Friday, January 8, 2010

Vodka Sauce

This winter, I put a pasta with vodka sauce on the lunch menu and because the sauce is so good, we've started cooking our mussels in it as an alternative to the usual à la marinière preparation.

I have always wondered if adding an essentially flavorless alcohol to tomato sauce was just a gimmick. [Vodka pedants, we all know good vodka has flavor, just like good bottled water has flavor, but when compared to tomatoes, it might as well be flavorless, so don't go there!] Qualitatively, I do know that my vodka sauce is really, really tasty. But, what role if any does the vodka play?

I always macerate my crushed red pepper flakes in the vodka before adding it to the sauce to make a spicy red pepper extract, much in the same way that I make vanilla extract by putting vanilla beans in a bottle of inexpensive vodka. Clearly the capsaicins (the alkaloids responsible for the burn) are freely alcohol soluble; the vodka becomes very spicy. If the vodka does nothing else in my sauce, it does promote an even spicing of the sauce. Capsaicins are notably insoluble in water, hence drinking a glass of water does nothing to ameliorate the burn in your mouth.

But does the vodka do anything for the tomatoes?

The popular food literature is replete with sayings such as "the alcohol in the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomatoes." But I can't really find any specific reference in the scientific literature to confirm this. What I do see is that there are several patents for processing tomatoes that begin by macerating the tomatoes in food-grade alcohol (e.g., US Patent 5436022), so I surmise that some of the key flavoring agents in tomatoes must be more alcohol soluble than water soluble.

Sorry for getting so technical. I just want to know why my vodka sauce tastes so damned good! Anybody out there have any ideas what role alcohol plays in tomato sauce?


  1. Chef, love the BLOG. Those squash cakes almost killed me, though, they're so rich. Keep up the good work.

    On tomatoes, Harold McGee and others agree on this answer. As you said, it's the alcohol, not the vodka per se--vodka just adds a smaller additional taste footprint than say, wine:

    "The first relates to solubility: Many flavor molecules that aren't soluble in water are soluble in alcohol; when alcohol is added to a dish, these molecules in the ingredients dissolve and release their flavors. So after stirring a small amount of vodka into the apple-cranberry relish, Ms. Clair says, she "could taste the cranberry and apples more."

    The second reaction occurs when alcohols and acids meet and create "fruity esters," compounds with a sweet, fruitlike flavor, according to Kevin Wu, a project engineer at Foster-Miller, a food-product development company in Waltham, Mass. Dishes such as vodka-tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and the apple-cranberry relish Ms. Clair made benefit from these fragrant esters."

  2. FYI,Capsaicin is soluble in lipids,such as the olive oil used to saute the onions and garlic. On that basis,vodka would seem to be unnecessary. Maybe there are esters produced. Darn good dish,regardless