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Vodka Sauce... what's the point?

Vodka is a nearly colorless, nearly flavorless, nearly odorless distilled spirit. When you add heat (and especially if you flame it) there is even less flavor and odor, with the alcohol gone. So why add it to a nice tomato cream (pink) sauce anyway?

When I first heard of Vodka Sauce, I thought it was a recently invented gimmick. This was the 80's when the USA was starting to wake up to the wonders of food, and almost anything was accepted, even lionized. (remember the blackening craze!?)

Can anyone confirm when vodka sauce was invented? And why?! Does it exist to sell vodka? Or maybe so tough guys don't have to ask for "pink sauce?!"

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  1. THere are flavor compounds in foods, esp in tomatoes, that are alcohol soluble. That means these flavors are not released unless they are mixed with alcohol. That is why we add alcohol to many dishes. We could add wine, vodka, etc. The alcohol in vodka is cheap, compared to wine, and hence bottled vodka sauce. When most people make tomato sauce at home and want to add alcohol, wine is more common because it adds both alcohol and other flavors.

    There are a lot of recent thread on vodka sauce on Chowhound. Type "vodka sauce" in the search engine and you'll get them.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Darren72

      Apparently some think that vodka sauce is a gimmick. Here's a more "official" source:
      http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage...

    2. Supposedly vodka sauce was invented in the late 1970s as a marketing tie-in for a vodka distiller. In Italy. It got swept up in the Nuova Cucina movement in Italy, then ended up as a trendy menu item in the US, where it took off a bit more strongly than in Italy-- but has thankfully waned. I prefer adding wine to Italian sauces, but I can see how a tomato-and-cream sauce might need the alcohol in vodka and not need the extra flavors wine would impart....

      1. One of my favorite Italian cookbooks, published in 1982 refers to pasta with vodka sauce as the "latest thing". To be fair to the sauce, I think the vodka gives it a slightly bitter undertone that keeps tomatoes and cream from becoming too cloying - and don't forget the red pepper!

        1. I've heard that vodka enhances the pepper that is in vodka sauces. With that in mind, I've contemplated using it in chili.

          1. Maybe I'm just imagining it, but I often taste the vodka. Perhaps it's not totally burned off, but I get a peppery, alcholic-type sensation on my tongue.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Covert Ops

              Can't cite chapter and verse on this but I've read in more than one place that when you add hooch to a simmered sauce it takes more than a few minutes for all of the alcohol to burn off. And in most tomato-cream-vodka sauce recipes I've seen, the vodka is added only a minute of two before the end of cooking. So I don't think you're imagining things.

              1. re: carswell

                Right. I do recall a friend who was a fabulous Italian cook but whose husband was allergic to alcohol in all forms, including wine. She couldn't bear to cook without it, but she told me she'd have to make sure to cook it for a LOOOONG time.

              2. re: Covert Ops

                Alcohol incorporated into cooked foods rarely completely cook off, in some cases around 70 percent of the alcohol remains (Even in a flambe a considerable amount of alcohol remains). There's a site that talks about this, but I don't have the URL

              3. What I'd rather understand is how anything that tastes and smells so awful (I love vodka, don't get me wrong) can be called odorless and tasteless. That's never made any sense to me. Water is odorless and tasteless. Vodka is most assuredly not.

                7 Replies
                1. re: spicynuts

                  I heard somewhere (somewhere... a long time ago...) that "odorless and flavorless" was the goal when distilling vodka, but yeah nobody would really say that goal's been accomplished!

                  As opposed to brown spirits with their roasted malts and aging in wood, or gin and its botanicals I would say vodka has less going for it in the flavor department.

                  1. re: The Engineer

                    I'm not sure of this but I believe that this is the goal in the U.S., as mandated by govt regulation. Which may be why some people prefer imports.

                    1. re: Brian S

                      Imported or domestic, vodka is defined by U.S. law as odorless and tasteless (except for the odor and taste of alcohol, of course).

                      Obviously it's not enforced very rigorously.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        "(except for the odor and taste of alcohol, of course)."

                        Alcohol itself is supposedly odorless and tasteless -- that's why vodka -- which is not "flavored" is also supposed to be odorless and tasteless. It may even be technically true. I guess lab alcohol really is flavorless; as for the distinctive odor -- maybe it's not the alcohol itself but the chemicals that are produced when alcohol reacts with our bodies (including saliva) that "smell of alcohol."

                        It's also possibly true that people have varying abilities to taste and smell alcohol as they do other things -- maybe to some people, vodka really is tasteless.

                  2. re: spicynuts

                    Vodka is made by first fermenting something (potatoes or grain, for example) into alcohol, distilling it so that it is almost pure alcohol, and then adding water so it is 90 proof (or whatever the goal of the manufacturer is). (For the vodka experts out there, I know I've simplified this.)

