Recipe Review

Serious Eats’ Penne alla Vodka Is Textbook Perfect

published Sep 21, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

One of my favorite things about reading through a recipe on Serious Eats is the scientific approach they take to even the simplest recipes. Such is the case for their vodka sauce, written by Daniel Gritzer. Daniel takes a deep dive into the classic Italian American sauce and works to achieve the ultimate version by getting a little nitty gritty.

Rather than sautéing onions in oil, for example, he opts for butter, which brings out the sweetness in the allium and mellows its bite. He also adds the vodka at the very end of cooking to ensure its flavor isn’t totally cooked out. These smart tips and tricks had me pretty curious to see if his sauce really was the best around, so of course I had to give it a try.

Get the recipe: Serious Eats’ Penne alla Vodka

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

How to Make Serious Eats’ Penne alla Vodka

You’ll begin by sautéing onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes in butter until the onions and garlic are very soft but not browned. Then, add a whole tube or can of tomato paste and cook until it darkens in color and becomes thick and fragrant. Stir in a can of whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, bring everything to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, crushing the tomatoes with a wooden spoon until the sauce has thickened a bit.

Next, stir in a full cup of heavy cream, then transfer the mixture to a blender and blend until smooth. Return the sauce to the pot, add al dente penne pasta and a few big splashes of vodka, and toss everything together until the pasta is well-coated. Finally, stir in lots of grated Parmesan cheese and serve.

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

My Honest Review of Daniel’s Penne alla Vodka

Out of all the vodka sauces I tested for this showdown, this one was the most classic. Blending it made it ultra creamy, but it still had sweet onion and garlic flavor throughout. Cooking the alliums in butter was smart, too, because their flavor did indeed mellow. On top of that, adding the vodka at the end of cooking allowed it to cut through a little of the decadence and made the sauce really balanced.

I also liked that Daniel used a combination of tomato paste and canned tomatoes. The paste lended a deepness to the sauce, while the canned tomatoes provided brightness that cut through some of the other rich ingredients. My only two minor qualms with this sauce is that I craved more spice — a pinch of red pepper flakes wasn’t enough for me — and it was fussier than the other recipes I tried. Otherwise, this recipe would have won the vodka sauce battle.

Credit: Sheela Prakash

If You’re Making Serious Eats’ Penne alla Vodka, a Few Tips

  1. Bump up the red pepper flakes, if you like. The recipe calls for just a pinch of red pepper flakes, but I’d definitely add a few more big pinches to the sauce to get the heat I typically expect from vodka sauce.
  2. Feel free to make the sauce ahead of time. This sauce didn’t take a long time to pull together, but you’ll dirty a few more dishes than your average pasta dish. Luckily, it can be made up to five days in advance — just wait to add the vodka until you reheat the sauce.
  3. Reach for an immersion blender, if you prefer. Daniel discourages the use of an immersion blender to blend the sauce, but I had no trouble getting mine silky smooth with one. If you have an immersion blender you like and that blends well, I say it’s totally fine to use one so you don’t need to transfer the very hot sauce to a stand blender.

Overall rating: 9.5/10

Have you tried Serious Eats’ Vodka Sauce? Let us know in the comments.