Pasta with vodka sauce is undeniably delicious, but does it make sense? To put vodka in a pan with tomatoes and cream in the first place, especially when all the alcohol cooks out? I’ve come to accept that not every ingredient has to have a purpose, but there actually are good reasons for adding vodka to pasta sauce—read on to learn what they are.
As for other ingredients that really don’t “need” to be there, 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? Doubtful; it would just be an ordinary cake. Or consider 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. Take it away and your dinner loses a little sparkle.
But whenever I’ve come across vodka in recipes (cocktails excluded, of course), it’s always made me ask why, without an obvious, instinctual answer immediately occurring to me, 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?
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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.
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 Ina Garten’s Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola (Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce) recipe.
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 our Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Vodka Sauce recipe.
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 Pizza with Vodka Sauce, Parmesan and Arugula recipe.
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.
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 rich ganache tart. Get our Chocolate Ganache Tart recipe.
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