My first experience with Penne alla Vodka with Chicken was cooking a “gourmet” meal for a group of college friends in our dorm’s basement kitchen. Looking back, I’m not sure which impresses me more: our resourcefulness (that kitchen was equipped with little beyond a hot pot and a few forks someone had “donated” from the dining hall) or our audacity—we made vodka sauce on a campus that doesn’t allow vodka. After one bite, we felt validated. The pasta tasted creamy, glorious, and absolutely worth the risk.
While I don’t remember anything else we ate—my hunch is the full menu included the penne alla vodka with chicken, wine (from a box), and cake (also from a box)—penne alla vodka has been one of my favorite comfort food dishes since.
Every time I eat it, I’m transported back to that fun, silly night and the joy of good company.
If you aren’t familiar with penne alla vodka or are wondering how to make a vodka sauce, it is a luxurious mix of crushed tomatoes and cream that you can cook quickly on your stove top.
While normally opposite ends of the sauce spectrum, in penne vodka, tomatoes and cream meld together to create something truly fabulous. The secret of their union is the dish’s namesake.
As its name suggests, penne alla vodka is made with vodka, which is cooked down. The vodka prevents the acidity of the tomatoes from causing the cream to break and separate. This is culinary science at its most magnificent.
The high count of classic penne alla vodka calories typically puts it on the “special indulgence” list. While that might be true of traditional recipes that use heavy cream, today’s vodka sauce recipe uses a sneaky swap to turn it into a more healthy pasta that you can enjoy regularly.
In fact, this sneaky penne is entirely dairy free, and if you decide to skip the chicken, it’s (gasp!) vegan too.
Here’s my promise: you won’t feel like you are sacrificing in the least.
Like the other healthy twists on Italian favorites you’ll find here (Crock Pot Chicken Marsala, Garlic Shrimp Pasta, and Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore being but three of many healthy pasta recipes), this lightened up penne alla vodka tastes like everything you are hoping for when you decide to make it in the first place: rich, full of flavor, and absolutely scrumptious.
What Does the Vodka Do in Penne alla Vodka?
Contrary to what the name suggests, penne alla vodka does not taste like vodka. Instead, the vodka acts as a flavor balancer. The alcohol burns off during cooking.
- In vodka sauce, the vodka does two very important jobs. It keeps the “cream” from separating, and it helps release additional flavor from the tomatoes.
- As the vodka cooks down, it also adds a light bite to the sauce, balancing the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and cream.
If you’re able, I highly suggest trying this recipe with the vodka. However, if you need a substitute for vodka in penne alla vodka, you could try omitting it or using water with a squeeze of lemon juice instead. *I have not tried this swap before, so it would be an experiment. If you decide to play around and make the penne without vodka sauce, I’d love to hear how it goes!*
The Best Penne alla Vodka with Chicken Recipe (Done Lighter!)
A few of the skinny swaps in this penne alla vodka with chicken recipe were simple, such as replacing the regular penne with whole wheat penne for an extra boost of nutrients, fiber, and protein.
The largest challenge (and thus the one I most wanted to tackle) was what to do with the full cup plus of heavy cream called for in many classic penne alla vodka recipes, both the versions I’ve read in cookbooks and the ones by celebrity chefs (like penne alla vodka by Giada).
My solution? A “cream” made of ground almonds and almond milk.
The Almond “Cream” Sauce
- Almonds + Almond Milk. The secrets to our dairy-free creamy vodka sauce. Almond milk has long been my go-to ingredient to give sweet and savory recipes (like this Healthy Chicken Pot Pie and Creamy Polenta with Zucchini and Tomatoes) richness without adding excess calories. Combined with the bulk and healthy fats in the ground almonds, it creates the most incredible “cream” that, once stirred into the vodka sauce, is a dead-ringer for the Italian classic. Plus, almonds are a wonderful source of fiber and protein.
- Chicken. Browning the chicken first adds wonderful, deep flavor to the dish. I think that chicken meat is best with vodka sauce, but I’ve offered some alternative ideas in the Recipe Variations section below.
- Penne. I used whole wheat penne, but any similar whole wheat pasta noodle will work well with this vodka sauce.
- Vodka. There is a reason it’s in the recipe’s title. While you can’t taste the vodka specifically, it plays a critical role in the sauce coming together cohesively and gives the pasta its signature taste. I promise it’s worth it!
- Crushed Tomatoes. The tomatoes blend seamlessly with the almond “cream” for a richly flavored sauce.
