A recipe for Tomato Vodka Sauce printed on the New York Times cooking site caught my eye recently. I had all the ingredients except the vodka and cream. Then it occurred to me that I bought a bottle of vodka some while ago, when I intended to make an orange-vanilla ricotta cheesecake, but never did.
As to the cream, the recipe called for the high octane variety—whipping cream—and all I had was half and half. Searching the Internet, I found some questions over the traditional use of whole cream. Was it too heavy? Could you achieve a silky sauce using just light cream? I looked until I found a recipe that settled for half and half. I was in business without a trip to the store.
But as I poked around the online comments about tomato-vodka sauce, I found more questions. Was the use of vodka just an advertising ploy of the 80’s to sell more of the odorless, tasteless alcohol? Or was it a secret ingredient used in Italian sauces for decades? Does the vodka inclusion make that much difference and, if so, should it be added early or late in the cooking process? Wouldn’t wine do just as well? Does the alcohol content dissipate or does some linger? But the favorite speculation I came upon: Is the name of the recipe just a way to make a pinkish sauce more appealing to men?
A Flavor Booster
I read that vodka enhances tomatoes by allowing them to release additional flavor. With that in mind, I pushed aside my other concerns. Mid-way through cooking my sauce, I grabbed the bottle of vodka and poured 1/3 cup in the pot. After about 20 minutes, I pureed the mixture with my stick blender before adding the cream—I mean half and half.
Cook Once; Eat Twice
I found, too, that the sauce can be frozen. But don’t freeze the cooked sauce until it’s at room temperature and thaw it in the refrigerator before warming atop the stove. The sauce may break apart at first, but will re-blend as it warms.
Tomato Vodka Sauce
- 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
- 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
- ⅓ cup vodka
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- fresh black pepper, to taste
- 16 oz. penne pasta
- ¼ cup fresh chopped basil
- ½ cup half and half (or whole cream, if you prefer)
- 2 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese
- In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes and vodka and continue cooking for 5-7 minutes until slightly reduced, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper. Put heat on low and simmer partially covered for 20 minutes until reduced by half, stirring occasionally.
- Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- Transfer tomato mixture to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Return sauce to pan along with basil and half and half, adding more if needed. Cook until warmed through, about 3 minutes. Stir in parmesan cheese and cooked pasta. Toss to combine.
- Serve with additional parmesan cheese and basil.
Kitchen Tip: When it comes to tomato sauces, I usually add a tablespoons of butter and a bit of sugar to the sauce, but that’s a matter of personal preference.