We all know and love pasta with vodka sauce. It’s a staple that still manages to capture our attention: Carbone’s spicy rigatoni got millions of views on TikTok last year, and recipe developer Dan “Grossy” Pelosi’s version, dubbed “The Sawce,” went viral during Covid lockdown and remains deeply popular among home cooks.
It’s tried. It’s true. It’s comfortable. Maybe a little too comfortable sometimes.
The classics are such for a reason — we know exactly what to expect. Vodka sauce is “smooth, creamy, and delicate,” says Herve Guillard, director of education at the Institute of Culinary Education in Los Angeles. “It’s not as bold as other sauces in Italian cooking.”
The typical vodka cream sauce is quite simple. Tomatoes are cooked with an allium like garlic or onions, red pepper flakes, and olive oil, then finished with cream to make a glossy sauce.Vodka is the not-so-secret ingredient that brings everything together.
“It doesn’t — and shouldn’t — taste like vodka,” Guillard explains. “Most vodka is a rather blank canvas, which brings the other flavors together and improves the smoothness of the sauce. It’s added early on, so it has time to simmer and evaporate most of the alcohol.” The point, he says, is to blend into the background of the sauce.
“This is something you can try without risking too much heartbreak. Pasta and canned tomatoes are relatively inexpensive. The mezcal and gochujang are the fancier ingredients you might hesitate to buy, but they’re so versatile and long-lasting that you will find a way to use them all up, even if it’s not on repeat cooks of this dish.”
But, if you’re looking for something a little more unexpected, try switching up the spirit next time. Might your vodka sauce benefit from a little mezcal?
Guillard thinks so. “Purists would say you need to use vodka, but I like that little bit of smoky flavor element, especially if you’re serving it with grilled chicken or shrimp,” he says. While you still shouldn’t taste the alcohol when using mezcal, the smoky flavor will remain, providing extra contrast to the fruity umami of the tomatoes, the silkiness of the noodles, and the smoothness of the cream.
Another fan of mezcal in a cream sauce? Victor Nevarez, the YouTuber and home cook behind the channel Internet Shaquille. “It’s the perfect use case for people who love mezcal, who always have some on hand,” he says in his video for his recipe, “And for people who hate mezcal and don’t know what to do with the one bottle they’ve been hanging on to for half a decade.”
“If you’re a fan of smoky, rich dishes, this may very well become a new favorite. If not, the tried-and-true version will always be there for you.”
Guillard and Nevarez agree that there’s no need to run out and buy special mezcal if you want to try the method. “I used Madre because it’s what I keep in my home bar,” Nevarez told VinePair. “Del Maguey Vida is another variety I might have on hand.”
Nevarez’s recipe, below, calls for 2 ounces of mezcal, but it’s worth playing around with the proportions to see what you prefer. “Most vodka is about 40 percent alcohol,” says Guillard, “whereas mezcal is generally more like 50 percent. If you use the same amount of mezcal as you’d use of vodka, it could get overpowering.”
Nevarez makes one more swap in his recipe: instead of tomato paste and red pepper flakes, he uses gochujang, a Korean red chili paste. Though seemingly quite off the beaten path for an Italian pasta recipe, it’s not that radical a switch, flavor-wise. “It’s still red and pasty, but with additional flavors of fermentation, sweetness, and salt,” he explains.
If you’re a fan of smoky, rich dishes, this may very well become a new favorite. If not, the tried- and-true version will always be there for you. “This is something you can try without risking too much heartbreak,” says Nevarez. “Pasta and canned tomatoes are relatively inexpensive. The mezcal and gochujang are the fancier ingredients you might hesitate to buy, but they’re so versatile and long-lasting that you will find a way to use them all up, even if it’s not on repeat cooks of this dish.”
As far as drink pairings, mezcal is a natural fit, but let your heart — and bar cart — be your guide. “I made a lot of this sauce for the 2023 Super Bowl, and that day I was drinking lots of Spagliatos,” recalls Nevarez.
Pasta alla Mezcal
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small minced shallot
2 minced garlic cloves
2 ounces mezcal
2 tablespoons gochujang
15 ounces can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
Half a box of “forkable” pasta like penne or farfalle
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano and basil or parsley to garnish
Cook shallot and garlic in oil and butter over medium heat for 2 minutes.
Add mezcal, then gochujang before cooking for 2 more minutes.
Add crushed tomatoes and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.
As the sauce is simmering, cook a half-pound of pasta. Reserve up to a cup of pasta water.
Add cream to the simmered sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Pour the cooked pasta into the sauce pan and toss. Adjust the thickness of the sauce with pasta water.
Sprinkle with Parmigiano Reggiano and herbs.