Singing the praises of vodka sauce

 Penne alla vodka

With all of the negative news that streams across our news feeds on a daily basis (the latest is a series of devastating fires in the Napa and Sonoma regions of California), some of us find comfort in cooking and baking. A few dishes reign supreme when it comes to comfort food, few things fit the bill better than pasta. One favorite in our household is pasta with vodka sauce. Pasta purists deride this dish as being inauthentic. But as Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite write, when properly made, vodka sauce is "soul-soothingly delicious, with a tangy lushness and just enough of a chile-pepper pop to make you want to keep eating it."

One of the reasons pasta alla vodka is the subject of scorn may have to do with its lackluster origin story, say Raisfeld and Patronite. As with most dishes, it is difficult to ascertain exactly when this combination of tomato sauce, cream, vodka, and crushed red pepper flakes came to fruition. Some believe it was a vodka company marketing scheme dating to the late 1970s. Others peg its invention to Bologna while a different story has it starting in New York City. None of these anecdotes can be confirmed, and none is particularly romantic or exciting.

Vodka sauce is an amalgamation of northern and southern Italian tastes: cream sauces are abundant in the north while tomatoes rule in the south. Some believe combining cream and tomato in a sauce borders on blasphemous, but the dish's continued popularity proves that most people find no fault with this marriage. 

You may be surprised to learn that in many restaurants, pasta alla vodka sauce contains no actual vodka.  "I tried the recipe with varying amounts of vodka in it and it didn't do anything," says chef Mario Carbone. That view is contradicted by J. Kenji López-Alt. His research, which relied in part on Harold McGee's pioneering work, showed that the vodka indeed contributes to the sauce's flavor and aroma.

Photo of Penne alla vodka with chicken from The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt

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