Ina Garten’s Upgrade for Penne alla Vodka Is Almost as Good as a Trip to Italy

Penne alla vodka is one of those dishes that almost doesn’t make sense. How does a handful of simple ingredients transform into a sauce with such a wonderful flavor? While I file this classic dish under the same category as pizza in that even a bad version still tastes OK, Ina Garten’s rendition stands out for its rich, intense taste.

Although Ina’s recipe calls for all the ingredients you’d expect in a vodka sauce, her method might surprise you. At first glance, I was a bit confused by her approach. Vodka sauce usually comes together quickly, but the cooking time listed in her recipe was well over two hours. I should have known better than to doubt Ina for a second; the secret to her sauce is a nice long roast in the oven. 

A Simple Technique Makes Perfect Penne alla Vodka

What excites me most about this recipe is that it borrows a technique from one of my favorite Ina Garten dishes, her Roasted Tomato Soup. Just like the magic that happens in the soup recipe, roasting the sauce develops a depth of flavor that can’t be replicated on the stovetop, making the tomatoes almost candy-sweet.

Ina credits this recipe to one of her favorite eateries in the Hamptons, Nick & Toni’s. If you share my lifelong goal of dining with Ina, making this dreamy vodka sauce at home is the next best thing.

Simply Recipes / Alison Bickel

How To Make Ina Garten’s Penne alla Vodka

First, sauté yellow onions in good olive oil until translucent. Then add garlic, crushed red pepper, and dried oregano to the party to allow the flavors to infuse the oil. Next, pour in the vodka. This is where a lot of the magic happens.

Vodka is an excellent vehicle for dispersing flavor. Working like the conductor of a symphony, the vodka highlights all the best flavors of the sauce, while turning the volume down on undesirable ones, like acidity from the tomatoes. It also helps the sauce emulsify once you stir in the cream, keeping it silky rather than curdled and grainy.

In a pinch, you can substitute white wine or another type of clear alcohol, but vodka’s neutral flavor is best in this dish. After the alcohol cooks off, you won’t be left with any lingering flavors from the booze, which can muddy the final sauce. 

Once the vodka’s alcohol aroma dissipates, it’s time to add the tomatoes. Ina calls for whole peeled tomatoes (two 28-ounce cans to be exact), but she drains them first and then crushes them by hand. You can save the tomato juice to thin out the sauce when finishing the dish, or use it for another recipe like minestrone soup.

After the tomatoes are on board, season the sauce well with salt and pepper.

Here is where the real magic happens: Cover the pan, and slide it into the oven for a nice long roast of about an hour and a half. During this time the flavor and sweetness of the tomatoes concentrate, and the sauce thickens dramatically.

When the tomatoes are cooked down, blend the sauce until smooth and return it to the pot where you’ll add heavy cream to balance out its flavor and add richness. This also turns the brick-red sauce the irresistible pink hue of classic penne alla vodka. 

At this stage, toss in al dente penne to finish cooking in the sauce, which infuses every noodle with the flavor you built up in the oven. Finally, grate a flurry of Parmesan into the sauce to round out the dish. The sharp cheese melts into the sauce, imparting a rich umami note. While this method adds on a bit of extra time, the proof is in the penne. It’s worth making a double batch here so you can save half to stock your freezer. Now that’s my kind of meal prep! 

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Cee Gei
Author: Cee Gei

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