Pasta alla vodka was never part of my Italian-American-restaurant repertoire as a kid — I’d go for the aglio e olio instead (or, if given the opportunity, a cheese calzone with a dish of marinara for dunking). As an adult, though, vodka sauce speaks to me: creamy, spicy, tomatoey, and a bump up from macaroni and cheese and arguably easier to make. I wanted a version that was creamy without being heavy or gloppy, rich without being cheese-laden, and with a deep, intense tomato flavor. Keep a spot in your heart for your local red-sauce standby’s vodka sauce — but try this one, too.
Caramelized Tomato Paste Is the Secret to Better Vodka Sauce
The sauce starts with yellow onion, which you’ll mince especially finely to keep the sauce’s texture creamy rather than chunky (you could even pulse the onion until very finely chopped in the food processor). The onion, along with the garlic and chile flakes, are added to cold, not preheated, olive oil to keep the aromatics from burning — and infuse the oil with flavor and heat as they soften.
To get a super-tomatoey flavor without having to wait and wait for canned or fresh tomatoes to reduce, you’ll add a can of tomato paste to the hot oil (later, you’ll add starchy, clingy pasta-cooking water to thin the sauce until it coats the pasta). Sauté the paste in the oil until it’s blushed several shades deeper, caramelizing the sugars, and then it’s time for that eponymous vodka, which doesn’t just deglaze the tomatoey pan — it gives a sharpness and a sweetness to the sauce and, working in its mysterious ways, helps to emphasize the tomato flavor, like adding a handful of exclamation points.
Creamy Vodka Sauce — Without the Cream
What about the requisite creaminess? Here, we’re skipping the usual heavy cream in favor of crème fraîche and stirring it right into the caramelized tomato mixture. Tangy and buttery, crème fraîche is hardly part of the Italian larder, but it sings here, melting easily into the tomato mixture and lending velvety-ness without diluting the intensity of the tomato flavor in the way cream would.
And even before you started all this sauce, you cooked the pasta to a couple of minutes shy of al dente, and it’s waiting for you in a colander by the sink. Add some of that pasta water you reserved, fold in the pasta, and cook until the pasta’s tender — it’ll soak up some of the sauce as it goes.
- 1 pound
dried penne or rigatoni pasta
medium yellow onion
- 5 cloves
- 1/4 cup
extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon
red pepper flakes, plus more for serving
- 1 (6-ounce) can
- 1/4 cup
- 1/4 cup
Fresh basil leaves, for serving (optional)
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add 1 pound penne or rigatoni pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until very al dente, 2 to 3 minutes shorter than the package directions. Meanwhile, finely chop 1 medium yellow onion and mince 5 garlic cloves.
Reserve 2 cups of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and set aside.
Return the emptied pasta pot to the stove over a medium flame and add the onion, garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring frequently, until completely soft, about 10 minutes. If the onions start to brown, lower the heat. Stir in a 6-ounce can of tomato paste and increase the heat to high. Stir almost constantly until the tomato paste has turned deep red and is very thick and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, then add 1/4 cup vodka and stir until incorporated. Stir in 1/4 cup crème fraîche. Add 1 1/2 cups of the reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Add the pasta, toss to combine, and increase the heat to medium. Continue to toss until the sauce thickens slightly, and the pasta is cooked through and coated with a silky layer of sauce, about 3 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add some of the remaining 1/2 cup pasta water to thin it out if needed. Taste and season with more salt and red pepper flakes as needed. Serve immediately, topped with torn fresh basil leaves if desired.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 3 days.
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