                    The pure alcohol part tastes and smells like alcohol. The water tastes like water. Thus, it is difficult to get vodka to have much of a taste of anything other than alcohol without having the result turn into something that isn't, well, vodka anymore.

                    Here is a nice, simple website about this:
                    http://absolutad.com/absolut_about/hi...

                    The author of that site calls this "The Dilemma of Vodka - Purity vs. Character" because it is difficult to both keep it pure vodka and give it some character.

                    1. re: spicynuts

                      In my adolescence, Vodka proved odourless *enough* when blended with juice to pass many a sniff test by police and security staff.

                      1. re: julesrules

                        I've had odorless and tasteless vodka...I inherited a bottle from an exboyfriend's father...it was imported from the UK (I think) and I have not been able to find it since. However, for the most part, I think we associate vodka in the US with certain brands...and those I am unable to drink on the rocks like I did the one from the UK.

                    2. I was born and lived most of my life in Italy, My grandparents own a little resturante in Italy for almost 60years. salsa alla vodka panna "Vodka sauce" is not a gimmick, nor, was it invented to tell Vodka. My grandparents were making vodka sauce since before it was "Offically" invented in Bologna, Italy in the 1970's. The Vodka is used to release the acids and flavor in the sauce and also to enhance the sweetness of the cream even vodka dosent have a flavor on its own when mixed with the other ingredeints it has a flavor enhancer. True Vodka sauce is more complex then what how people make it in America, In Italy you start by using fresh tomatoes then peel,puree and cook for about an hour on low (this is just to get the natural waters out of the fruit, then you add your spices/procsciutto and Vodka (1 Pint (80-100proof italian vodka) per 64-72oz of tomatoe sauce) and let simmer for an hour or until you can no longer taste the Vodka then you lightly wipe the cream and add to the sause let simmer covered for another 30mintues-hour and then serve. The end result with be a richer/bolder/velvety sauce that is pink/orange in color. In america it is put together within an hour using canned tomatoe sause (not talking about the Crush/peeled uncooked Tomatoes in the can)

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Guarcz

                        However long people in some parts of Italy were making it, penne alla wodka became trendy due to an advertsing campaign. The typical recipe had a modest amount of vodka added just before the pan came off the heat so you could still taste it.

                        1. re: Guarcz

                          That's interesting to know, for some reason I was told that Frank Sinatra had invented it (although maybe he just liked it and liked to make it for guests). The recipe I use is definitely American, but calls for tomato paste rather than sauce.

                          1. re: Guarcz

                            Mille Grazie for that information on vodka. I use it in my sauce, and it always tasted better. Now I know why.

                            1. re: Guarcz

                              I really don't think that Italian versions are more complex than in America. You are either making assumptions or you are dining at inferior restaurants. There is no specific way that this sauce is made in America. I have made over 10 different versions before i came up with one that I felt was superior to the others. Lastly, I prefer using canned tomatoes because there is a consistency to the product. I think that certain brands of canned tomatoes are as good or better than fresh tomatoes. I have found several American brands and one Italian brand of canned tomatoes that are very good. The Italian tomatoes use San Marzano tomatoes while the American brand uses New Jersey tomatoes.

                            2. I tried it once in the 80's and just didn't get it so i never bothered with it again.

                              1. The alcohol does not all burn off, my dear, so there is a slight 'warming' effect on the palate, but as a long time chef, I can attest that the lion's share of the vodka went, not into the food, but into the chef.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: mymymichl

                                  hehe .... the vodka helps the chef be more creative?

                                2. I think vodka does add a different taste to the creamy pink sauce, but it is still just as delicious without it. Vodca is not really tasteless; it is not the most delicious taste by itself; it kind of tastes like rubbing alcohol. So if you don't think it is necessary, cook without it. Sometimes I add wine to regular sauce, just for a different taste, it does not mean it is better, just an alternative recipe. I have cooked pink sauce without the vodca and of course it is good. When I make pink sauce, WITH or WITHOUT vodca, I usually beggin by stiring flour into a little melted butter, cream (I guess you could add milk to reduce the fat content, but I don't make it all the time) sauce, and then add sauteed onions and garlic, then basil and vodca, make the sauce cook until the alcohol cooks out.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Kristinafit1979

                                    If the sauce with vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol, you haven't cooked it long enough.

                                    1. re: Kristinafit1979

                                      Sounds like you're making a Bechamel but with cream instead of milk, which is called something else, sort of. Sauce supreme? I forget.

                                    2. There is another current thread on Vodka Sauce:

                                      Vodka Sauce with fresh tomatoes:
                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/548595

                                      1. I definitely agree that the sauce doesn't seem to resemble vodka at all. I have always liked the sauce and thought it was just coincidentally named vodka sauce. I didn't know it was actually made with vodka because that seems to hardly add to the flavor!

