Giada De Laurentiis' Vodka Sauce Starts With A Store-Bought Base

So many Italian pasta dishes start with a base of classic tomato sauce, or sugo di pomodoro in Italian. A slowly-simmered, rich tomato sauce provides the perfect balance of depth, fruitiness, sweetness, and acidity, and can be changed up to create a number of different variations, from spicy arrabbiata and boldly-flavored puttanesca to pasta alla norma and pasta alla vodka.

The latter dish, consisting of pasta (often penne) coated in a rich, creamy, vodka-spiked tomato sauce, is full of flavor and packs a punch, thanks to the hit of booze. But if you want to cook this classic comfort food fast, without chopping onions, garlic, and other vegetables and then cooking the sauce slowly, celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis has a super-easy shortcut: use store-bought marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce is one of the most delicious pasta sauces, while also being one of the simplest and most versatile. The sauce uses tomatoes, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and salt, and sometimes includes onions, oregano, crushed red pepper, or other herbs. For De Laurentiis' pasta alla vodka recipe, she says that time-starved cooks can start with store-bought marinara and cook it with classic vodka sauce ingredients, which cuts down the cooking time of this dish to about 25 minutes.

Use store-bought marinara for the fastest vodka sauce

The traditional method for making pasta alla vodka involves making a tomato sauce from scratch before adding cream and vodka, and possibly a few other flavorings, depending on the recipe. This process takes time as well as effort. Onions, garlic, carrots, and celery all need to be chopped and sautéed before the tomatoes and seasonings are added, and then the sauce needs to be simmered for around an hour before it's blended until smooth.

Giada Di Laurentiis' pasta alla vodka recipe calls for a quart of tomato sauce made with her own recipe, but she says cooks should feel free to "use 4 cups of any store-bought marinara as well" (via Allrecipes). All you need to do is simmer your favorite brand of marinara sauce with vodka, cream, and Parmesan, which takes little over 20 minutes, and can be done while the pasta cooks. Pasta alla vodka becomes a much faster option for a weeknight dinner or weekend treat.

If you're still a little skeptical of store-bought products and you're looking to enhance the taste of your sauce, there are plenty of ways to give it a boost. For example, a humble Parmesan rind is the ingredient De Laurentiis adds to store-bought sauce to add a rich, savory flavor and silky texture. She also adds fresh ingredients such as onions, garlic, butter, or a little chili paste to give store-bought marinara an extra kick.

Other tips for making the best pasta alla vodka

There are tons of other ways to customize and improve pasta alla vodka. While usually made with penne, in which the dish is called penne alla vodka, you can also try different noodle shapes when it comes to choosing the best pasta for your sauce. Giada De Laurentiis suggests rigatoni or paccheri, which are both large tube-like shapes of pasta, as good choices to go with vodka sauce.

It's more than adequate to just coat your pasta in the sauce to produce that signature creamy orange-pink color and call it a day, but if you're bored of the basics, liven up traditional vodka sauce with extra ingredients. Try using pumpkin puree and sage leaves for a cozy fall-inspired pasta, or add some sliced sautéed pancetta or bacon for a smoky, saltier flavor. Or try making the dish with ziti pasta and baking it after topping with shredded mozzarella, for a tasty (and boozy) alternative to traditional baked ziti.

Lastly, if you prefer to make the tomato sauce base from scratch, you can always make it ahead of time, then heat it through with the vodka and cream before serving. This helps you make a from-scratch dish that still feels a lot easier than cooking the whole recipe at once. Try adding tomato paste to your sauce for a touch more sweetness to the finished dish, or go for spicy pepper-flavored vodka if you want to give it an extra kick.