This easy recipe for Penne with Vodka Sauce features al dente penne pasta, creamy homemade vodka sauce, and sweet Italian sausage. Make a big batch of sauce now to freeze for future dinners!
What Is Penne Alla Vodka?
Penne with vodka sauce (penne alla vodka) is a hearty pasta dish made by tossing penne pasta in creamy vodka sauce.
Vodka sauce is a tomato-based sauce that’s spiked with vodka for tanginess and heat. The sauce doesn’t actually taste like vodka, however. It’s a rich and creamy tomato sauce with a slight kick of heat to it.
This recipe is for penne alla vodka with sweet Italian sausage, but you’re welcome to omit the meat entirely or replace it with another protein of choice. Other popular variations of this vodka sauce pasta use chicken, spicy Italian sausage, or shrimp as the protein.
This is an easy recipe that’s perfect for weeknight dinners or entertaining guests. The vodka sauce can be made in advance and frozen for later, which reduces the cook time for this pasta dish to about 30 minutes!
Does the Vodka Cook Out of Penne Alla Vodka?
Penne with vodka sauce is made with actual vodka, so if you’re nursing, pregnant, or are avoiding alcohol for any reason, you might want to toss the penne and Italian sausage with another homemade sauce, like classic marinara or arabbiata sauce instead.
The vodka in this recipe will NOT cook out entirely, but it does mellow out significantly and adds tanginess to the sauce. However, there’s not enough vodka in the sauce to get you tipsy and a lot of the alcohol cooks off (just not all of it!).
Tools You’ll Need
This is a simple recipe that requires no special kitchen equipment. Here’s what you’ll want to have on hand:
- Can Opener — For opening the cans of tomatoes.
- Cutting Board and Knife — For preparing the aromatics.
- Measuring Spoons — For measuring out the spices.
- Liquid Measuring Cup — For measuring out the heavy cream and vodka.
- Large Skillet — For browning the Italian sausage. A cast iron pan works too!
- Large Dutch Oven — For cooking the pasta. Another large pot will work as well.
- Ladle — For ladling the starchy pasta water into the sauce.
- Box Grater — Freshly grated Parmesan is best.
Penne with vodka sauce calls for ingredients I always have on hand. The only special ingredient you might need to make a run to the store for is the vodka.
- Vodka sauce (you’ll need just half a batch of my homemade recipe; freeze the rest for later!)
- Sweet Italian sausage links
- Penne pasta
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Fresh basil
For the complete ingredient list and detailed instructions to make penne alla vodka, scroll to the bottom of this post for the FREE printable recipe card.
How to Make Penne with Vodka Sauce
Before cooking the pasta, you’ll need to make a batch of creamy vodka sauce.
The sauce cooks in about 30 minutes and can be made in advance and either refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 3 months before being tossed with the penne and served.
- Cook the Italian sausage: Add the Italian sausage links to a pan over medium heat. Cook until all sides of the sausage are brown, then remove from the heat.
- Boil the penne pasta: Bring a large dutch oven of water to boil with 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Add the penne and cook until al dente.
- Drain the pasta after cooking, reserving ¼ cup of the pasta water to use later.
- Finish the sauce: Slice the sausage into thin slices. Add the sliced sausage, vodka sauce, and Parmesan to the drained penne.
- If the sauce needs to be thinned, stir in some of the reserved pasta water.
- Garnish and serve: Serve the pasta with extra Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
The above is simply a quick summary of this creamy penne alla vodka recipe. Check out the full recipe in the free printable recipe card at the bottom of this post for all the detailed instructions.
Additional Protein Pairings You Can Try
I almost always make my penne alla vodka with Italian sausage, but you’re welcome to use a different protein if desired. Some options are:
- Shrimp — Purchase large, fresh shrimp and cook them for 1 to 2 minutes per side or until pink. Remove them to a plate and add to the pasta just before serving to avoid overcooking them.
- Chicken — Dice chicken breasts into 1-inch pieces and cook over medium-high heat in an oiled skillet for approximately 3 to 4 minutes per side. Add to the pasta at the same time you’d add the Italian sausage.
- Pancetta — Fry 8 ounces of pancetta over medium heat until crispy. Stir into the pasta alongside the sauce.
- Meatballs — Prepare your favorite meatball recipe using 1 pound of ground meat (we love these chicken meatballs, but ground beef or ground sausage meatballs would also be fantastic). Cook the meatballs in a separate skillet and add to the pasta alongside the sauce.
Tips for Making Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce
- Cook the pasta until al dente — The penne will continue to soften as it sits in the vodka sauce, so it’s important that you cook it until al dente (i.e. until it’s soft with a slight bite to it).
- Reserve some of the pasta water — The starchy pasta water is excellent for thinning out the vodka sauce without making it runny. The starch in the water keeps the sauce creamy!
- You don’t need to buy the most expensive vodka — But don’t purchase the cheapest either as they have a harsher flavor! Something like Skyy or Grey Goose is perfect.
- Add fresh basil off the heat — Fresh herbs are very delicate and wilt quickly, so add the basil as a garnish at the very end.
