Lightened-Up Penne a la Vodka is the comfort food you crave, remade without the guilt (butter & heavy cream) - but doesn't disappoint on being creamy, cheesy, silky, and full of flavor.Jump to Recipe
Penne a la vodka is a classic Italian pasta dish that's made with tomato sauce, heavy cream, vodka, shallots, garlic, and butter. Although it may seem like a difficult sauce to make, vodka sauce is actually super easy and it uses minimal ingredients.
There's also that signature taste that doesn't taste quite like anything else!
It's creamy and decadent with hints of tomato, cream, and cheese. Contrary to what you would think, you do not taste any of the vodka in the sauce either. The vodka fully cooks out.
But it is there to help deepen the flavor of the tomato sauce (among other things), which only alcohol can do. What it leaves behind is divine.
I love to make penne a la vodka for special occasions, not because it's hard to make, but because it is so decadent and special. That's why I wanted to create a version of penne a la vodka that you could eat weekly (or daily) if you really wanted to!
FULL-FAT VODKA SAUCE
If you’ve ever made vodka sauce before, it's no mystery as to what makes it so amazing. The sauce calls for about 2 sticks of butter & something like 2-3 cups of heavy cream, like most good things in life.
Which is why it is literally my favorite pasta sauce. Forget the vodka, it’s made up of about 80% fat.
Fat can be a good thing (egg yolks), but it can also be very heavy (baby back ribs). In moderation, this is all good. In fact, I will eventually post my family’s traditional Penne a la Vodka sauce for your cheat meals/days/bulking/treats/entertaining. It’s a no-fail recipe that any beginner could make and always looks impressive.
FAT AS A MACRONUTRIENT
Let’s backtrack for a second. I do not want you to get the impression that I’m shaming eating fat or even coming close to saying that “fat makes you fat”. This is really far from the truth.
Without getting too in-depth as to what kinds of fats there are, our bodies need this macronutrient. Just like the other two macronutrients (carbs & protein), fats are vital to our body’s daily functions. And just like carbs and protein, some fats are better for you than others.
The real reason foods loaded with fat tend to be heavier is because fat has more calories per gram than the other two macros. Carbs and protein are both 4 calories per gram, while fat (in all forms) carries 9 calories per gram.
So, that’s why your 2 tbsp of peanut butter (180 calories) is the same as the 4 ounces of chicken breast you eat for lunch (180 calories), even though the portion is very different.
You intuitively know this too: whole milk nutrition vs skim milk, 80% ground beef vs 92%, etc. Fat does not make you fat, the extra calories do. So when you’re losing weight, it’s a great place to cut unnecessary calories from.
LIGHTER PENNE A LA VODKA
Now that you understand what makes this dish so heavy & why – you also understand what needs to be replaced in this recipe. However, what I did not want to happen was to cut out all the good stuff and be left with something that tastes “kinda, sorta” like Penne a la Vodka. What this Lightened-Up Penne a la Vodka DOES make is a happy medium, that you may not even be able to taste.
Here are the changes to make it lighter:
- The butter gets cut way down.
- The heavy cream gets replaced with…plain Greek yogurt! (And you wouldn’t even know it. My husband pretty much hates yogurt and couldn’t tell.)
- The vodka is eliminated.
ALCOHOL AS A MACRONUTRIENT
What's vodka sauce without vodka you say? Well, besides being there to deepen the tomato flavor, is kind of a useless waste of calories in a lightened-up version.
As a macronutrient though, vodka isn’t a fat, a carb, or a protein. Which means, it isn't anything.
Also, assuming you’re making this version for any health-related goals, alcohol just doesn’t fit into this one. While we’re on the topic, when we ingest alcohol, our bodies cannot do anything with it. It provides us with nothing. It's technically its own macronutrient that our bodies can’t store as fat.
What this means though, is that since our bodies cannot store it, it switches to burn the energy (calories) in alcohol and postpones fat burning (even in a deficit). So, in short, alcohol consumption inhibits fat oxidation. I linked an article below if you’d like to learn more about this!
But I digress. Without much of the fat and the vodka, this Lightened Up Penne a la Vodka is still creamy, silky, and familiarly delicious. The whole dish comes together much quicker too! Making it perfect for a weeknight indulgence – or maybe it will just feel that way! Making a big batch of the sauce to portion out throughout the week is also a fantastic idea!
HOW TO COOK
Here is a quick overview of what you'll need to make this lightened-up penne a la vodka and the steps simplified.
- Penne - You can really use any pasta you want to (rigatoni, fusilli, ravioli, fettucine). Penne just happens to be the traditional pasta in the dish
- Butter - The difference between using butter or oil in this recipe is essential. I highly recommend only using butter in your vodka sauce.
- Shallot - Shallots are a little sweeter than yellow onion, and that makes them perfect for this sauce.
- Tomato sauce - You can use sauce you made previously, canned crushed san marzano, crushed tomatoes, or smooth tomato sauce
- Ham - Use Italian deli ham you can cut into pieces or pancetta
- Half and Half - This will act as the cream in the recipe that usually calls for heavy cream
- Greek yogurt - The yogurt does the rest of the heavy lifting to lighten the tomato sauce
- Parsley & Parmesan - Both for topping your sauce & dish off!
Step 1: Saute your shallots into melted butter
Step 2: Add in the sauce and the ham and cook the sauce
Step 3: Add in the cream & yogurt
Step 4: Finish off the sauce & mix with your pasta
How many calories are in penne a la vodka?
In a full-fat version of penne a la vodka there could be up to 865 calories in a 4-ounce serving. In this lightened-up version, there are only 338 calories per 4 ounce serving!
Is vodka sauce healthy?
Even though the classic vodka sauce is made with a lot of fat, it is still fairly healthy. It's loaded with tomatoes, shallots, and ham, which adds vitamins, servings of vegetables, and protein. Since the alcohol cooks out, that is not a factor in the nutrition. This version for lighter vodka sauce is even healthier though because it eliminates much of the fat that gets incorporated through the heavy cream & butter.
How can I store vodka sauce?
Store your vodka sauce in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week. If you need it to last longer than that, you may freeze it. Thaw in the refrigerator when you're ready to use it.
Lightened-Up Penne a la Vodka
- 8 oz penne
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- ½ cup diced shallot
- 2 cups tomato sauce – can or premade jar
- ½ cup diced Italian ham
- 4 tbsp nonfat half and half
- ¼ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
- ¼ cup minced fresh parsley
- Parmesan cheese
Boil a pot of water and cook pasta according to directions (8-10 min).
While the pasta is cooking, heat a stockpot on medium and add in butter. When butter has melted, add in shallot, moving around to coat in the butter.
Once the shallot is translucent (3-4 minutes), add in the tomato sauce and stir. Bring this to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes.
Add in the ham and the half and half to the sauce. The sauce will start to lighten in color. Turn the heat off and work the Greek yogurt into the sauce, stirring until it is fully incorporated. Finally, mix in most of the fresh parsley (save some to top your pasta!)
Drain your pasta, return to pot, and toss a couple ladles full of sauce into your pasta to coat.
Serve with more sauce on top, grated parmesan cheese, and the leftover fresh parsley!