So far, I have written 2 posts on pasta: A Tour of Italy through Pasta (19 November 2015), which highlighted the pastas by region throughout Italy, and A Brief Glossary of Pastas with Fun Names (26 November 2015). Pasta, of course, is one of the iconic dishes of Italy. Therefore, I am writing today for Americans (for the most part) with some ideas about how to cook perfect pasta, at least from an Italian point of view. As always, I welcome feedback.
- Choose pasta of good quality
Choosing a high-quality pasta is fundamental. I find that the pasta that Costco sells is too mushy. I prefer the DeCecco and Barilla brands, and also the pasta from Trader Joe’s. There are many boutique varieties that are probably good too. Pasta from Italy that is labeled as “trafilata al bronzo” has more porosity and, as a result, a greater capacity to absorb and hold a sauce.
- Select the right form of pasta for the sauce
There are more than 350 types of pasta in Italy. Whether you prefer spaghetti, orecchiette, penne, tagliatelle, linguine, farfalle, or some other, the form should be chosen based on the sauce. Long pasta, for example, is better with liquid and creamy sauces, whereas short pasta is preferred with a ragù or sauces that are less uniform. There are exceptions: a Verona specialty is tagliatelle with Bolognese ragù. As with all tubular pastas, penne works well with dense sauces. Penne rigate holds more sauce because of its ridges, while smooth penne is better adapted to an oil-based sauce.
- Use the right pot
If you are preparing a long pasta, don’t use a pot that is too low. To break the spaghetti or linguine is not an option! Cover the pot while you are waiting for the water to boil. But once you throw in the pasta, don’t cover the pot.
- Measure the water and the salt
For 100 grams of pasta, use a litre of water and 7 grams of salt. For one pound of pasta (454 grams), the right quantities are a little less than 5 quarts (4.54 litres) and a little more than 6 teaspoons (31.78 grams) of salt. Add the salt at the beginning of the boil, never before or during the cooking.
- Don’t use olive oil
Many Americans add olive oil during the cooking thinking that it will prevent the pasta from sticking. Don’t do it, it doesn’t work, according to the Italians. There is an exception: if you are preparing a cold pasta salad, you can add a drizzle of olive oil as you let the pasta cool down. But never add it to the water while you are cooking the pasta.
- Very Important: Don’t overcook the pasta!
Cook the pasta according to the time on the package instructions, never more and sometimes less. With lasagna, for example, or any type of baked pasta, it is better to boil the pasta less because it will cook further in the oven. And with other pastas that are sautéed in a frying pan together with the sauce, it finishes cooking during this final mixing together. According to chef Mark Ladner, who is considered the beacon of authentic Italian cuisine in New York City and is praised by the critics of the New York Times, “I have always been a fanatic about pasta its precise cooking for years….I believe it is one of the most difficult things to get right in the kitchen because it is extremely complicated to manage the cooking time….I want to help people understand the exquisite taste and texture of a pasta that is not overcooked.”
- Drain well
Don’t throw away all of the cooking water when you drain the pasta. Use a little when you sauté the pasta in the pan for at least a minute with the sauce on low heat in order to blend the ingredients well. The amount of cooking water (from a teaspoon to half a cup) depends on the consistency that you wish to achieve.