Penne alla vodka is a classic Italian dish. Bursting with tomatoes, and perfectly offset with vodka and cream, this will be a family favorite!
The end of September brings not only the beginning of Fall, but also the end of fresh tomato season here in British Columbia. I decided to use the last batch of fresh tomatoes I had in this vodka sauce. I am so glad I did, because this is quite possibly the best pasta I have ever made. While the bacon and cream used in this recipe definitely make this meal a treat, it is definitely worth it!
How to Make the Best Classic Penne Alla Vodka
While this recipe is simple, I have discovered after many trials of this recipe that it is important to add each ingredient in the correct order. Although the full recipe details are available below, I have outlined each step in greater depth here.
First, you will cook the bacon pieces to just before crispy.
Next, you will add the onions to the skillet and cook them with the bacon until the onions are soft.
Then you will add vodka to the skillet. It is important to do this at this point in the cooking process because it will release the flavors from the tomatoes in the next step. The alcohol evaporates at this stage and is also believed to help emulsify the water and fats from the various ingredients in the sauce.
Now you will add the tomatoes to the skillet. As part of the cooking process, the tomatoes will break down and become absorbed to into the liquid in the skillet to form the base of the sauce.
Finally, you will add the red pepper flakes and cream to the sauce. You will cook until the cream starts to thicken the sauce, stirring frequently to ensure it does not burn to the bottom of the pan. Check the sauce to see if it needs more salt or added pepper. Because of the salt content in the bacon, I recommend adding salt in small amounts and tasting after adding each time to ensure you don't overdo it!
Considerations for the Pasta
Here are some key things to consider when making pasta and adding it to a skillet sauce.
When cooking the pasta, be sure to add salt to the water in the pot. This is important because it adds flavor to the water, which is then absorbed by the pasta as it cooks.
Cook the pasta to just before al dente in the pot. At this point, you want to transfer the pasta to the sauce in the skillet to finish the cooking process. This is because the pasta will continue to stretch and cook while in the sauce, allowing it to absorb more of the flavor. It also increases the likelihood that the sauce will stick to the pasta.
Before draining the pasta, reserve some of the water from the pot to add to the sauce. This is because the pasta releases some of its starch in the cooking process. This starchy water helps to thicken your sauce and also helps it to stick to the pasta. Reserve up to 1 cup of the pasta water and add it little by little to your sauce. Toss the sauce after each addition of pasta water until you get the creamy texture you're after. I typically use 1/4 to 1/3 cup of reserved pasta water in my sauces.
1/2 large white onion, sliced (approximately 2 cups)
1 cup vodka
4 vine ripened tomatoes, sliced into wedges and halved (approximately 4 cups)
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into wedges and halved (approximately 2 cups)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
237ml container of heavy cream
grated parmesan and sliced basil, for serving
Heat a large non-stick skillet on medium-high heat. Add olive oil and sliced bacon. Cook until bacon is starting to crisp a little, approximately 4 minutes. At this point, start boiling the salted water for the pasta in a separate pot.
Add the onions to the skillet and cook until soft, approximately 3 minutes. Turn heat to medium-low and add the vodka, cook until the vodka starts to evaporate, approximately 3 minutes. Add penne to the boiling salted water in the pot.
Add the tomatoes to the skillet and return heat to medium. Cook the tomatoes until they start to disintegrate into the ingredients in the pan, approximately 5 minutes.
Add the red pepper flakes and cream to the skillet and stir to combine. Check the sauce to see if it needs salt or pepper to be added. Cook until the cream starts to thicken, approximately 4 minutes. At this point, the penne should be cooked to just before al dente. Save approximately 1 cup of pasta water (you likely won’t use it all). Drain the pasta and add to the skillet.
Cook the pasta in the sauce in the skillet until the pasta is ready, approximately 2 minutes if cooking to al dente, more if you want soft pasta. Add a small amount of reserved pasta water if needed to help the sauce stick to the pasta. I typically add 1/3 cup at first and then will add more if needed.
Scoop into a bowl, top with grated parmesan cheese and chopped basil and serve.