Salmon penne alla vodka – known in Italian as penne al salmone e vodka – is a popular salmon pasta recipe that often features on Italian restaurant menus. Penne pasta are served in a delicious creamy sauce with salmon bits and tender zucchini. A splash of vodka finishes off this creamy pasta making it incredibly delicate.
You may be familiar with evaporating a splash of wine when cooking a food, but vodka? Surprisingly, the potent distillate has equally charming powers. All alcoholic beverages, in fact, can do magic to the food you’re cooking. As long as you pair wisely and go by the rule that you wouldn’t add to your food something you wouldn’t drink on its own.
Alcohol has the wonderful quality of bonding with fat and water creating flavour connections between the various ingredients of a recipe that in absence of alcohol would not happen. If you want to learn more I recommend this article on alcohol’s role in cooking from Fine Cooking.
A pasta dish from the ’80s
Salmon is not a traditional ingredient in Italian cuisine, and neither is vodka. Yet the two became somewhat trendy in the ’80s. Throw penne pasta into the equation and you get penne al salmone e vodka. It all began towards the end of the ’70s, when a new pasta recipe, penne alla vodka, went all the rage. It became a trendy meal option served at discos throughout the ’80s.
Penne alla vodka is a creamy tomato pasta where the vodka ultimately has the role of emulsifying the sauce ensuring the fat in the cream doesn’t separate when mixed with the acidity of the tomatoes. Salmon penne alla vodka is a variation of this recipe, where smoked salmon is also added. Known in Italian as penne alla moscovita (Moscow-style penne pasta), the recipe also called for caviar.
As time passed, salmon penne alla vodka incredibly stood the test of time. Caviar (or its cheaper substitutes) phased out pretty quickly, and as time passed tomato disappeared from the recipe, too. A more modern take on this trendy pasta dish from the past only features salmon and cream, like in this recipe. What remained unchanged was the pasta shape. It just has to be penne.
How to make salmon penne alla vodka
This modern version of salmon penne alla vodka is a copycat of what my mom makes. Her recipe was itself inspired by a portion of pasta we were once served at a restaurant. The addition of the sautéed zucchini is what my mom copied from the restaurant. It gives this pleasant flavour and texture contrast here and there that has become a signature in our family.
Here are the ingredients:
- Penne pasta – and I insist that it just has to be penne
- Smoked salmon – this is the real main ingredient here
- Cooking cream – I tend to prefer a rather fat cream, up to 30% fat
- Vodka – the invisible ingredients that finishes off the dish
- Zucchini – the sidekick for that elegant finish that also shines as pretty decoration
- Olive oil
- Salt and black pepper to taste.
- Warm 1 tbsp olive oil in a skillet, thinly slice the zucchini and add it to the pan. Sauté on medium-high heat 3-4 minutes, until soft. Remove the zucchini from the pan and add the rest of the oil.
- Mince the shallot and add it to the oil. Sauté 2-3 min until soft. Coarsely cut the salmon into strips and add that to the pan, too.
- In the meantime, bring a pot of water to a boil, add salt and add your penne. Cook according to package instructions – it should be around 10 minutes for standard penne.
- Sauté the salmon on medium heat stirring to distribute the heat. When it looks cooked through and starts to flake, pour in the cream.
- Simmer the sauce until the cream reduces and thickens, 4-5 minutes. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Toss to coat in the sauce. Top with zucchini and freshly cracked black pepper.
Salmon penne serving suggestions
Serve immediately if possible. The pasta will keep absorbing moisture from the sauce and the whole dish may get dry if it sits too long. If you must serve it at a later time, keep the pasta in the skillet and reheat on medium heat adding a little cream to moisten it up.
Microwaving is not recommended. I generally tend to avoid reheating pasta dishes with creamy sauces in the microwave, as the cream turns to oil. I have saved my salmon pasta leftovers in lunchboxes previously, and while there was nothing wrong with the flavour, you can expect a texture change in the sauce if you choose to do so.
Don’t use cheese. That all kinds of pasta or risotto recipes should be finished off with grated parmesan is a misconception. Fish or seafood dishes never come with parmesan in Italy. Cheese is no match to that. This is why there is no parmesan in this recipe, in case you were wondering. No match.
Can I use fresh salmon?
The answer is yes! If you don’t have access to smoked salmon, you can definitely substitute it for fresh salmon. If you’re using fillets, you may just cut them into strips for easier and quicker cooking. They will just flake when cooked, so you will get a rather similar texture in the end. The main difference will be the absence of the smoky flavour.
You don’t need to buy fillets if you’re on a budget but still want to enjoy some salmon penne alla vodka. In my local supermarkets I usually find packets of mixed chunks of salmon in the frozen section. Any smaller or rougher bit that did not make the fillet selection get packaged and sold for cheaper. They’re perfect for fish soups and great in this recipe, too.
Sometimes buying in bulk makes for cheaper deals, so if you’ve stocked up on some of the ingredients needed in this recipe, here’s some inspiration to use it all up:
- Smoked salmon carpaccio topped with thin grapefruit slices and swirls of shaved asparagus, a delicious appetizer that goes so well with a glass of Prosecco.
- Smoked salmon and potato ravioli, if you want to make your own ravioli from scratch you may want to try this delicate filling made with salmon.
- Smoked salmon mousse on boiled egg halves for a Scandinavian twist to your deviled eggs – perfect for Easter!
- Zucchini cheddar risotto has a pretty similar appearance with those sautéed zucchini on top.
- Zucchini and feta quiche is an easy mid-week dinner option that is both tasty and healthy.
Don’t forget to pin this salmon penne alla vodka recipe for later and if you made this recipe let me know your feedback in the comments!
This recipe was originally posted in June 2017. Updated March 2021 with new pictures and a recipe card.
Penne alla vodka with salmon
Salmon penne alla vodka is a creamy pasta dish where the salmon is king. This modern take on a recipe from the '80s features no tomato but adds zucchini for both colour and flavour.
- 300 g penne pasta
- 400 g smoked salmon or fresh salmon
- 1/2 zucchini
- 1 shallot small
- 300 ml cream
- 3 tbsp vodka
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- salt & pepper to taste
Warm half of the olive oil in a skillet, thinly slice the zucchini and add it to the pan. Sauté on medium-high heat 3-4 minutes, until soft. Remove the zucchini from the pan and add the rest of the oil.
Mince the shallot and add it to the oil. Sauté 2-3 min until soft. Cut the salmon into strips and add it to the pan. Sauté on medium heat stirring from time to time.
As the salmon is cooking, bring a pot of water to a boil, add salt and add penne. Cook according to package instructions - it should be around 10 minutes.
When the fish looks cooked through and starts to flake, pour in the cream. Simmer the sauce until the cream reduces and thickens, 4-5 minutes.
Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Toss to coat in the sauce. Top with zucchini and freshly cracked black pepper.
The nutritional information provided is only an estimate based on a suggested serving size. The amount of pasta in this recipe feeds 3 people if only having this as a meal. If planning to serve an appetizer or another course along with the pasta, these quantities will serve 4.
Use any vodka you please, as long as it is unflavoured.
Smoked salmon can be substituted with fresh salmon in the same quantities.