We love pasta. We love cream. We love salmon. We love a splash of lemon. And we definitely love a little vodka. Let's combine flavors and textures that work so well together into an everyday masterpiece perfect for a weeknight dinner.
This super-easy-to-prepare pasta dish is a classic combination of bright and citrusy flavors of lemon, vodka and fresh dill with the savory and smooth cream and salmon. I used penne pasta, but you can definitely substitute any type of pasta that you wish, and it will turn out great.
I always forget how wonderful salmon is until I sneak a tender flake off the side right when it finishes cooking. Along with being extremely good for you, salmon is such a beautiful and luxurious ingredient that I could probably eat it almost every day in some form. If you're a salmon newbie, check out my Salmon 101 for loads of info on salmon, including where to buy, tips, and a smoked salmon pasta recipe.
Quick Tip: Plan ahead for this recipe. It's a great use for leftover salmon from the night before.
- Pasta, such as penne or fettuccini (any will work great)
- Unsalted butter
- Heavy cream
- Cooked salmon
- Zest and juice from a lemon (preferably Meyer lemon)
- Grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese
- Fresh dill, basil, chives or whatever herbs you have on hand
- Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
It's great to green it up by adding in veggies such as asparagus, chopped kale (that you can blanch right in the pasta water), spinach that you can toss right in, frozen peas, broccoli or even cauliflower. Leftover pesto is also a great add-in and will add tons of flavor and color.
Types of Pasta to Use
Really any pasta you like will work. I prefer pasta that is on the wider side so the creamy sauce will stick to it. Penne is a nice shape and fettuccini or thick spaghetti work well. Even fresh pasta is great. If you want to go low carb, it would also be delish with spaghetti squash or veggie noodles.
What Type of Salmon to Use
I always recommend using wild salmon from the Pacific Ocean. Alaskan Salmon is often seen as the best, but it depends on the season as to what is available. I talk more about the differences between wild and farm-raised salmon in this pan-seared salmon recipe post, and in my Salmon 101 guide.
How to Cook Salmon
The easiest way to cook it is to make baked salmon. What is even easier is to use (and what I like to do for this recipe) is to use leftover salmon from the night before. That will give you two amazing meals with much less work.
Quick-baked salmon: Preheat oven to 400° F. Place salmon on a sheet pan and season (I use just kosher salt, pepper and maybe a little lemon). Bake until the internal temperature reaches 125° F to 140° F (depending on your preference), or about 10-14 minutes.
Salmon for this pasta can be cooked pretty much any way you like (grilled, smoked, baked, pan-seared), and you can either leave it in large filets or cut it down into smaller pieces for quicker cooking. Or you can even use prepackaged smoked salmon and just add it into the pasta sauce.
While you can use any type of cooked salmon, the method the salmon is cooked with will change how the pasta tastes in the end. If it's grilled, it will have a slightly smoky flavor. If it's baked, the pure salmon flavor will come through. Smoked salmon will have a stronger flavor you can taste in every bite.
How to Cook the Pasta
Add 1 ½ Tbsp. of salt (2 Tbsp. per pound of pasta) to a pot of water, cover and bring to a boil. Pour in pasta (I usually use penne). Cook al dente (usually a little less than the package suggests), since it will finish cooking in the sauce. Drain and immediately transfer to the sauce. Don't forget to reserve some of the pasta water to be used in the sauce if it needs some extra liquid.
How to Make the Sauce
Over medium heat, sweat one small diced onion in 2 Tbsp. butter with a sprinkle of salt until it is tender and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the vodka and reduce it down until it is almost gone. Then add the cream and cook until it just starts to bubble.
Putting It All Together
Once the sauce is bubbling, gently stir in the cooked salmon and warm through. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Then add the cooked pasta and continue cooking until the sauce begins to thicken, about 2 to 3 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add a little of the reserved pasta water.
Remove the skillet from the heat, and stir in the lemon zest and juice, Parmesan cheese and fresh dill (or whatever herbs you are using). Taste and season with more salt, freshly ground pepper and more lemon if needed. Garnish with thin lemon slices, fresh dill and more Parmesan.
Voila! A dish fit for the King of Fish, but also quick and easy.
- 12 oz. pasta , such as penne
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 small onion , diced
- ½ cup vodka
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- 11 oz. cooked salmon , fork torn
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice , preferably Meyer lemon
- Zest from 1 lemon
- ¼ cup coarsely grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese , plus more for plating
- ½ cup chopped fresh dill (or to taste)
- Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
- Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente, as it will finish cooking in (and absorb!) the sauce. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.
- Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Sweat the onion with a sprinkle of salt until it is tender and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes.
- Pour in the vodka and reduce it down until it is almost gone.
- Add the cream and cook until it just starts to bubble. Gently stir in the cooked salmon and warm through.
- Add the cooked pasta and continue cooking until the sauce begins to thicken, about 2 to 3 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add a little of the pasta water.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and zest, Parmesan and fresh dill. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Garnish with thin lemon slices, fresh dill and more Parmesan.
This post was originally published November 15, 2018 and was updated January 25, 2021 to include useful updated information.
More Pasta Recipes
- Pasta Bolognese or the Opah Bolognese version
- Burst Tomato Pasta
- Orecchiette Pasta with Shiitake Mushrooms and English Peas
- Sausage, Peppers and Broccolini Pasta
More Salmon Recipes
- No-Flip Grilled Salmon with Burst Tomatoes
- Easy Baked Salmon
- Simple Hot Smoked Salmon
- Cedar Plank Salmon
- Sous Vide Salmon with Meyer Lemon Farro Risotto
- Crispy Skin Pan-Seared Salmon
- Crispy Salmon Cakes with Sauce Gribiche
- Chimichurri Grilled Salmon