What is Italian Vodka Sauce Really?

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vodka sauce

Due to growing up with Italian pasta sauces that rarely varied from a basic marinara meat sauce, the idea of a vodka sauce just didn’t sound right.  Frank on the other hand likes vodka sauce so I tried from a jar and sure enough… I didn’t like it.

That was awhile ago and we decided to try it again a few weeks ago, this time we tried the Simply Enjoy brand at Martins.  This time I enjoyed it as it didn’t seem to be overpowered by cheesy flavor.

There are many companies that offer vodka sauce as shown in the image to the right.

Main Ingredients

As with most good Italian recipes, the key is simplicity and avoiding such a mix of ingredients that you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to be tasting.

Vodka sauce is no different.  The most common ingredients I found used were:

Tomatoes (fresh or canned) –

some suggested using canned whole tomatoes and then blending them down.  I wouldn’t get diced, but instead pureed.

The advantage to getting whole tomatoes is that they are often sold as the Italian plum tomatoes or the San Marzano tomatoes which I recently wrote a post on.

If you don’t want to use a food mill, just use something like the Nutri Bullet (I’ll soon be writing about this new addition to our family) or any blender or electric food processor.


– This ingredient is the reason why the color of the sauce is not the typical Italian red, but instead a toned down red, or orange.   Being a novice in this area I was always curious why  the color change – now I know and so do you!

Most recipes call for heavy cream.   My problem is I want to cut calories where I can.  So I would prefer to use half and half, in addition it doesn’t have the proteins that wreak havoc on my joints.

I’d probably add some butter for added richness and maybe a pinch of cornstarch to thicken it just a bit.


– Typically the vodka is added in with the tomatoes and cooked down.   This not only blends the flavors throughout the tomatoes, but it also cooks out the alcohol.

However, I did come across one recipe that talked about how they got their recipe from a relative that loved this amazing homemade sauce and passed it down.   When reading the instructions, I noticed they added the vodka right before serving the pasta!   Yeah, I guess I’d love that recipe too!


– Adding in Parmesan cheese was also a common ingredient.   I find some sauces/recipes which added more than others.   For me, it’s personal preference.  If you want it with more cheese flavor then add more, if not add less.  The good thing is you can always adjust it.


– I was surprised to see that basil was frequently used in these recipes as I’ve never tasted  basil in any of the sauces I purchased.  Italian parsley was also commonly used, and even one recipe from Ciao Italia used capers!  I’d be curious to see how that rounds out the flavor.

And those are your main ingredients!   Not much different than a regular pasta sauce really.   You still saute the garlic, onions, etc. as you normally would and then add in the ingredients and simmer until cooked (usually 30 minutes or so).  One recipe also called for pancetta, but did admit it changes the flavor to such a degree it could go by another name.

The History of Vodka

Although I certainly am not devoting my life to the study of Italian vodka sauce, it is very clear that the general assumption is that it isn’t an authentic Italian recipe passed down through many generations having roots in some famous or not so famous Italian city destined to be the next tourist attraction.

My proof that Vodka sauce did not originate in Italy?  There is no town, province or region named Vodka!

It appears that it was sometime during the 70’s that the recipe was showcased in a New York Restaurant.  Whether the recipe was invented there or not who knows.

From then on, recipes have been created and modified – just take a look from Paul Newman’s to Prego or Rao’s as shown above.  Even I’m taking a stab at making my own version.

Recipe themes

What to do with a vodka sauce?   Obviously use it with pasta, but don’t worry as to what shape of pasta.  I’ve seen it served with both long and short.

I’ve also seen here in a NY food journal, a restaurant which makes (at the time of their article/review) a pizza with this sauce!

I wouldn’t suggest adding vegetables, but shrimp seems to be a frequent visitor to the pasta with vodka sauce plate. This I can see tasting very good, more so than with chicken – but again personal preference.

I personally think that this type of sauce would make for an excellent baked recipe.  Considering a baked pasta dish is tomato sauce and ricotta cheese, the similarities are there, but different enough that they would taste completely different!

When I create my own recipe, I’ll let you know.  I’m hoping it will be soon and I’ll keep you posted!



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