- Make the sauce in advance, if desired — To save yourself time in the kitchen later on, make the full batch of creamy vodka sauce up to 4 days ahead of time and store in the fridge until you’re ready to use. The sauce can also be frozen for up to 3 months.
Got questions about how to make this recipe? Here are the answers to a few commonly asked questions. Feel free to leave any other questions in the comments on this post and I’ll respond with answers.
What proteins go with vodka sauce?
I paired my penne in vodka sauce with Italian sausage, but you may also use cooked chicken, shrimp, pancetta, or meatballs. Or, omit the meat entirely to keep the recipe vegetarian.
What pasta shapes go with vodka sauce?
Penne is the traditional choice; its short, sturdy shape means it won’t fall apart in the creamy pasta sauce, and the ridges along the sides help the sauce cling to the penne.
However, you can use pretty much any small pasta you like! Good alternatives to penne include: rigatoni, ziti, fusilli, or farfalle (bowtie).
What does the vodka do in penne alla vodka?
The vodka adds tang to the sauce, and it also helps the heavy cream mingle with the tomato sauce to create a super rich and creamy texture.
Can the vodka be substituted in penne alla vodka?
If you don’t drink alcohol, I’m not sure penne with vodka sauce is the best choice for you. You can replace the vodka with chicken broth or stock and create essentially a creamy tomato sauce, but it won’t have the same depth of flavor as actual vodka sauce.
What to Serve with Penne Alla Vodka
We love mopping up the leftover sauce on our plates with crusty bread, and a green salad on the side adds some welcome freshness to the meal. Additional side dish ideas are:
- Italian mixed greens salad
- Copycat Olive Garden salad
- Spinach pear salad
- Butternut squash salad
- Zucchini tomato basil salad
- Roasted broccolini
- Roasted cauliflower
- Rosemary focaccia
- Rosemary garlic bread
Try Penne with Vodka Sauce at Home!
Next time you’re looking for an easy yet impressive pasta recipe, give this penne with vodka sauce and Italian sausage a try!
Did you love how rich and creamy the sauce was? Leave a comment below and give it a review for others to see what you thought of this recipe.
On Instagram? Share your photo and tag me with @goodlifeeats and #goodlifeeatsrecipes. I’d love to see your photo of this homemade penne alla vodka!
More Easy Pasta Recipes:
Creamy Gorgonzola Pasta is tossed with balsamic beef tenderloin for the ultimate pasta dinner! Serve with a salad or roasted vegetables for a complete meal. This recipe can be prepared gluten-free.
One Skillet Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce is the perfect, easy comforting pasta dish. Baking it in a single skillet makes for quick preparation and very minimal clean up. Perfect for a busy weeknight dinner!
Penne pasta also pairs well with Arrabbiata Sauce, which you can make from pantry ingredients. It’s a simpler, just-spicy-enough tomato sauce that pairs well with chicken, shrimp, or sausage.
This spicy Bow Tie Pasta with Sausage is made using a simple pasta formula that you can use to create your own pasta dishes in the future!
This recipe for Mushroom Alfredo features a lightened up flavorful Alfredo sauce with balsamic sautéed mushrooms and tender broccoli florets.
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- ½ batch Vodka Sauce Recipe (the rest can be frozen for later)
- 1 pound Sweet Italian Sausage Links
- 1 pound Penne
- ¼ cup Fresh Grated Parmesan Cheese, plus extra for serving
- ¼ cup Fresh Basil, for serving
Cooking the Sausage
- Add the Italian sausage links to a cast iron pan over medium heat. Cook until all sides of the sausage are brown and the sausage is cooked through.
- Remove from heat after cooking, leaving the sausages to rest in the pan for 10 - 15 minutes while you boil the water for the pasta.
Cooking the Pasta
- Bring a large dutch oven of water to boil with 1 tablespoon of sea salt.
- When the water has reached a rolling boil, add the pasta. Cook according to package instructions, just until al dente.
- While the pasta cooks, slice the Italian sausage into thin slices (approximately ¼ - ½ inch in thickness). For a pretty presentation, I recommend slicing the sausage at a slight diagonal.
- Drain the pasta after cooking, reserving ¼ cup of the pasta water to use later as needed.
Preparing the Penne with Vodka
- Add the drained pasta back to the dutch oven. Ladle in half of the prepared sauce, the sliced Italian sausage, and parmesan cheese. Cook over medium heat for 1 - 2 minutes, stirring periodically.
- Add some of the reserved water according to your preferences if you wish to thin the sauce.
Serving the Meal
- Transfer the pasta with the sauce and sausage to a large serving bowl.
- Serve the pasta alongside the extra parmesan cheese and fresh basil for garnish.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 258Total Fat: 9gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 27mgSodium: 517mgCarbohydrates: 26gFiber: 2gSugar: 1gProtein: 18g
GoodLifeEats.com offers recipe nutritional information as a courtesy. This provided information is an estimate only. This information comes from online calculators. Although GoodLifeEats.com makes every effort to provide accurate information, these figures are only estimates.