Recipe Review

Food52’s Secret to Richer, Creamier Vodka Sauce (No, It’s Not Extra Cream)

published Sep 20, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

As much as I love the luxurious richness of penne alla vodka, many iterations skew too decadent for my tastes and my stomach. That’s why I was instantly intrigued by Rebecca Firkser’s recipe for vodka sauce on Food52, which leans on grated Parmesan cheese and starchy pasta water for creaminess rather than an abundance of heavy cream and butter.

I was also drawn to this recipe because it’s very much a pantry sauce. It calls for just a handful of everyday items, making it well-suited to enjoying any night of the week. Did it live up to my expectations? Here’s what happened when I gave it a try.

Get the recipe: Food52’s Rigatoni with Vodka Sauce

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How to Make Food52’s Vodka Sauce

You’ll start by sautéing finely chopped onion and grated garlic in olive oil. Add a whole can of tomato paste and between 1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, depending on your spice preference. Cook this mixture for about 5 minutes to allow the tomato paste to caramelize and darken in color.

Pour in vodka, scraping up any bits of tomato paste that have stuck to the bottom on the pot with a wooden spoon. When the vodka has evaporated, slowly stir in 1/2 cup cream. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and add it to the sauce, then stir in the pasta, grated Parmesan cheese, and just a tablespoon of butter. Stir for a minute or two until the pasta is coated in a creamy sauce.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

My Honest Review of Food52’s Vodka Sauce

What’s so surprising about this recipe is rather than calling for a can of tomatoes, it relies solely on tomato paste. I wasn’t sure if using just a can of tomato paste would deliver enough flavor, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it lended sweet, caramelized notes to the sauce, which I really enjoyed.

Perhaps I did a poor job of chopping the onion, but the bits of onion scattered throughout the sauce was what stopped me from fully enjoying my bowl of pasta. It detracted from the ultra-creamy texture of the sauce. As promised, though, the sauce was luxurious, despite only a moderate amount of cream and butter.

Credit: Sheela Prakash

If You’re Making Food52’s Vodka Sauce, a Few Tips

  1. Very, very finely chop the onion. I thought I did a good job of finely chopping the onion, but I was still left with larger pieces than I would have liked in a creamy sauce. Chop the onion as fine as you can, or better yet, grate it.
  2. Brown the tomato paste. This tiny step might seem unimportant, but it’s essential to this tasty sauce. Browning it draws out the natural sweetness of the tomato paste and builds on its super-savory flavor. Let the paste deeply darken in color before adding the vodka, and you’ll be rewarded.
  3. Adjust the red pepper flakes to your own taste. My husband and I love spice, but I was a little nervous about stirring in an entire teaspoon of red pepper flakes. One-half teaspoon turned out to be plenty for us. Use even less if you prefer, or start at 1/2 teaspoon and add more to taste.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Have you tried Food52’s Vodka Sauce? Let us know in the comments.