As anyone who has chased ibuprofen with an Egg McMuffin can attest, hangovers are no joke. Excessive alcohol consumption dehydrates us, disrupts our metabolic functions, and increases a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. Results include a terrible suite of symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea to rewatching Michael Bay movies from the late 1990s.
Regional hangover cures abound. Migas and breakfast tacos aid those suffering in southeastern Texas. Angelenos swear by green juice (masochists) and Korean haejangguk, the name of which reportedly translates to “soup to chase a hangover.” In New York City, deli-wrapped bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches are considered pseudo-medicinal, and Michiganders award similar powers to coneys and Vernor’s Ginger Soda.
History’s unsung hangover cure is penne alla vodka, an Italian-American dish familiar to those in proximity to the red-checkered tablecloths of a Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Its origins are unknown and authenticity dubious, but its potential for hangover relief is enormous.
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“Penne alla vodka is a top-notch hangover cure,” Caryn Benke, beverage director of Ava Gene’s restaurant in Portland, Oregon, writes in an email. Ava Gene’s recently launched a monthly “Little Italy” dinner series celebrating nostalgic Italian-Americana, including vodka-sauced pastas.
“I have no idea as to the origins of the dish,” Benke adds. “If I had to guess I’d say it’s the classic story of a cook in a rush grabbing the wrong bottle (in this case vodka rather than wine or brodo) and actually liking the result of their mistake.”
There are several alternate theories. A legal lecturer named Paula Franzese claims her father, Neapolitan-born chef Luigi Franzese, invented penne alla vodka at a restaurant in New York City in the 1970s. Others say it hails from a restaurant called Dante in Bologna, Italy, possibly as a result of overzealous vodka distributors.
The essential vodka sauce recipe is fairly consistent. Garlic is sauteed in oil, and then you add chopped or canned tomatoes and a pour of vodka. After the mixture simmers on the stove top for a bit, you turn off the burner and stir in heavy cream and butter. There might be onions and red pepper flakes. Perhaps a spoonful of pasta water goes in with the cream. Some people top it with chicken. Others gild the lily with chunked prosciutto di Parma.
All are heavy, hearty affairs. Penne alla vodka is “rich in fats and carbohydrates, and is just the kind of food that will get you back in good spirits after spending a day in bed with Gatorade,” Benke says.
The jury is still out on whether fat does or does not alleviate hangover symptoms, but nutritionists agree carbohydrates are key to restoring blood sugar levels after excessive alcohol consumption.
Dr. Richard Stephens, leader of the Psychobiology Research Laboratory at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, and a member of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, has studied hangovers for more than 10 years. “The most effective hangover cures are ones that administer glucose,” he told The Atlantic. “In Britain, one of the most prevalent hangover cures is a big fried breakfast — fried eggs, sausages, baked beans, and all the rest … It probably does work because there are a lot of carbohydrates in that meal. And that will restore depleted sugar levels.” (“A fry-up DOES cure a hangover,” read one U.K. newspaper headline following Stephens’ interview.)
What penne alla vodka has over a full English “fry-up” is booze — enough that the Livestrong Foundation advises women to “avoid penne with vodka sauce while pregnant.” Recipes for vodka sauces typically contain approximately 1 ⅓ ounces of vodka per serving, food science specialist Shirley Perryman tells Livestrong. Most recipes call for the liquid to be very briefly simmered after the vodka is added, meaning only about 40 percent of the alcohol burns off during cooking.
Each serving of penne alla vodka thus contains approximately .84 ounces of vodka, equal to about half a cocktail, Perryman estimates. That is not an insignificant amount for someone seeking hair-of-the-dog relief. Think about how much better you feel after a few sips of a Bloody Mary the morning after a particularly enthusiastic night out. Then imagine that deliverance in the form of warm, creamy pasta.
Luckily, vodka sauce is a cinch to prepare. Purists say it’s best served immediately, and technically it is, but it will keep for up to three days covered in the refrigerator. As with all cream sauces, the best way to reheat it is gently in a saucepan, stirring occasionally. Keeping heat low prevents it from separating and the alcohol from burning off — though maybe the latter wouldn’t be such a big deal.
“This kind of dish will put you in the mood for a glass of wine,” Benke says. We feel better already.
Recipe: Penne Alla Vodka
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ medium-sized onion, finely chopped
- One 14.5-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
- Pinch dried red pepper
- ½ pound penne, preferably penne rigate
- ¾ cup pasta water, reserved during cooking
- 1 ½ ounces vodka (roughly equivalent to most commercial shot glasses)
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. (Don’t skip the salt. It will flavor your pasta and sauce.)
- As your water comes to a boil, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and stir with a wooden spoon. After four to five minutes, when the onion starts to soften but is not yet translucent, add the garlic, season with salt, and give it all a good stir. Cook until both are soft, stirring occasionally, about five more minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and their juices, plus red pepper flakes. Raise heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.
- Is the water boiling? Add the pasta. Cook about 10 minutes, until al dente. (Exact cooking time will depend on pasta brand and shape; start checking at the eight-minute mark.) When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain in a colander but reserve ¾ cup cooking water. This is enriched with starch from the pasta, and will go into your sauce.
- Add the vodka to the tomato mixture in your saucepan. Simmer 10 minutes.
- Remove saucepan from heat. Stir in heavy cream and butter until butter melts and both are evenly incorporated. Gradually add some reserved pasta water, starting with ¼ cup, until sauce reaches your desired consistency. (It should coat the back of the spoon.) Adjust seasonings.
- Toss sauce with pasta and fix yourself a bowl. If you have Parmesan on hand, grate or sprinkle some on top. You deserve it.
Cover illustration by Mara Kiggins