Penne alla Vodka

penne vodka

I think the thing that appeals to me most about this recipe is that I can cook it in the oven instead of having to keep a watchful eye over the stove. If you’ve ever tried to make a home-made tomato sauce, you’re probably familiar with simmer, stir, simmer, stir, simmer, simmer, stir, stir. Not this one! You simply start it on the stove top and then transfer it to a nice, hot oven for 1 ½ hours while you get to sit back and relax (or unload the dishes, maybe play a little Wii, whatever floats your boat). After that, you puree it with an immersion blender and stir in some cream- Done!

I  like to stir in some shredded chicken, either leftovers from roasted chicken breast, or from a store-bought rotisserie chicken (cheater, cheater- I know). That way it adds some protein, and relieves some of the guilt that I feel about eating a creamy pasta sauce.

The sauce is also really good without any cream added (although it’s no longer a traditional vodka sauce if you do that), but I would definitely tone down the spice if you’re not cutting it with any cream. I also made some little baguettes with dinner, but forgot to take pictures of them, so that recipe will have to wait for another day…

Penne alla Vodka (+ Chicken) – Adapted from Barefoot Contessa

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Special Equipment – Immersion blender or food processor

  • 1-2 Tbsp olive oil (enough to saute an onion with)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes* (see notes)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound penne pasta
  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano (optional)
  • Up to 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 c grated Parmesan Cheese, plus extra for topping your pasta
  • 1 to 2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (optional)

1. Heat oil over medium/med-high heat in a large oven-safe pot, swirl around to cover the bottom of your pan. Add onion and sauté until translucent, but not brown (about 5 minutes) . Add garlic and cook stirring until fragrant (about a minute).

2. Add red pepper flakes and dried oregano, cook while stirring for another minute. Add the vodka and cook until it is reduced by half.

3. While the vodka is cooking (or before you start at all), drain your tomatoes. Once the vodka is reduced by half, add tomatoes to the pan. Using a spoon, smash/break them up so they are no longer whole. (Be careful- they squirt!) Add 2 tsp salt and a few grinds of black pepper, then cover and put the pan in the oven for 1 ½ hours.

4. When there is about 30 minutes left, bring salted water to a boil; cook & drain your pasta.

5. After your 1 ½ hours has passed, carefully remove the pan from the oven (remember that it’s hot you will need oven mits!) and let sit for about 15 minutes to cool. It might look like it has dried out, but don’t worry! Once you puree the sauce it’ll look normal 🙂

6. Puree the sauce either with an immersion blender or very carefully in a blender or food processor (in batches). *see tips below

7. Reheat the sauce over low. Once warm, add enough cream to make the sauce “creamy” (I am usually skimpy with the cream, for my waist’s sake, adding just enough to bring it to a pretty pink color) and fresh oregano. This is where I would also stir in warmed, shredded chicken. Let cook for a couple minutes, then stir in ½ cup of grated parmesan cheese. Taste & adjust seasoning as necessary.


*To keep this dish vegetarian-friendly – just leave the chicken out!

*The ½ tsp of red pepper flakes doesn’t seem like much, but it really does spice up the sauce quite a bit, so if you aren’t a fan of spicy food you may want to put in less or just omit it altogether. 

*While an immersion blender is easiest, (because you can do it right in the pot), you may also use a regular blender or food processor. I don’t recommend using a blender, since the steam/heat can mess with the vacuum it creates, but if it’s all you’ve got then go for it. Just be careful! After pureeing, return the sauce to the pan and continue to the next step.

*If you want a chunkier sauce, just puree half of the sauce and stir it into the rest of the sauce.

*If you know you’re going to end up with a ton of extra sauce, before you add the cream, pour some into a container and put it in the fridge. Once cool, transfer to a labeled freezer-safe plastic bag and throw it in the freezer. You can just reheat it when you’re ready! Remember to adjust remaining ingredients as necessary.

*If the sauce tastes a little flat, try adding a couple teaspoons of balsamic vinegar or sugar.

*If you don’t have any fresh oregano (which I never do, unless I plan ahead of time to make this), you can either substitute 3-4 tsp of dried oregano for the 4 Tbsp fresh, or just skip it altogether.

*If you’re preparing this in advance, stop just after pureeing (before adding the cream) and refrigerate. When you’re ready to serve, reheat over low/medium-low (with chicken, if using) in a covered pot. Once warm, add the cream and cheese.