It seemed like there was a phase in the cooking world, and maybe it’s still happening, when vodka pasta sauce was the freakin’ bee’s knees.
It was the sexiest thing you could do to pasta.
I’ve definitely made it and ate it and enjoyed it, although I’ve never posted on it.
Here’s my problem with vodka sauce: Good vodka is specifically engineered to be tasteless. That’s why it’s great for mixed drinks. It really has almost no taste.
So wouldn’t it make sense to make a sauce with booze that has some flavor? More importantly, maybe booze that has some herbal flavors that would go well with tomatoes and cheese?
Gin has these flavors and it will kick your pasta sauce up a notch.
1) In a medium pot, add olive oil, onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes and begin cooking over medium heat. Cook for 5 minutes until onions are soft and fragrant. Be careful not to brown the onions and garlic. You just want them soft.
2) Add in tomatoes and cook for a few minutes.
3) Remove sauce from heat and blend with a stick blender, or normal blender until sauce is fairly smooth. It doesn't have to be perfect.
4) Add gin and sugar to sauce and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes or so until alcohol cooks off from gin. You'll know when it's ready because it won't smell like strong alcohol.
5) Stir in cream, Parmesan cheese, and basil and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
6) Cook pasta according to package. Make sure to pull it when it is al dente or has a slight bite to it still.
7) Drain pasta well and add directly to sauce. Stir together.
8) Serve garnished with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil!
Gin Over Vodka
I was a bit worried when I had the idea for this sauce that I would go too far in the other direction. I was worried that gin would have too much flavor and completely overpower the sauce. I started slow and added a quarter of a cup to the sauce, let it simmer and tasted it.
At the end of it, I decided that about a cup of gin is the right amount. Even though gin has a pretty strong flavor on its own, when it cooks down and mixes with the other ingredients, it’s a subtle but nice flavor.
Basically, I think it gives the sauce some interesting complexity that definitely can’t be found with a vodka sauce. Gin after all is made with a fair amount of botanical herbs and spices while vodka is made mainly with… potatoes.
Starting the Sauce
While there is some simmering and stirring that goes on with this sauce, there’s really not much chopping. Just dice up some onion and garlic and you’re ready to start the sauce.
Add the olive oil to a medium pot with the onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook this over medium heat until the onions and garlic start to soften and it smells very fragrant.
You don’t want the onions to brown at all. They should just get soft over medium heat which will take around 5-6 minutes.
Then add in your tomatoes and sugar. The small amount of sugar balances some of the acidity of the tomatoes.
Any diced tomatoes will do the trick for this recipe. I went with some fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes.
Continue to cook this for a few minutes.
I wanted my sauce to be pretty smooth so I decided to blend it up with my stick blender. You could also use a normal blender or just kind of mash the tomatoes as they cooked and go with a more rustic version of the sauce.
You definitely don’t need a blender to make this sauce, but if you can, I recommend taking it for a spin.
Big Time Flavor
At this point our sauce is pretty standard, but it’s about to get a big bump in the flavor department.
Starting with the gin. A whole cup. It doesn’t really matter what brand of gin you use, but I wouldn’t use super-cheap stuff.
Bring this sauce to a simmer and let it simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly. Your goal here is to cook off most of the alcohol and reduce the gin flavors.
You’ll know when it’s done because the sauce won’t smell intensely like alcohol!
As a final step stir in some cream which will mellow out some of the flavors and give the sauce a nice, rich texture.
Any time I’m trying to make a really good tomato-based pasta sauce, there are two ingredients that I almost always include: Real Parmesan cheese, and fresh basil.
Add a good amount of these to the sauce and season the sauce with salt and pepper.
I recommend finishing the sauce and then just keeping it warm while you work on the pasta.
This was my finished sauce!
Finishing the Dish
For the pasta itself, just cook it according to the package. While I guess you could use any pasta, I think penne works perfectly for this dish.
Whatever you do, don’t overcook the pasta. Soggy pasta is pretty much the worst.
As soon as the pasta is drained, toss it into the sauce (or toss the sauce into your pasta depending on your pot size).
Stir it all together. Even though it will look like a lot of sauce, as you stir in the pasta, all that sauce will get trapped in the penne pasta and you’ll be all set.
I like to serve pasta dishes like this family style which basically means I just pile it in a huge bowl and add some basil and cheese to the top.
Surprisingly, even with a cup of gin in this sauce, the flavor is pretty subtle. All of those gin botanicals, most importantly juniper, give the sauce this really complex flavor and fragrance.
It’s one of those dishes that if you were to eat it without knowing what was in it, you wouldn’t be able to put your finger on it, but once you know it’s gin, then it makes sense.
Let it be known: When it comes to pasta sauces, gin is the new vodka.