Why Would Anyone Add Vodka to Tomato Sauce?

Vodka pastapiyato via Canva.com

Since you’re here, you probably came across a vodka tomato sauce recipe in a cookbook or saw a pasta or pizza dish with vodka on the menu of that Italian restaurant you had dinner in last night.

Unlike wine or beer, which some recipes will call for, vodka has a higher alcohol content and is generally tasteless.

So why would anyone add it to tomato sauce?

Chefs add vodka to tomato sauce because vodka is a solution of 60% water and 40% grain alcohol. Grain alcohol is a solvent. It adds depth to the sauce by pulling out aroma and flavors from the herbs and spices in it, without adding any flavor of its own.

The fact that vodka is a good solvent is also the reason why you can make flavored vodka by simply adding herbs and spices to it, and why you can use vodka to produce homemade herbal tinctures.

What kind of vodka should you get for your vodka tomato sauce? According to Rich LoRusso, owners of LoRusso Cucina in St. Louis, it’s best to go for something good.

“It’s best not to skimp,” LoRusso tells George Mahe, Dining Editor of St. Louis Magazine, “because chances are, you’ll be the one drinking the rest of the bottle.”

Vodka can also act as an emulsifier for making tomato cream sauce.

An emulsifier is a substance that binds together two liquids that otherwise won’t mix. Cream can curdle when the solid fat separates from the liquid whey, especially when an acid (like canned tomatoes) is introduced.

The alcohol in the vodka keeps the fat and whey together. The alcohol molecules act like glue, attaching themselves to the fat molecules on one end and clinging onto the whey molecules on the other, keeping the tomato cream sauce intact and preventing the cream from curdling.

Vodka’s home-cooking uses go well beyond making cream tomato sauce. It works just as well for mixing water and oil, whose molecules also won’t mix without the use of an emulsifier.

What Can You Make With Vodka Tomato Sauce?

Penne alla Vodka and Vodka Slice (via Canva.com)

So you fell in love with the idea of cooking with vodka tomato sauce? Here’s a round-up of some of my favorite meals to cook with it.

Popular recipes with vodka tomato sauce include Penne alla Vodka, which became a hit dish in night clubs in Italy in the U.S. Penne alla vodka was allegedly invented in the 1980s, when a vodka company with a presence in Italy hired a local chef in an attempt to promote its products.

There’s also Pizza alla Vodka, or better known as the “vodka slice” in the U.S., a genuine staple of Italian-American cuisine that you can find in a number of New York pizza shops. Yelp users claim that some of the best vodka pizza in New York is made in Rubirosa, a family-run Italian restaurant at 235 Mulberry St.

Does Vodka Tomato Sauce Have Alcohol?

It’s a common misconception that vodka tomato sauce is made with vodka, but all of it evaporates by the time the sauce is fully cooked.

Yes, vodka sauce has alcohol. The longer you simmer the sauce on your stove, the more of the alcohol will evaporate. But, contrary to what most people believe, the alcohol will almost never cook off completely.

Traces of it will always be left behind in your dish, says medical doctor turned food scientist Stuart Farrimond in his 2017 book, The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking.

So how much alcohol remains in your dish after cooking, exactly? It’s more than you probably think.

Here’s Farrimond’s rule of thumb:

Simmering Time% of Alcohol Left Behind
15 minutes40%
30 minutes35%
1 hour25%
1 ½ hours20%
2 hours10%
2 ½ hours5%
How much alcohol is left in your dish after you’ve simmered it?

On average, vodka contains 40% alcohol. If you add 2 fl oz vodka to tomato sauce, you’re effectively adding 1.2 fl oz water and 0.8 fl oz grain alcohol. By simmering the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, 60% (0.48 fl oz) of the alcohol in the vodka will evaporate and 40% (0.32 fl oz) will be left behind.

Keep that in mind when you make vodka tomato sauce. Depending on who will be serving that sauce to, it may be more appropriate to consider a different recipe.

Can Vodka Tomato Sauce Get You Drunk?

Ever been curious about how much alcohol is in that vodka sauce you just made? You’re not alone. We’ve all wondered if there was a way to make yourself drunk off of something as benign as tomato sauce (other than drinking Bloody Marys).

You can’t get drunk from eating vodka tomato sauce, no matter if it’s the topping on your slice of pizza or the sauce for your pasta dish. The alcohol content simply isn’t enough to make you drunk.

The average pizza has a diameter of 12 inches and consists of 8 slices. Typically, it takes 4 fl oz of tomato sauce to top a pizza of this size. This means that each pizza slice has 0.5 fl oz tomato sauce.

If you added 2 fl oz vodka to your tomato sauce, made a 12-inch pizza with 8 slices, and simmered the tomato sauce for 15 minutes before topping your pizza with it, this means that each slice contains ⅛ of the 0.32 fl oz alcohol that’s left behind.

In other words, the average slice of vodka pizza contains 0.04 fl oz alcohol. Most people get drunk after drinking 3-4 glasses of grain alcohol, usually 1.5 fl oz each.

Conclusion

Adding vodka to tomato sauce helps to enhance its depth. The grain alcohol in the vodka pulls out the aroma and flavor of the herbs and spices in the sauce. It can also act as an emulsifier when heavy cream is involved, preventing the cream from curdling.

Use vodka tomato sauce to make Penne alla Vodka or Pizza alla Vodka, two dishes that came out of a vodka promotion gig in 1980s Italy—and which have become nothing short of Italian-American staples served by some of the best restaurants in New York.

Though alcohol evaporates when cooked, some will almost always be leftover in your vodka tomato sauce. But don’t worry about getting drunk. There’s just 0.04 fl oz alcohol in the typical vodka pizza slice. Far from what you’d need to get tipsy.

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