Creamy Cashew Vodka Sauce

Creamy Cashew Vodka Sauce

Vodka sauce is utterly delicious, especially when it coats a bowl of perfectly al dente pasta. Hit it with some fresh basil and serve it with a glass of red, and you’ve got yourself the perfect any-day-of-the-week dinner. 

However, most vodka sauce recipes include a heavy dose of cream and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan. Although there is no shame in dairy and cheese, I wanted to create a dairy-free vodka sauce recipe that is just as creamy, simple, and craveworthy as the original. 

For the Creamiest Dairy-Free Sauce, Use Cashew Cream

In order to achieve a really creamy vegan vodka sauce, I made a quick cashew cream using just cashews and water. Often the cashews have to soak overnight, but by bringing them to a boil first, 15 minutes of soaking is all they need to soften. Because cashew cream has a very mild flavor, it’s a versatile dairy substitute.

Don’t Forget to Salt the Pasta Water

When making this recipe be sure to generously salt the pasta water. This will allow the pasta to soak up some of the salt as it cooks, which will enhance the flavor of the dish. But don’t be afraid to salt the vodka sauce itself. Just an extra pinch makes a world of difference. 

What Does Vodka Add to Vodka Sauce?

Don’t skimp on the vodka! Believe it or not, it serves more of a purpose than you might think. Adding vodka, although it gets mostly cooked off, helps bring sharpness and a cohesion of rich flavors to an otherwise sweet and fairly rich sauce. You don’t need anything too fancy, but I would argue that if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t cook with it!

Tips for Making the Best Dairy-Free Vodka Sauce

  • Changing the sauce consistency—The sauce will look very thick before adding the pasta water. That's okay and is to be expected since the cashew cream isn’t nearly as liquidy as regular cream! If you prefer a thinner sauce, reserve extra pasta water. 
  • Don't over-salt the sauce —Since the pasta water is salted, avoid adding too much extra salt to the sauce until after you've got the consistency right where you want it.
  • Perfectly cooked pasta—Make sure to cook the pasta a little shy of al dente. It will finish cooking in the sauce.

Make Ahead

  • The cashew cream can be made up to 5 days in advance if needed. Once blended until smooth, transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. It will separate as it sits, so give it a good stir before using.
  • The vegan vodka sauce could also be made up to 5 days ahead. If doing so, cook the sauce as directed without the addition of the pasta water. Store refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve, then boil the pasta, and reheat sauce with the pasta water and drained pasta.

“Using homemade cashew cream and vegan butter makes a vegan-friendly version of the classic Penne alla Vodka. I think most people who sample it would be hard-pressed to guess that they were eating a dairy-free dish!” —Joan Velush

Vegan Vodka Sauce Recipe/Tester Image A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup raw cashews

  • 3/4 cup water

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

  • 1 pound pasta, such as penne or rigatoni

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes, optional

  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

  • 1/2 cup vodka

  • 2 tablespoons vegan butter

  • 1 teaspoon fine salt, plus more for the pasta water

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, for garnishing

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients to make vegan vodka sauce

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  2. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.

    A pot of boiling salted water

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  3. Place cashews in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and let soak for 15 minutes.

    A saucepan with cashews in water

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  4. Drain cashews, then transfer to a blender, add the 3/4 cup water, and puree until smooth and creamy.

    A blender with creamy cashew puree

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  5. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes (reduce heat if browning).

    Onions cooking in a large pan

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  6. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook 1 minute less than indicated on package directions. Reserve 1 1/2 cups pasta water and drain the pasta.

    Cooked pasta in a colander with a small bowl of reserved pasta water

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  7. While the pasta is cooking, continue to cook the sauce. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, if using, to the pan with the onions. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

    Garlic and red pepper flakes added to the pan of cooking onions

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  8. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until deep red and fragrant, about 1 minute.

    Tomato paste added to the pan

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  9. Stir in the vodka and continue to cook until it mostly evaporates.

    A hand pouring vodka into the tomato paste mixture

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  10. Stir in cashew cream, 1 cup of the reserved pasta water, butter, and salt. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vodka flavor has mellowed and the sauce is smooth and glossy, 5 to 8 minutes.

    Cashew cream, pasta water, and vegan butter added to the tomato mixture

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  11. Stir in the pasta, and continue cooking until coated in sauce and al dente, another 1 to 2 minutes.

    Pasta tossed in a pan of vegan vodka sauce

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

  12. Add additional pasta water as needed to reach desired sauce consistency. Serve immediately topped with the basil.

    A pan of vegan vodka sauce and pasta

    The Spruce Eats / Preethi Venkatram

How to Store or Freeze

Any leftovers can be stored in an airtight container, and will last in the fridge for 5 days. You could also freeze the vegan vodka sauce separately for up to 3 months. Let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then gently reheat in a saucepan.

Recipe Variations

  • Spicy Vodka Sauce—If you prefer your vodka sauce spicy, add an additional 1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes. 
  • Use other pasta shapes—This sauce recipe also works well with other pasta shapes like rigatoni, gnocchi, or fusilli.

Whats the Difference Between Vodka Sauce and Alfredo?

Vodka sauce is an Italian-American tomato-based sauce enriched with vodka and cream. Alfredo sauce is an Italian emulsion of butter, pasta water, and Parmigiano Reggiano. Alfredo sauce is much simpler, with fewer ingredients, and it does not contain tomato, making it a very simple white sauce.

Finally, while vodka sauce is most commonly served with penne pasta, alfredo sauce is typically paired with fettuccine.

Can Vodka Sauce Get You Drunk?

Absolutely not. There is a modest amount of vodka in vodka sauce to begin with, and it is intentionally cooked down to boil off most of the alcohol. This is not just important because no one wants to get drunk from a pasta dish, but also because the flavor of raw alcohol in the sauce is sharp and unpleasant.

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