All logical reasons considered, I should NOT like Penne Alla Vodka. I’ve only recently come around to tomato-based sauces (and still approach them with caution), and the vodka– well, for all of the reasons I’ve ever imbibed, “Vodka is delicious” has never been one of them. Yet here I am, eating a bowl full of One Pot Penne Alla Vodka with Sausage leftovers at 9 in the morning and relishing every single bite. It is so good.
Sometimes love just makes no sense at all.
If I really want to solve the mystery of why I am head-over-heels for the Penne Alla Vodka, I have to break down the steps. When I make my version, I start by sauteing of garlic and shallots until they’re nice and fragrant, and then I add in some crumbled hot Italian sausage. This gives the dish meatiness, spiciness, and just a bit of sweetness. Sausage itself is a heavily seasoned meat, so that flavor will disperse into the sauce and won’t be overshadowed by the bold flavors of the tomato and vodka.
Next comes the vodka, which is where I start seeing question marks. Why do we add vodka, of all things, to the recipe? It turns out, there are plenty of flavors in tomatoes and meats that are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they only are released when combined with alcohol.
In some recipes, this means adding wine. However, wine is sweet, and flavored with many other ingredients that would, in turn, flavor the sauce. If the goal is to enhance existing flavors from the tomatoes and sausage rather than add a whole ‘nother bunch of tastes and smells, then wine, beer, and bourbon are not what we’re looking for.
Instead, we use vodka because it is tasteless and odorless. Or rather, it is tasteless and odorless besides the taste and smell of alcohol. This means that the recipe can get all of the benefits of the alcohol– the bitterness that enhances the spices, the sugars and bite that balance the tomatoes, and on a molecular level, the bonding between fats and liquids that create a fuller, more intensely flavored sauce– without any muddling or undesired additions.
Once the vodka has simmered and reduced slightly, I add in chicken stock and crushed tomatoes. The mixture will seem very liquidy, but the liquid will partially cook off and partially be absorbed by the pasta. The starch that the pasta releases while cooking will also help to thicken the sauce, so it clings to the penne instead of sliding off when you take a fork full.
I bring the mixture to a low boil, add in the uncooked penne, and cook until the pasta is al dente. It’s important to stir the pasta occasionally so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pot.
When the penne is cooked, I mix in cream. This gives the vodka sauce its signature texture and richness, and dilutes some of the stronger flavors of the tomatoes and alcohol. The sauce is good as-is, but a bit of basil, red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and black pepper bring it over the top with spice and freshness. Yum. No wonder I love it.
It’s an easy dish that comes together quickly and in just ONE POT (which is great if you hate post-dinner clean up as much as I do), but no one you feed it to will believe that you just whipped it up that simply. It’s great for both a date night meal and a weeknight recipe. Try it out, take a photo, and tag #hostthetoast on Instagram or Twitter to show off your meal!
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 shallot, minced
- 8 oz hot Italian sausage, removed from casing
- 1 cup vodka
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 lb uncooked penne pasta
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- Fresh basil leaves
- Parmesan cheese, to top
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add in the garlic and shallot and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Crumble the sausage into the pot and brown all over, but don’t cook through.
- Pour in the vodka and cook until it slightly reduces, about 2 minutes. Add in the chicken stock and crushed tomatoes and bring to a low boil. Add in the penne and cook, stirring often, until pasta is al dente, about 15-20 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low and add in the heavy cream, crushed red pepper flakes, dried oregano, salt, pepper, and basil leaves. Cook for 5 more minutes, or until warmed through, stirring occasionally. If your sauce becomes too thick, add a bit more chicken stock or water to thin.
- Top with additional basil leaves and parmesan cheese, to serve.