- Parmesan or Nutritional Yeast. While optional, I love adding cheesy flavor to my penne vodka. If you don’t need the dish to be dairy free, you can add a bit of Parmesan. We opted for nutritional yeast, which is loaded with nutrients and has a similar “cheesy” taste to Parmesan. (See all my recipes using nutritional yeast here.)
- Fresh Herbs. A shower of basil or parsley adds a nice touch of freshness and color.
- Soak the almonds, then add them to a blender with the almond milk. Blend until smooth.
- Brown the chicken, and season with salt and pepper. Remove to a plate, then sauté the onion and garlic in the same pot.
- Pour in the vodka (very carefully), and deglaze the pot. Add the tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then stir in the almonds.
- As the sauce is simmering, cook your pasta. Add the pasta and chicken to the sauce, top with Parmesan or nutritional yeast and herbs. ENJOY!
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Broccoli. Stir steamed broccoli or roasted broccoli into the pasta at the end.
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Spinach. Stir in a few handfuls of chopped spinach leaves just before serving, allowing the heat of the pasta to wilt the leaves.
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Shrimp. After sautéing the chicken in Step 2, sauté 1 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp; stir it in with the chicken at the end.
- Vegetarian Penne alla Vodka. Simply omit the chicken. Thanks to the almonds, this pasta recipe is still plenty satisfying without it.
- Penne alla Vodka with Grilled Chicken. Swap the sauteed chicken for grilled, diced chicken breast.
- Penne alla Vodka with Pancetta, Prosciutto, or Bacon. Take penne alla vodka to the next level. Omit the chicken, and sauté 4 ounces of diced pancetta, prosciutto, or bacon with the garlic and onion.
- Penne alla Vodka with Sausage. Omit the chicken, and brown 1 pound of crumbled or chopped Italian sausage (removed from its casing) instead. To keep the recipe on the healthy side, use chicken or turkey sausage.
Penne Vodka Storage Tips
This easy pasta makes a big batch and reheats well, so it’s a great recipe to cook at the beginning of the week, then keep on hand for fast, healthy meals all week long.
- To Store. Keep leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- To Reheat. Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, almond milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
- To Freeze. Store penne alla vodka with chicken in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
What to Serve with Penne Alla Vodka
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Healthy Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken. An easy, family friendly dinner that everyone loves! A lighter version of classic vodka sauce — Creamy and delicious!
- 3/4 cup raw almonds — soaked in water for at least 4 hours or up to 10 hours (if you have a high-powered blended such as a Vitamix, you can skip the soak)
- 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil — divided
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts — cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt — divided
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup vodka
- 1 large yellow onion — diced
- 3 cloves garlic — minced
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pound whole wheat penne or similar whole wheat pasta
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast or Parmesan — optional—use nutritional yeast to make dairy free or omit
- Thinly sliced fresh basil or chopped fresh parsley
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drain the almonds, then place them in a blender with the almond milk. Puree until smooth, thick, and creamy. Depending upon your blender, this may take several minutes and you may need to stop and scrape down the blender a few times. The mixture will be the consistency of a paste and will have brown flecks of almond skin in it. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a very large, deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add the chicken. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Sauté until lightly browned on all sides and cooked through, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside. Make sure you have the vodka measured and on hand.
To the same pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Let warm up, then add the onion and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onion begins to soften, about 3 to 4 minutes, then add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn it.
Carefully add the vodka (be especially careful if your stove has an open flame). Scrape to deglaze the pan, then let the vodka cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Bring this sauce to a steady simmer, then reduce the heat to a low simmer over medium low, adjusting the heat as needed so that the sauce simmers gently (you want it to continue to reduce but not bubble aggressively). Let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the blended almond mixture until the sauce is smooth and the almond mixture is well incorporated (the sauce will turn a light, creamy red color). Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
While the sauce simmers, cook the pasta in the boiling water to al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and immediately add it to the sauce. Toss to coat the pasta, then stir in the chicken, adding a bit of the pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce as needed. Stir in the nutritional yeast. Serve hot, sprinkled with basil or parsley.
- TO STORE: Keep leftover penne vodka in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- TO REHEAT: Gently rewarm leftovers in a Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-low heat, splashing in broth, almond milk, or water as needed to loosen the sauce. You can also reheat this recipe in the microwave.
- TO FREEZE: Store penne alla vodka with chicken in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating
Course: Main Course
Keyword: Easy Pasta Recipe, Healthy Vodka Sauce Recipe, Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken
Amount per serving (1 (of 8), about 2 cups) — Calories: 475, Fat: 14g, Saturated Fat: 2g, Cholesterol: 28mg, Carbohydrates: 46g, Fiber: 9g, Sugar: 7g, Protein: 24g
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