                                        1. tomatoes have flavor compounds that will not be released w/out alcohol.
                                          vodka will not add flavor of it's own to compete with the tomato taste, as wine or vermouth does.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: thew

                                            And This Is The Point.

                                            Vodka releases flavors from the tomatoes that are only alcohol-soluble.
                                            The alcohol coaxes those flavors out, then disappears. But the alcohol, or rather the ethanol, does lend some flavor of its own accord, sort of a sweet, caramel-like flavor that translates as making the tomatoes taste sweeter.

                                            If you can taste the alcohol, you haven't cooked the sauce long enough. And the cream is best added at the end, after the alcohol has cooked out, so the cream doesn't de-stablize and break in the presence of all that acid.

                                            1. re: maria lorraine

                                              I think you've got it exactly right, maria. I make a tomato soup (the recipe was given to me by a chef from the North End of Boston) which starts with sauteing sliced onions in olive oil, adding vodka to the hot pan (a delicate and somewhat hazardous operation for the unwary chef), then adding canned tomatoes and a little water and simmering for a half hour or so. The soup is then pureed and chicken broth and/or cream is added to the desired consistency.

                                              Most of the alcohol is probably burned off in the minute or so before th tomatoes are added, but the flavor it leaves behind is unmistakable. I agree about the "sweet, caramel-like flavor", but the way I do it there is also a very slight bite or aroma than can only be put down to the vodka. I've tried to re-create the same recipe with white wine, red wine and vermouth, but it doesn't taste nearly as good.

                                              1. re: chefbeth

                                                Thanks for your comments. That sounds like a good soup, and one that could even be made in wintertime. My understanding is that it takes longer for the alcohol to burn off than what you've mentioned. If you're interested, here's a little more information about that:
                                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5357...

                                          2. When my wife made vodka sauce for the first time I think she found a bad recipe. We definitely tasted the alcohol in the sauce.

                                            7 Replies
                                            1. re: Rick

                                              I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this yet, but part of the problem people are having is that not all vodkas are created equally. If you use cheap, bottom shelf vodka, that is what you are going to taste. Would anyone here use the wines found in the supermarket labled as "cooking wine" which are found on the shelf right next to vinegar when they cook? Probably not, because it is well known that these "wines" are garbage. You cook with wine that you would be willing to drink. Same with vodka.

                                              Granted, using a top shelf vodka like Grey Goose or Chopin is more expensive than with the cheap stuff, but you get what you pay for. There are many different flavor profiles with vodka, partly depending on what it is distilled from: Potato, grapes, grain, etc. and how many times it is filtered, the quality of the water, etc. Simply put, if you want a good vodka sauce, start with a good vodka.

                                              1. re: cigarmedic4

                                                I have to disagree about top-shelf vodka. In several blind taste tests, the most expensive brands lost out to the pedestrian Smirnoff. Though it pains me to say this, Smirnoff beat Grey Goose, Ketel One, and even my beloved Wyborowa.

                                                1. re: phofiend

                                                  The taste may not differ,but the hangover will. In fact, the most expensive real vodka you can get in Russia will not leave you with a hangover.

                                                  1. re: foodsmith

                                                    Since most hangovers are at least partially due to dehydration, I completely disagree that there are vodkas that won't make you hungover.

                                                  2. re: phofiend

                                                    I am not a vodka drinker. Not much point in it except to get a buzz. I've had my share of Smirnoff and it's way different and not better than Ketel One or GG. I don't know who did this test that keeps getting hyped.

                                                    Me I buy Tito's for my personal bar. I don't drink much of it since I prefer rum, scotch, bourbon or rye all sipped neat. Even tequilla has taste that I enjoy.

                                                  3. re: cigarmedic4

                                                    I partially agree with you, but not entirely.

                                                    Certainly there is a huge difference between the sodium- and preservative-laden crap that is called cooking wine, and a fruity, dry and inexpensive wine used for cooking.

                                                    There have been several wrte-ups of experiments that compared *expensive* wine used in cooking to inexpensive wine (but not rockgut wine or cooking wine), and they found that the inexpensive stuff worked quite well, sometimes even better than the pricey stuff.

                                                    The New York Times wrote about that here:
                                                    "It Boils Down To This: Cheap Wine Works Fine."
                                                    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage...

                                                    Extrapolating from this, and applying those findings on wine to vodka, my sense is that any medium-shelf vodka will work fine. However, I do agree with you that good ingredients are critical, and that distillations and base product make for a discernible flavor difference when drinking.

