Healthy Penne alla Vodka is a low fat spin on traditional vodka sauce. It is creamy, flavorful, and takes less than an hour to make. A hot batch of penne with creamy tomato sauce is the perfect meal for a weeknight or date night at home. Top each bowl with fresh basil ribbons and grated cheese and pair with a glass of wine for an impressive home cooked meal.
The Story Behind Healthy Penne alla Vodka
When Alec and I first started dating in college, I invited him over for a dinner date night at my house. I made a pot of pasta with creamy homemade vodka sauce topped with mozzarella with a salad on the side and brownies for dessert. Thank goodness he loves pasta as much as I do or it would have been a deal-breaker!
Since then, I've made a healthier version of our sauce for date nights at home, including our anniversary. We always talk about how pasta with vodka sauce is one of our first meals together and the first time Alec tried my cooking. It tastes delicious and brings back great memories.
How to Make Vodka Sauce Healthy
Vodka sauce is a creamy, tomato pasta sauce most commonly paired with penne and rigatoni. The sauce coats the tube pasta and makes each bite saucy. Thankfully, vodka sauce tastes nothing like alcohol and will not get you drunk. The alcohol burns off when cooked in the onions, but it plays a key role in flavor and creaminess. The vodka enhances and releases flavors in the tomatoes and acts as an emulsifier, keeping the cream from separating in the acidic tomato sauce.
Vodka sauce is often made with heavy cream, a lot of cheese, and sometimes pancetta. While heavy cream and pancetta are tasty, they are not the healthiest ingredients for a weeknight. In lieu of heavy cream, I use Greek yogurt in this vodka sauce recipe. The yogurt gives the sauce the same creamy consistency and flavor with a healthy twist. I also cook the onions and add herbs to increase the flavor in this vegetarian sauce since I do not add pancetta to this recipe.
- Penne Pasta - A hollow, cylindrical pasta. There are two types of penne: smooth (lisce) and ridged (rigate). I recommend using rigate because its ridges tend to soak up more pasta sauce.
- Onion - An aromatic that enhances the other flavors.
- Garlic - An aromatic that adds a pungent kick.
- Olive Oil - Works well with butter to make a flavorful base for cooking the sauce.
- Butter - A great base for cooking and adds creaminess.
- Dried Oregano - Adds a bold and earthy flavor.
- Dried Basil - Adds a mild herby flavor.
- Red Pepper Flakes - Adds a hot kick.
- Vodka - Enhances the flavors in the sauce.
- Kosher Salt - Adds flavor to the pasta water.
- Fresh Ground Pepper - Adds spice and sharpness to the dish.
- Tomatoes - Adds sweet and tangy richness.
- Greek Yogurt - The creamy and healthy base for the sauce.
- Fresh Basil - Cut into ribbons, adds a fresh and herby garnish to the dish.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano - Made of unpasteurized cow's milk and has a unique umami flavor. Here, it contributes to make the sauce extra creamy.
- Cook the aromatics - In a medium pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter on medium heat for the base. Then, add in the aromatics and cook the garlic and onions until the onions become translucent and release flavor. After, stir in dried oregano, dried basil, and red chili flakes to add even more flavor.
- Add the vodka - Now it's time for the vodka. Add in the vodka and let it simmer for about 7 minutes. The onion-vodka mixture should be reduced by about half, giving the vodka time to cook off.
- Puree the tomatoes - While the vodka is cooking, puree the tomatoes with salt and pepper in a blender. I recommend these Ninja and Vitamix blenders! Add the tomato puree to the pot and cook on low heat for a half an hour.
- Cook the pasta - As the sauce finishes cooking, boil a pot of salted water for the pasta. Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta and set aside.
- Finish the sauce - Once the sauce is cooked, add in ¼ cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Greek yogurt and stir until the sauce becomes creamy and pink. Add in more salt and pepper to taste and half of the basil ribbons.
- Combine and serve - Scoop the pasta into the sauce and gently stir to combine. Serve the Healthy Penne alla Vodka in bowls and sprinkle additional basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano or parmesan cheese on each serving. Enjoy with a glass of wine.
- Spicy - Add more black pepper or red pepper flakes while cooking to imbue heat into the dish.
- Extra Creamy - Add more Parmigiano-Reggiano or Greek yogurt to make the dish extra creamy.
- Protein - Cook and add chicken breast or chicken thigh for extra protein.
- Whole Wheat Pasta - Replace traditional penne pasta with whole wheat penne pasta.
- Rigatoni - Replace penne pasta with Rigatoni. Rigatoni is shorter and wider than penne with deep ridges and a broad surface that the sauce will cling to well.
- Gluten free - Use a gluten free penne if you are gluten intolerant. We recommend Garofalo Gluten Free Penne, which tastes like traditional wheat-based pasta.
- Homemade Pasta - Use homemade pasta from scratch instead of store bought.
- Zoodles - Replace the traditional penne pasta with noodles or a pasta made with both wheat and vegetables.
- Low carb - Replace pasta with eggplant. Eggplants are a hearty and delicious replacement.
- Dairy free - For the sauce base, use coconut milk instead of Greek yogurt and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- Shallots - Use shallots instead of onion if you want a more mild onion flavor in the sauce.
This Penne alla Vodka recipe requires common kitchen essentials. To make this sauce, you need a cheese grater, tongs, measuring cup, a medium pot or dutch oven, large pot, and a Ninja or Vitamix blender.
How to Store and Freeze Vodka Sauce
Store the sauce in an air tight container for 3 days in the refrigerator and up to 3 months in the freezer. If you freeze the sauce, let the sauce completely cool and store it in an air tight bag or container. Once you're ready to use the sauce, remove it from the freezer and allow it to thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Cook the thawed sauce in a sauce pan and stir until it reaches its normal consistency.
Before serving the pasta, make sure the sauce is well mixed in with the pasta so the sauce is inside each pasta tube.
Healthy Penne alla Vodka
- 1 lb penne pasta
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp dried basil
- ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ cup vodka
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- ½ tsp Fresh ground pepper
- 1 28 oz can of tomatoes
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- Handful of fresh basil cut into ribbons
- ¼ cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano plus more for serving
- In a medium pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter on medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook uncovered for 5 minutes until the onions are translucent. Stir in dried oregano, dried basil, and red chili flakes and cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Stir in vodka and simmer for about 7 minutes until the alcohol cooks off. While the vodka cooks, add tomatoes to a blender with salt and pepper, then puree for 1-2 minutes. Add pureed tomatoes to the pot and stir. Cook covered on low heat for 30 minutes.
- While the sauce is cooking, bring 5 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the penne to the water and stir occasionally. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta and set aside.
- Once the sauce is cooked, stir in ¼ cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Greek yogurt until it becomes creamy and pink. Add salt and pepper to taste and half of the basil. Add the pasta to the sauce and gently stir to combine.
- Serve in bowls and sprinkle additional basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano or parmesan cheese on each serving.
- Don't leave food sitting out at room temperature for extended periods
- Never leave cooking food unattended
- Use oils with high smoking point to avoid harmful compounds
- Always have good ventilation when using a gas stove