Don't Rely On Cream And Butter Alone For Luxurious Vodka Sauce

Savoring a sumptuous plate of penne a la vodka, you find yourself leaning back in your chair, feeling highly satiated. The decadence of the traditional vodka sauce, laden with cream and butter, has caught up with you, and you begin to wonder, "Could there be a way to enjoy this classic dish without feeling so weighed down?" 

Vodka sauce, a quintessential Italian-American pasta sauce and the star of the delectable dish penne a la vodka is renowned for its rich blend of tomatoes and a generous amount of heavy cream and butter. But did you know there's a way to make vodka sauce just as creamy and luxurious without loading it up with fats like cream and butter? The key lies in two accessible ingredients: Parmesan cheese and pasta water.

Parmesan cheese and pasta water are more than substitutions for cream and butter; they're culinary game-changers and will make your vodka sauce super luxurious. 

Parmesan cheese is a flavor powerhouse in vodka sauce

Parmesan cheese, often relegated to mere garnishing for many Italian dishes, becomes a transformative ingredient in vodka sauce. Thanks to a long aging process, parmesan cheese adds a robust sharpness and a layer of umami that complements the tomatoes. This is because both tomatoes and parmesan cheese naturally have monosodium glutamate (MSG) or an umami flavor enhancer.

Thanks to its excellent emulsifying properties, parmesan cheese is great for giving sauces stability. If you've ever had Brazilian cheese bread or pão de queijo, you'll know a generous amount of parmesan can seriously amp up the gooey, mochi-like middle. So when you stir some into your vodka sauce, you're not just getting a creamier, thicker result; it also makes the sauce multidimensional.

And thanks to the MSG and salty notes in parmesan cheese, you really won't need additional seasonings like salt. Now, imagine a vodka sauce that's rich and elegantly flavorful. Sounds like a dream, right? But wait—there's more to this culinary ballet. Enter starchy pasta water.

Starchy pasta water redefines creaminess in vodka sauce

Often poured down the drain without much consideration, this seemingly unremarkable liquid holds the power to elevate your vodka sauce. The starch in the pasta water serves as a natural binding agent, seamlessly blending the bold flavors of parmesan cheese with zesty tomatoes. This results in a sauce that is both smooth and creamy, clinging perfectly to each piece of pasta. Additionally, because you're likely to salt the water while boiling pasta, the starchy liquid infuses your sauce with a burst of salinity. 

To make parmesan cheese and pasta water vodka sauce at home, sauté chopped aromatics like onions and garlic in olive oil. Then add tomato paste and some red pepper flakes for those who yearn for a spicy kick. You want to brown the tomato paste so it'll taste caramelized and delicious. Then, deglaze your cookware with vodka. Add about half a cup of heavy cream (instead of a full cup) and half a cup of pasta water. Finally, add the grated parmesan cheese and, optionally, a little butter. Fold in the pasta, top with basil and black pepper, and enjoy.

As you savor the nuanced flavors of your upgraded penne a la vodka, you might even start pondering which pasta shape best complements this exquisite sauce next, or which wine would serve as the ideal accompaniment. Because now that you're the boss of vodka sauce, every detail counts.