Chef, Baker and Cookery Teacher.

Gemelli alla Vodka

Gemelli alla Vodka

The ultimate, simple home dinner. There's pasta and sauce, and there's the best pasta and the best sauce - this dish brings the two together.

A classic American-Italian dish discovered fame a few decades ago, which you may have heard of: Penne all Vodka; penne pasta awash with a tomato-vodka sauce. As un-Italian as I may seem, it's thought to have origins in an old Italian tradition of adding grappa (an Italian grape spirit) to sauces. Adding vodka to a sauce, being effectively flavourless, seems like nonsense. Why add a flavourless spirit to a sauce? The purpose is in the chemistry - and this dish certainly has special chemistry.

In a tomato sauce you have tomatoes, , onion, garlic and fresh herbs, which are mostly water-based flavours, and olive oil, cheese, milk, chilli and black pepper, which are oil-based flavours (including some components of garlic too). It's widely known that oil and water never mix - not properly - so a tomato sauce is a mixture of water-based and oil-based ingredients that don't interact with each other. Until you add alcohol. Alcohol enables oils and water to mix together, forming what is called an emulsion. It's this property, when created in a sauce, that allows rivalling flavours to mix and react together. What this creates is a sauce with an intensely deep flavour - it brings out the very best in every ingredient in the sauce.

I don't use penne when I make this dish, I use a much nicer pasta called 'gemelli', (meaning 'twins' in Italian), made from a string of pasta doubled over upon itself and twirled into a twist. It has a highly pleasing bite and cuddles the sauce far better than penne.

It might not be fancy; you might not stir up much excitement by putting a bowl of it in front of somebody, but the moment it hits your tongue you will understand. Sheer ecstasy. 


  • 400g Gemelli Pasta (or Penne)
  • 500g Cherry Tomatoes (or 1 can Chopped Tomatoes)
  • 1 Onion
  • 2 cloves Garlic
  • 200ml Vodka
  • 1 teaspoon Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Tomato Paste
  • Pinch of Chilli Flakes
  • 100ml of full-fat Milk
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan or Pecorino
  • 1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
  1. Take your 500g cherry tomatoes and chop into halves so they're all ready for the sauce.
  2. We begin the sauce by gently frying an onion. Finely chop the onion and fry in a tablespoon of olive oil with a teaspoon of salt. Cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes until soft, translucent and rich in flavour.
  3. Grate in 2 cloves of garlic and stir through the onions with the heat still down low. Stir for about 20-30 seconds to allow to allow the garlic to toast a bit before adding the vodka.
  4. Turn the heat up to high, and immediately tip in 200ml of vodka. Pour it via a measuring jug, as a bottle of spirit can ignite if poured directly into a pan! Stir the vodka through the pan, making sure to really scrape the base of the pan - the alcohol will lift any caramelised flavours from the bottom of the pan. Before the vodka begins to boil, add in the chopped tomatoes and stir through. Bring up to a gentle boil.
  5. When the sauce is gently bubbling, add in a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of tomato paste, chilli flakes and a big grind of fresh black pepper. Leave to sit in the sauce for 5 minutes as it simmers on a low heat. 
  6. Once the sauce has simmered for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and pour in 100ml of milk and grate in about a tablespoon of cheese (Parmesan or Pecorino). Stir through the sauce and leave to sit off the heat.
  7. Cook your pasta to its packet instructions until al dente (usually a minute before the packet asks!) Drain off the water, without rinsing the pasta under the tap, and pour straight into the sauce. Stir through the sauce, add some extra cheese if you wish, and prepare for an epiphany of a pasta dish!
Because the amazing chemistry of this dish allows you to access deeper flavours, try out some other flavours to make this dish even punchier, like fresh herbs, fragrant vegetables or meats. I quite like adding some fried pancetta or bacon, allowing the vodka to draw out all of the meaty oils and and emulsifying them into the sauce. Wonderful!
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