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

I Tried 4 Popular Vodka Sauce Recipes and the Winner Transported Me to Italy

published Sep 23, 2021
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The origins of vodka sauce are difficult to trace — some say it’s rooted in Italy, while others claim it was invented in New York City. But whether you enjoy the tomato cream sauce at your favorite Italian American restaurant or in a trattoria in Florence, there’s no denying that it’s utterly delicious.

Vodka sauce is as rich and luxurious as pasta sauces get. For me, the perfect one is tomato-forward, with just enough cream, Parmesan, and butter to give it a delicate pink hue but not so much that it overpowers the tomatoes. I also think a generous pinch of red pepper flakes is non-negotiable to balance out the creaminess.

To find the tastiest version of at-home vodka sauce, I did a deep dive to find some of the best recipes out there and narrowed my test down to four top contenders. Lucky for me, all four I tested were winning dinners — my husband was hardly upset to sit down to bowls upon bowls of penne alla vodka. There was, however, one recipe that truly blew me away.

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

Meet Our 4 Vodka Sauce Contenders

I selected four of the most popular vodka sauce recipes I could find on the internet. I focused on recipes that were rooted in what I think of as vodka sauce essentials: tomatoes, heavy cream, Parmesan cheese, sometimes butter, and, of course, vodka. From there, I chose recipes that each had a slightly different point of view, which led me to my finalists: Food52, Ina Garten, Rachael Ray, and Serious Eats.

Food52’s Vodka Sauce skips canned tomatoes completely and instead relies just on tomato paste to provide sweet and savory tomato flavor.

Ina Garten’s Vodka Sauce calls for slowly roasting the sauce in the oven for a couple of hours rather than simmering it on the stove. This means the recipe takes a bit longer to pull together, but it isn’t particularly labor-intensive.

Rachael Ray’s Vodka Sauce comes together the fastest. What makes it unique is her addition of fresh basil, and her decision to eschew red pepper flakes.

Serious Eats’ Vodka Sauce uses both tomato paste and canned tomatoes. It takes a scientific approach to every element of the classic sauce, such as adding the vodka at the very end so it doesn’t burn off during the simmering process.


How I Tested the Vodka Sauce Recipes

All of the vodka sauces were cooked the same day and tasted side by side, both on their own and tossed with pasta. While any short pasta can be tossed with vodka sauce, penne is the most classic and well-known, so I opted to use it for all four sauces. At the end of our pasta party, there was one clear winner.

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

1. The Quickest and Easiest: Rachael Ray’s You Won’t Be Single for Long Vodka Cream Pasta

I was instantly drawn to the name of Rachael Ray’s vodka sauce recipe, and hoped it would live up to the swoon-worthy claim. While it was incredibly easy to pull together, at the end of the day it just didn’t wow me as much as the other recipes I tested. Since it’s such a quick sauce, the flavor didn’t have time to develop, leaving it less complex and interesting. I did, however, love the addition of fresh basil. This would still be a solid choice when you need your vodka sauce fix ASAP, but I’d choose another recipe for date night.

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

2. The Best Tomato Flavor: Food52’s Vodka Sauce

Rebecca Firkser’s vodka sauce recipe on Food52 leans hard on the pantry. It calls for just a few staples you probably already have on hand and opts for a whole can of tomato paste rather than canned tomatoes. I worried this would throw off the balance of the sauce, but the tomato paste’s concentrated flavor created a boldly flavored sauce — especially because you cook the paste first so it caramelizes. The only thing I didn’t love were the bits of onion scattered throughout, which detracted from the creaminess of the sauce.

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

3. The Ultra Classic: Serious Eats’ Penne alla Vodka

Daniel Gritzer’s vodka sauce was sooooo close to winning this battle. It’s decadently smooth and hit all the flavor notes you expect from this classic tomato cream sauce. The only thing I missed was a heavier hand with red pepper flakes. If you prefer a milder vodka sauce, this won’t be an issue for you, but I wanted a little more kick. This also was the most detailed recipe of the bunch — you sauté the aromatics in butter, then add the tomato paste and cook until it darkens, then stir in the tomatoes and crush them with a spoon, then blend — so I would save it for nights when you have a little more time to spend in the kitchen.

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

3. The Winner: Ina Garten’s Penne alla Vecchia Bettola

The only reason Serious Eats’ vodka sauce didn’t win this recipe battle was because I tasted Ina Garten’s. Her recipe is inspired by one from Nick and Toni’s, a restaurant in the Hamptons (where Ina lives). The restaurant’s recipe was inspiration by a vodka sauce from a trattoria in Florence, Italy called Alla Vecchia Bettola. (Fun fact: I ate vodka sauce there on my honeymoon!) While it took the longest to make, most of the time was hands-off, so it came together pretty easily.

Ina’s secret is roasting the tomato sauce slowly in the oven, which really helps the flavors develop. The sauce was ultra creamy, nicely balanced, and heavy on the oregano, which brightens up the sauce. This penne alla vodka was (*chef’s kiss*) perfect and I can’t wait to make it again.

Do you have a favorite vodka sauce recipe? Let us know in the comments!