What Does Vodka Actually Do When Added To Pasta Sauce?

Plate of penne alla vodka
Plate of penne alla vodka - Bhofack2/Getty Images

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Going purely on instinct, you likely wouldn't think to use vodka, a decidedly un-Italian spirit, in a pasta dish. Yet somehow, these two seemingly disparate ingredients have been working hand-in-hand in penne alla vodka since it became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. However, if you too have wondered what role vodka plays when added to this popular pasta sauce, you are not alone.

It turns out, vodka is contributing something important to the sauce. Chef Stephen Cusato, who is a social media sensation, shares the reasoning on his popular YouTube channel. (Cusato cites Harold McGee, a well-known food science writer who covered the topic in his book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen".)

"If you just add vodka to something, it's going to overpower it," Cusato explained. "But just like anything, when you reduce [the vodka] down, it's going to enhance flavors that weren't there to begin with" and will subsequently "work with the tomatoes to make them more 'tomato-ey.'" Essentially, the vodka ensures the flavors from ingredients like tomato come out even stronger than they otherwise might have. Interesting. But there's even more to know about the science behind penne alla vodka.

Read more: The Ultimate Vodka Brands, Ranked

How Does Vodka Elevate Your Pasta Sauce?

Chef holding pan of pasta in vodka sauce
Chef holding pan of pasta in vodka sauce - Miniseries/Getty Images

There are two reasons why adding vodka can elevate your creamy tomato pasta sauce. First is that it acts as an emulsifier to smoothly combine the acidity of the tomatoes with the rich, fatty cream, which may otherwise separate when used together. Adding the spirit helps achieve the perfectly creamy texture of vodka sauce. At this point, you might be wondering whether other types of alcohol could be used for this purpose. While the answer is yes, vodka has a distinct advantage over other kinds when used in this application, as it has the least distinctive flavor profile.

The second reason is that when vodka is added in small amounts, the alcohol is known to unleash a bouquet of flavors in the tomatoes that often remain untapped. It is key to remember that smaller is better in this instance, as pointed out by Chef Stephen Cusato in his tutorial. So be sure not to overdo it with the vodka.

How To Make The Best Kind Of Vodka Sauce

Pasta in vodka sauce
Pasta in vodka sauce - Ezumeimages/Getty Images

Chef and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt tested out various ways to incorporate vodka in vodka cream sauce to find the most delicious way possible. He tested versions of the sauce that ranged from 4% to 1% ABV (alcohol by volume), and he tried tasting the sauce at different points in the cooking process. He concluded in Serious Eats: "For the tastiest vodka sauce, add ¼ cup vodka per quart of sauce and let it simmer seven minutes." Otherwise, the alcohol hasn't dissipated and tastes too strong. Another tip recommended by chef Stephen Cusato in the YouTube video is to make sure you first reduce the tomatoes until they are highly concentrated (which takes about 30 minutes).

So while vodka does indeed add something to the sauce, keep in mind the most important rules: Don't use too much, and let it cook long enough to develop the flavors and dissipate the alcohol.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.