Ina Garten's Extra Step For The Absolute Best Vodka Sauce

While the origins of penne alla vodka — known to some as "disco pasta" for its association with 70s nightclubs — are unclear, this dish has come to be an essential feature of Italian American cuisine, thanks entirely to its unique sauce. For many people, pomodoro is the ideal tomato sauce due to its simple, straightforward recipe, but those who appreciate a good vodka sauce will tell you it's worth the extra effort and ingredients. In fact, Ina Garten advocates adding another step to the process for the ultimate vodka sauce.

Whereas most vodka sauce recipes require only the use of the stovetop, Garten's secret to superior sauce relies on additional support from the oven. After the initial phase of cooking the diced onion and garlic in olive oil with seasonings and vodka in a large pan on the stovetop, Garten doesn't rush into adding the heavy cream and tossing in the pasta. Instead, she stretches out the process to extract the utmost flavor from one of the core ingredients of this dish — canned tomatoes — by securing a lid onto the pot and placing the whole thing into the oven for an hour and a half. It's only after this extended cooking time that she begins boiling water for the pasta and finishes the dish with dairy for its signature creaminess.

Why simmer, then roast your vodka sauce, and other pasta tips

Ina Garten's vodka sauce recipe requires more patience than your usual pasta preparation process, but for good reason. Simmering and then roasting tomatoes is a way to intensify their flavors by reducing their high moisture content. Since tomatoes can be made up of as much as 95% water, to do this well, you need more than just a few minutes of cooking on the stovetop. This two-part technique for reducing hydration retains that bright, fresh flavor of canned tomatoes while concentrating the umami notes that make this fruit so special.

Because this approach takes longer than the preparation of traditional vodka sauce, be sure to start early — about two hours before you want to be sitting down for your meal. Since you're turning on the oven anyway, you may want to consider making another flavor-boosting element for your pasta: crispy prosciutto. While the sauce simmers, line some slices of prosciutto over a baking sheet and cook in the oven for about 15 minutes for a supremely savory, deeply delicious dish.

Getting creative with your vodka sauce

Ina Garten's vodka sauce is too good to be limited to coating only penne pasta. While this shape is most commonly associated with this sauce, there is a whole world of pasta shapes out there that are well-suited for its rich flavor and creamy consistency, including rigatoni and orecchiette, which are full of nooks and crannies for catching the sauce. Feel free to expand beyond pasta, too — this sauce is also great for spreading over pizza, dressing up sauteed vegetables like eggplant or zucchini, and topping roasted meats, such as chicken breast or a pork chop. It makes a flavorful foundation for baked beans and poached eggs, too.

Garten's recipe calls for a cup of vodka, but if you don't keep this particular booze on hand, you can easily substitute your preferred type of alcohol. For a little something on the sweeter side, try rum or tequila, or enjoy the aromatic boost from the botanicals in gin.