According to SNL, penne alla vodka is nothing short of mediocre. In fact, the specific words in its faux pasta ad, which starred Dua Lipa, were “loved by none, tolerated by all.” The sketch continued, “Whenever we gather, for reasons happy or sad, it’s there for us: a big-ass aluminum tray of penne alla vodka.” And let’s be honest, this simple tomato pasta dish can indeed be a little lackluster. But there are many ways to make it not just tolerable, but actually, pretty delicious. In defense of penne alla vodka, we’ve gathered seven vegan recipes that will show you how to take this basic party staple to the next level.

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Why add vodka to pasta?

Penne alla vodka usually involves tomatoes, cream, garlic, onions, and a dash of vodka. Adding a strong alcoholic spirit to a simple pasta dish seems like an odd choice, but it actually serves an important role, as it helps to enhance the flavor. This is because, as a highly distilled spirit, vodka extracts the flavors from ingredients like onions and tomatoes, and distributes them throughout the dish.

On top of this, vodka can aid in emulsification and help to create a smooth and creamy texture in the sauce. It helps the fats and liquids in the sauce blend more evenly, which prevents separation and results in a pleasant velvety consistency.

RELATED: 10 Delicious, Protein-Packed Pasta Recipes to Cook Tonight

7 ways to take classic penne alla vodka to the next level

Despite the shade from SNL, penne alla vodka is actually loved by many Americans. In fact, according to Taste Atlas, it is North America’s second top pasta dish (that’s one place above mac and cheese!). However, if you’re feeling a little bored with the standard recipe, there are many ways to jazz it up a little. Find some of our top tips and recipes below.

VegNews.StuffedShellsBrianna Claxton

1 Swap the penne for shells

It might be called penna alla vodka, but there is no rule that says a delicious tomato vodka pasta dish has to be made with one specific type of pasta. If you’re bored of penne, we recommend swapping in shells instead. Thanks to their concave shape, they can hold onto all that delicious sauce, which adds extra flavor to each bite. To liven things up even more, add spicy vegan sausage to the mix, too.
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Spicy Vegan Vodka Alla PastaUpbeet Anisha

2 Add some extra spice

If you like a little bit of heat, adding extra spices to your vegan penne alla vodka is a great way to fire up the taste. In this recipe, Upbeet Anisha recommends mixing in chili flakes and Kashmiri lal with your regular ingredients, like tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
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Pumpkin Pasta Alla VodkaPlays Well With Butter

3 Mix in pumpkin purée

Tomatoes are often the star of the show when it comes to pasta alla vodka, but this dish also shines with some creamy pumpkin purée in the mix. It’s a great dish for the fall months, but you can, of course, enjoy it whenever the mood takes you. According to Plays Well With Butter, the pasta “has a subtle earthy sweetness that tastes just the way a fall dinner should.”
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Gochujang Vodka Pasta

4 Create a fusion dish with gochujang

Gochujang, a popular red chili pasta from Korea, is bursting with spicy flavor, making it a great asset to a pasta alla vodka dish. According to Carrie Carvalho, adding gochujang to the simple pasta recipe adds a “bit of sophistication” to a classic comfort meal. “I make this creamy gochujang pasta when I’m enjoying a night in alone with the TV or when I want to impress dinner guests,” she notes. Note: the recipe includes dairy, but it does note that all ingredients can be swapped for plant-based alternatives.
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Penne Alla Vodka With Tofu CrumblesAngelina’s Veggie Kitchen

5 Sprinkle on some tofu crumbles

There aren’t many pasta dishes that can’t be made better by adding a generous sprinkle of tofu crumbles. In this recipe from Angelina’s Veggie Kitchen, smoky tofu compliments the flavors of tomato vodka sauce beautifully (and it also adds a generous pop of protein, too).
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Vegan Cauliflower Vodka PastaCook Republican

6 Caramelize some cauliflower

Is there any limit to what cauliflower can do? If there is, we haven’t come across it yet. When caramelized, cauliflower is the perfect complimentary vegetable to this deliciously light and creamy vodka pasta dish. “You will want to marry this recipe because it is the most delicious pasta you will ever eat,” proclaims recipe developer Sneh Roy.
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Vegan Vodka Pasta Sausage and BrocolliKitchen Sitch

7 Load it up with toppings

Pasta alla vodka is the perfect base for all of your favorite toppings. We think it’s hard to beat the dynamic combination of broccoli and vegan sausage, and Anthony Underwood of Kitchen Sitch agrees. “It’s a great way to incorporate a plant-based meal/products into your normal dinner routine,” he notes.
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