this is why you need a big skillet) and toss well to coat it evenly.
- Cover the skillet for 2 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and marry.
- Uncover the skillet, and as desired optionally garnish with fresh parsley, freshly grated Parmesan or Percorino-Romano cheese (do not use a green can of cheese), and/or freshly diced tomatoes, and serve immediately.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
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