The general ingredient list for creamy, spicy vodka sauce is simple: tomato, onions, garlic, red pepper flakes, butter, cream, and vodka. Perhaps that’s part of why it’s so beloved. It’s the cashmere sweater of pasta dishes, as appropriate for date night as it is for an afternoon of Netflix and recovering from last night’s mistakes. It’s also one of the internet’s most viral meals, with #vodkasauce cultivating millions of views on TikTok alone. But despite its sweeping popularity, there’s one point of controversy when preparing the dish: When do you add the vodka?
Most recipes fall into two camps as to which step in which you should introduce the vodka to your sauce: before the other liquids in order to deglaze the plan, or as one of the final additions after the cream is incorporated to add gloss and weight. Those who are classically trained generally recommend the former method of adding the vodka early on. Herve Guillard, director of education at the Institute of Culinary Education in Los Angeles, adds the vodka immediately after reducing his tomatoes and alliums.
“Vodka sauce shouldn’t taste like vodka,” he says. “You’re adding it for smoothness and emulsion.” Adding it earlier on allows the alcohol to evaporate and blend into the background of the sauce. Once everything is simmered and reduced, he recommends adding the cream and cheese on low heat for proper emulsion, then stirring, seasoning, and incorporating the pasta.
“Adding the vodka too late can make the sauce taste harsh and could curdle the cream,” he adds.
There are many recipe developers, though, who hold the vodka until the tail end of the preparation. One of those people is Dan Pelosi, New York Times bestselling author of cookbook “Let’s Eat.” Pelosi, also known on his social accounts as GrossyPelosi, is largely responsible for the internet’s vodka sauce boom. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Pelosi posted his personal recipe to his Instagram, calling it “The Sawce.” His method began to spread, and thousands of people made the recipe and posted it to their own accounts.
“The Sawce really hit the world at a time when we needed it,” says Pelosi. “It’s a big bowl of comfort.”
In Pelosi’s recipe, the vodka is introduced after cream has been added. The reasoning behind that choice is the same as the former method: The vodka acts as an emulsifier, and the still alcohol cooks off.
“There’s a pretty solid 20 minutes from adding the vodka to ending the sauce,” Pelosi explains. Once it stops smelling like a “tomato Martini,” as Pelosi calls it, the alcohol has evaporated and it’s time to add the pasta water. Pelosi explains that adding vodka later in the process results in a glossier, thicker sauce.
“The vodka kind of brings it all together as the last piece before the pasta water,” he says. It’s a popular method for a reason: Pelosi’s recipe is famously stable and prevents curdling.
“I have a friend testing a bunch of vodka sauces right now, and she keeps saying, ‘Yours just does not separate!’” he says. This can also be owed to other components in Pelosi’s recipe, including a hearty helping of cream and a tomato component that comes in the form of tomato paste as opposed to the fresh or canned tomatoes used in Guillard’s recipe.
Ultimately, without bringing in the food scientists and a tasting panel for a showdown using the scientific method, it’s hard to crown a champion — and that’s not the point. Much like the perfect cashmere sweater, the best vodka sauce recipe is the one that works for you. If you tend to stick to one method, test the other one next time you turn the stove on and see what you prefer. Then invite friends (and us) over for a vodka sauce-off. To get you started, Pelosi’s recipe for The Sawce, featured in “Let’s Eat,” is below.
“It’s inappropriately thick and illegally glossy,” he says, “but it also tastes exactly how comfort feels.”
Grossy’s Vodka Sawce
Makes about 3 cups
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
- 3 garlic cloves, grated
- 6 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 pound rigatoni
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons vodka
- Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, for serving
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, combine the olive oil, butter, and a pinch of pepper flakes (if using). Cook, whisking to blend the fats together while the butter is melting. Add the garlic and tomato paste. Whisk until the tomato paste is deep red, about 3 minutes.
- Add the rigatoni to the boiling water and cook until al dente according to the package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain.
- As soon as the pasta hits the water, add the heavy cream to the skillet and continue whisking until the cream is fully incorporated and the sauce color goes from neon orange to pumpkin spice, about 5 minutes. Add the vodka to the sauce and notice the smell of a tomato Martini fill your kitchen. Cook, continuing to whisk, until the alcohol cooks out, the Martini smell is gone, and the sauce is perfectly smooth, about 5 minutes more.
- Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the sauce. Continue to simmer and whisk until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon without sliding off, about 20 minutes. (It is absolutely worth the wait.)
- Add the pasta to the sauce and stir until coated and glossy. Divide among plates, top with Parmesan, and serve.
Any non-dairy cream and butter will work great in this recipe for an easy vegan version. If you’re planning to reheat leftovers later, make sure you nab an extra cup of pasta water now! Save the water in the fridge and when it’s time, add a couple splashes to the pot as you warm the pasta.
Reprinted with permission from “Let’s Eat: 101 Recipes to Fill Your Heart & Home” by Dan Pelosi © 2023. Published by Union Square & Co.