Think pink (sauce).
Few dishes are as purely comforting and delicious as pasta coated in lightly creamy tomato vodka sauce. Here’s a fabulous and easy pink vodka sauce recipe, adapted from a top Italian chef. Learn how to make vodka sauce, the simple way.
Meet This Easy Recipe for Vodka Sauce
But one thing is not in dispute: This retro Italian pasta recipe will always be a classic. Good al dente pasta coated with a simple pink tomato sauce infused with cheese, cream, and (yes) actual vodka, is one of the best dishes around.
This easy vodka sauce recipe for pasta is adapted from the great chef Missy Robbins, owner of Brooklyn’s celebrated Lilia and Misi restaurants and co-author of Pasta, one of my 2021 picks for best cookbook of the year. The recipe ingredients and quantities are virtually unchanged; I simplified the method a bit to make the vodka sauce easier to prepare.
What is vodka sauce made of?
What is vodka sauce made of, you ask? Some people think that it’s just a simple bland of marinara sauce and Alfredo sauce, with forces combined to make a creamy pink tomato sauce.
But true pasta with vodka sauce is built from scratch, layering ingredients like onion, garlic, tomato, tomato sauce, and then dairy like cream and butter until an end result that that’s beautifully silky and deeply flavored.
Easy Vodka Sauce: Recipe Ingredients
To make the sauce, you will need the following ingredients. Most are pantry staples. And if you’d like to add some additional protein to this dish, feel free to toss in some big-diced chicken breast at the end with the pasta, stirring to coat.
For this recipe, you will need:
- olive oil
- 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
- tomato paste
- tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
- heavy cream
- mascarpone (a note on that below)
- 2 tbsp butter
- pasta, cooked to al dente. I prefer a pasta shape with ridges like penne or rigatoni to help “grip” the sauce, or a corkscrew pasta like fusilli.
- grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or other good-quality freshly grated parmesan cheese, to serve
- diced chicken breast or cooked Italian sausage (optional)
Recipe Substitution for Mascarpone
Most of the ingredients for this pink sauce are pantry staples. But mascarpone may not be in every supermarket. To substitute mascarpone, combine equal parts cream cheese and sour cream or full-fat plain Greek yogurt, and thin with a teaspoon or two of cream. Stir to combine.
Do you really need vodka in vodka sauce?
Here’s the funny think about vodka sauce: you do not actually need the booze to get a delicious pasta. Vodka does add a bit more flavor complexity to the sauce, and helps maintain the right texture (some say). But the quantity — here, 1/3 cup — does not make a huge difference, and the other ingredients yield a fantastic, creamy tomato sauce on their own. So if you’d like to leave the alcohol out of the pink sauce, no problem.
So basically: Some think that the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomato. I don’t really think so, but since it’s an essential part of the dish, I add it anyway. But think of this as permission to leave it out if you like.
How to Make Vodka Sauce: Recipe Steps
This easy vodka sauce recipe comes together easily, and requires less than an hour start to finish. Don’t skimp on the quality of the ingredients; their simplicity demands the quality.
Here are the steps for how to make pink vodka sauce:
- In a large skillet or pan, cook the diced onion in a bit of olive oil over medium heat until translucent, then add the garlic and chili flakes.
- Add the tomato paste and vodka and let the alcohol cook off.
- Add the crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. Stir and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes.
- Stir in the cream and mascarpone. Season with salt.
- Remove about 1 pint of sauce and reserve. You can freeze this.
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook 1 pound of penne or other pasta such as rigatoni of fusilli until al dente. Drain, reserving some pasta water.
- Add the pasta to the pan of remaining sauce, perhaps with a little reserved pasta water to thin the sauce if it looks too thick. If you’re adding diced chicken or crumbled Italian sausage, now’s the time to add it.
- Toss the sauce and pasta together in the pan. Let the pasta marry with the sauce and finish cooking, adding the butter and a bit of pasta water as needed to loosen it.
How to Serve Pasta with Pink Vodka Sauce
Serve this pasta with pink tomato cream sauce hot, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or parmesan cheese and some red pepper flakes. If you’d like to garnish the pasta with vodka sauce with a bit of color, add a sprig of fresh Italian parsley or fresh basil. Want some vegetables on the side? I recommend something Italian, of course, such as Italian-style broccoli rabe cooked with garlic and olive oil, or a simple zucchini salad recipe to cut the richness. Cooked spinach works well, too.
Pink Vodka Sauce With Pasta
- 1 pound dried penne or other medium-sized pasta, such as ziti, rigatoni, or fusilli
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, plus more to serve
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 1/3 cup vodka
- 24 ounce can unsalted tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes (I use Cento)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup mascarpone (more on this below)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or good aged parmesan cheese, to serve
- In a wide-bottomed pot or large skillet with high sides, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent and softened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and stir for an additional 20 seconds or so.PRO TIP: Don't get any color on the onion or garlic or the sauce will develop a harsh, acrid flavor. Stir often and adjust the heat as necessary.
- Stir the tomato paste into the onion and garlic and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Add the vodka and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the alcohol burns off, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, along with a big glug of water you just swirled around in the can to get the rest of the tomato out.
- Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Fold in the cream and mascarpone. Add salt to taste. Remove about 2 cups of the sauce and set aside for another use. (You can refrigerate or freeze this.)PRO TIP: Don't have mascarpone? You can substitute mascarpone by combining equal parts softened cream cheese and sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt) with a splash of heavy cream.
- While the vodka sauce cooks, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook your penne or preferred pasta until just under al dente.
- Reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and add it to the vodka sauce, along with the butter and a glug of the reserved pasta water. Simmer together for an additional minute, stirring, to allow the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce. PRO TIP: The sauce texture should be silky and loose, neither thin and watery nor thick and clumpy. Add a splash of pasta water as necessary.
- Taste for seasoning. Spoon the pasta into pasta bowls. Top generously with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, and maybe a sprig of fresh Italian parsley or fresh basil if you want a pop of green.