                                                    So the questions for me are:
                                                    How much flavor difference is discernible between the inexpensive and expensive vodkas in the tomato sauce after cooking? Does the quality of the ethanol make a difference after cooking? Does the difference in the distillation base product show up in the tomato sauce?

                                                    I don't know the answers. If you do, if you can somehow describe the subtleties in flavor after cooking between an inexpensive and expensive vodka, I'd be most appreciative. Otherwise, I'm going to have to experiment myself!

                                                  4. i think there are going to be a fair number of other posters who had the same experience: a lot of us were subjected to lectures, in the course of reviewing for our professional certification, by a woman who claimed that her father invented vodka sauce while working for a nyc restaurant in the 1970s. of course i have no way of verifying the truth of that...

                                                    someone else evidently had the same question, though: http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/go...

                                                    the answer from that site:

                                                    "Dear Sarah,

                                                    "We asked two prominent food historians, and neither knew the answer, although referred us to the Wikipedia entry that we'd also found, which mentions Paula Franzese and her claim that her father, Luigi, invented Penne alla Vodka when he had a flask of vodka on him and needed to thin a sauce.

                                                    "The entry adds "However, most historians of the culinary arts credit Chef James Doty with the discovery of the dish."

                                                    "There is also a list on foodtimeline.org of references to vodka in sauces that might be of interest.

                                                    "Arthur Schwartz also refers to the invention of the dish in the headnote to his recipe, but does not mention any names or specific dates beyond "the mid '70s."

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: cimui

                                                      No one can accurately claim that a specific person "invented" or "discovered" vodka tomato sauce. Alcohol has been added to pots of simmering tomatoes for centuries -- moonshine, mead, wine, vodka, vermouth and on and on. Someone may have codified a recipe, or have been the first to put a dish on a menu, but that's it -- the sauce was around long before anyone wrote it down or there were restaurants to serve it.

                                                    2. I've always wondered the same thing but figured since it's in top restaurants, they know more than I do. Hmmpph.

                                                      1. I find that, actually, a splash of gin makes for a much more interesting flavor addition to creamy tomato soups. For a pasta sauce, I might find it too overpowering, unless you like gin a lot, of course. Which I do, but more often than not, it comes in a gimlet '-)

                                                        2 Replies
                                                        1. re: linguafood

                                                          I love to put gin in my primavera sauce.
                                                          I don't like to drink gin, but the flavor in cooked sauces is great. I think I had a recipe that called for juniper berries and that was the closest thing I had at the time, and it was a great discovery.

                                                          1. re: linguafood

                                                            Now there's an idea I can get behind.

                                                          2. Thanks for all the responses! Nice to send these questions out on the intertubes for a few years and watch them take on a life of their own!

                                                            1. Engineer, let me start by saying that I registered on this site, for the sole purpose of responding to this post. Italian cuisine is probably my favorite in the world, I have had the opportunity to travel to Italy many times over the years, and eat in some great Italian restaurants here in the US (Da Silvano, Il Mulino etc.). I can say with confidence that Vodka sauce is among the most delicious tomato based sauces there are. I can't say when it was made, but I feel like you haven't really tried a true vodka sauce from someone who knows how to make it. Please don't judge it from the store bought schlock they sell down at the supermarket. I stopped using jarred sauces years ago once I discovered that they were nearly as easy and fast to make from scratch as they are from the jar. Anyway, if you get a chance to have it in a truly authentic Italian establishment, I highly recommend it, otherwise, there are multitudes of great vodka sauce recipes online if you know where to look. I made it tonight after I read your post because you reminded me how much I love it. The vodka really does impart a unique flavor when you cook the alcohol off, it doesn't disappear as you say, it leaves a wonderful almost citrus tang, and combined with heavy cream and some sauteed shallots for sweetness, there's not much that can beat it. I suggest to try cooking it yourself and see what you think (and don't use some low end vodka, as with wine "only cook with something you would drink"). I hope you get to have the same experience I've had, good luck!

                                                              1. Hi Engineer:
                                                                This is right up your alley, as it's a science thing!
                                                                The vodka releases esters and in the tomatoes that means purer tomato flavors, exactly BECAUSE vodka is flavorless...... it just releases the flavor components into solution so they can be better tasted, without the added flavors of wine, sambuca, lemon....whatever. It's just more "tomatoey"......and very nice on seafood!

                                                                1. I suspect that vodka sauce was a marketing attempt. Nonetheless, alcohol has always been used to extract flavors. Flavor components have different solubilities. Some are water souluble; some fat; many alcohol. Hence, alcohol us usually added to dishes to extract flavor. Making shrimp stock is a good example. Shells first extracted in fat, then in a high concentration of alcohol (eg. vodka) then water, are far more flavorful than those extracted without alcohol. Maybe tomatoes are the same. I always thought I liked vodka sauce better because of the cream!