What Is Vodka Sauce? A Pasta Sauce Primer

Vodka sauce really had a moment during the pandemic. Why? Because of Gigi Hadid and that little internet phenomenon we call TikTok. But even people who have heard of vodka sauce often don’t know what’s in it or why it’s called vodka sauce since it kind of just looks like an orange-ish, pink-ish mix of tomato and alfredo.

And if you’ve never heard of vodka sauce, you may have even more questions. Namely, what is vodka sauce? Is it Italian or Russian? Has there seriously been a way to get drunk on pasta sauce this whole time and I’m only just now hearing about it? First thing’s first …

What is Vodka Sauce?

So, at its base, it’s truly just plain ol’ oniony, garlicky, tomato sauce plus heavy cream. Then you add some vodka in and cook it off to add a little of that depth of flavor good good that only cooked-off alcohol can provide. And that’s really all it is. Obviously, people spice it up (Gigi Hadid literally does with crushed red pepper), but it’s actually such a simple sauce, available at most grocery stores. And for as simple as it is, it is SO delicious. You get the umami kick from the tomato, the heavy cream gives it the illusion of cheesiness, and the vodka gives it that slightly sweet, slightly tangy, slightly earthy je ne sais quoi.

Where is Vodka Sauce from?

Great question. The answer is: “Italy?” It’s apparently a debatable topic given that both Italians and New Yorkers have laid claim to the creation of this sauce. The general consensus is that it originated in Italy in the ’70s, then spread to New York City, where it was popularized by a couple of different chefs in the ’80s. The point is, as a pasta sauce, it’s relatively new, which I never would’ve guessed given its simplicity but, hey, good art takes time, I guess. Even if that art is a simple deliciously pink sauce (not to be confused with pink sauce pink sauce).

What does the vodka do in Vodka Sauce? Does it make the sauce loosen up a bit and ultimately make slightly worse choices that night? 

Turns out, according to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the vodka makes a huge difference in the sauce (and not just in regard to its ability to say the alphabet backwards, touch its nose, or walk in a straight line). When Lopez-Alt added the vodka (versus not adding it, which some people opt to do) to test if it made any difference at all, it actually “enhanced the fruity aroma of the sauce while bringing a background heat and sharpness that balanced out the richness of the sauce.” I mean…yeah. I’m sold. Not that I wasn’t sold already. And, hey, if you want to try a store bought version before you commit to cooking it at home, we have thoughts on the best vodka sauce you can buy.

About the Author

Jessica Block

Jessica Block is a freelance contributor to Sporked, a comedian, a baker, a food writer, and a firm believer that Trader Joe's may just be the happiest place on earth. She loves spicy snacks, Oreos, baking bread, teeny tiny avocados, and trying new foods whenever she can. Also, if you give her a bag of Takis she will be your best friend.

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