Brow Beat

You’re Doing It Wrong: Tomato Sauce

Not penne, but tortiglioni alla vodka

L.V. Anderson for Slate

When you’re making pizza or lasagna, your formula for tomato sauce is so basic you don’t really need a recipe: sauté chopped onion and garlic in a little olive oil, add chopped or diced tomatoes, simmer until thick, la fine. Additional ingredients are unnecessary, because your sauce is destined to be layered with other exciting, flavorful foodstuffs, like vegetables, meat, herbs, and cheese.

This is not the case when you plan to toss tomato sauce with plain pasta. Pairing minimalist tomato sauce with spaghetti can make a decent meal if all the ingredients are excellent. But even then it’s a rather Spartan dish without the bolstering benefits of fat and protein. Such asceticism, tolerable in summer—when one has the advantage of garden-fresh paste tomatoes—simply won’t do in winter, when your best fruit option is canned San Marzanos (or underbred, but BPA-free, boxed tomatoes).


There is a better wintertime way to make pasta and tomato sauce, and it depends on vodka—which heightens the flavor of the tomatoes—as well as cream, butter, and Parmesan cheese. Pasta alla vodka is especially good to remember in early January, because it is one of the best things to eat when you are hung over, combining, as it does, many remedies for the effects of heavy drinking: butterfat, starch, spiciness (thanks to a few pinches of red pepper flakes), and hair of the dog. (Granted, most of the alcohol in the vodka burns off in the cooking process, but some of its calming effects remain.) And with all its butter, cream, and cheese, there may be no better way to celebrate our nation’s narrow escape from the edge of the dairy cliff.


The origins of this brilliant tomato-dairy-alcohol amalgamation are murky; both Americans and Italians have claimed the mantle of inventor. It may have gained popularity in Italy when vodka distillers foisted the recipe on unsuspecting chefs in the 1970s, and then hit it big in the U.S. during the next decade, when Americans were snookered by its multi-culti charm. Regardless of its genesis, vodka sauce refuses to die, probably because it makes the simplest food feel opulent. It’s the Rihanna of homemade meals: not subtle, but surprisingly comforting.


I prefer a coarse sauce, but if you insist on a smooth texture, processing the sauce with an immersion blender before tossing it with the pasta will do the trick. As for the pasta, penne is the traditional cut served alla vodka, but other tubes—like the pleasingly right-angled tortiglioni in the picture above—grab the sauce just as well.


Penne Alla Vodka
Yield: 6 servings
Time: About 45 minutes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt and black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
One 26-ounce box or 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 pound penne or other tubular cut pasta
¼ cup vodka
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish


1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and tomatoes, adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.


2. When the water comes to a boil, salt it generously and add the pasta. Add the vodka to the tomato mixture, and continue cooking until thick and saucy, another 10 to 15 minutes. Stir the cream and butter into the tomato sauce, and turn off the heat.

3. When the pasta is al dente—usually after 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the package instructions—scoop about a cup of its cooking liquid out of the pot, and then drain the pasta. Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding the reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin out the sauce. Add the Parmesan, toss again, and serve hot, garnished with more Parmesan.

Previously in You’re Doing It Wrong:
Cheese Puffs
Hot Chocolate
Macaroni and Cheese
Black-Eyed Peas