Spoiler alert: it's the alcohol.
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vodka pasta in a white bowl
Credit: Meredith

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point every restaurant put Pasta alla Vodka on the menu. It's like the powers of pasta world suddenly decided this was the greatest way to make tomato sauce. And to be fair, these restaurateurs had a point — tomato sauce cooked with a splash of vodka is delicious. You don't taste any alcohol at all, but somehow it elevates the dish. So what's going on there?

First of All, Isn't Vodka Flavorless?

That's the weird part! We understand wine in Italian food, whether it's a big, bold red in tomato sauce or Balsamic vinegar (which starts as wine) drizzled over tomatoes. But vodka? It's counter-intuitive, but it definitely changes the sauce. It first tastes peppery, and then has herbal flavors you just don't expect.

Here's The Science Bit

When cooking-science questions arise, there's one great place to turn: Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking." (Really, if you're interested in the how-and-why of cooking, you want this book. It's a great reference.)

Here's what he has to say about cooking with alcohol and flavor:

"While large amounts of alcohol tend to trap other volatile molecules in the food, small traces boost their volatility and so intensify aroma."

This means that undiluted alcohol overpowers natural flavors, but smaller traces (typically achieved by "burning off" the vodka) actually release new flavors. So it's not that vodka adds flavor, it's that vodka unlocks flavors already hidden in the tomato. Pretty cool, huh?

How It Works

The trick is to add the vodka, then get rid of all but a trace of the alcohol so it unlocks those flavors. I always want to do this by lighting the alcohol on fire. It looks so cool, right?

Nope. It doesn't work. As a matter of fact, a flambé leaves nearly 75% of the alcohol.

What really works is slowly simmering the sauce. This leaves only 5% of the alcohol**, perfect for releasing all those peppery, herbal flavors.

So, it's real: vodka really does enhance the taste of tomato sauce, and it's really, really good. So give one of these recipes a try: 10 Classic Vodka Pasta Recipes with Creamy Tomato Sauces.

See our entire collection of Pasta Sauce Recipes.