I’ve come to accept that not every ingredient has to have a purpose. Take red velvet cake for example: it doesn’t need to be red, but without all that food coloring, would it feel just as delightful? Or a decorative sprig of parsley nestled at the edge of the plate, which instantly makes anything look like it’s worthy of the grand dining room at the Waldorf Astoria.
But there is one ingredient that, when coming across it in recipes, has made me ask why: vodka, especially when it shows up in sauces. Vodka’s purpose isn’t clear, because A) it’s neutral, B) it’s typically added in such small quantities that it barely provides any alcoholic bite, and C) much of that alcohol is evaporated off by heat, anyway. So what’s the use?
As it turns out, the reasons against adding vodka to sauce actually provide clues as to why it can be a big benefit. This article from Fine Cooking helps explain: alcohol is a great solvent for aromatic compounds. It’s also volatile and evaporates easily, so as its particles drift into the air, they carry those aromas with them. As you chew, that translates into more flavors that reach the back of your mouth, creating a heightened sense of complexity. At high concentrations, alcohol’s sting can overwhelm these flavors, but in small volumes, that sensation is balanced and pleasant.
Additionally, alcohol has a magical emulsifying ability, bonding with both water and fat, encouraging the two to coexist smoothly. In recipes like penne alla vodka, it helps the sauce become a creamier, tomato-ier, more cohesive whole. You could use wine or other alcohols that would impart their own distinctive flavors, but in a rich sauce like that it’s not entirely necessary.
So I’m sorry, vodka, for ever doubting your place. Carry on and keep doing your thing, the way you do in these recipes.
1. Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola (Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce)
How does tomato sauce on pasta go from being basic to sublime? By adding garlic, cream, and a generous shake of cheese (plus vodka, of course, to make it all the more amazing). Get the recipe here.
2. Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Vodka Sauce
Not in the mood for a tomato-vodka sauce that’s heavy and filling? This version keeps things lighter and looser, with slightly wilted grape tomatoes that give spread out bursts of flavor. Get Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Vodka Sauce recipe.
4. Pizza with Vodka Sauce, Parmesan and Arugula
There’s also way more to tomato-vodka’s potential than just as a coating for pasta. Plop it on a pie with greens and sharp cheese for a pizza with extra bite and zest to it. Get the recipe here.
3. Seared Scallops with Lemon and Vodka
Vodka can also help lemon and cream come together in a silky sauce that works brilliantly on seafood and pasta. Get our Seared Scallops with Lemon and Vodka recipe.
5. Chocolate Ganache Tart
Alcohol can even add its magic to sweet dessert sauces, helping fruit and spice flavors reach new heights. Here, it adds extra depth to the cherry-vanilla-vodka compote that’s served alongside this tart. Get our Chocolate Ganache Tart recipe.
Header image: Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Vodka Sauce from Chowhound
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.