Do It The Right Way
A lot of cultures have come up with a way to combine flour with water and/or eggs to produce some form of noodle or pasta. Italians certainly didn't invent the stuff, but can there be any doubt that they are the masters of it? Italians have elevated pasta to an art form. Spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, tagliatelle......the list is almost endless. There are more than 350 forms of pasta in Italy and about four times as many names for them. That's because the same pasta shape can be called something different in different parts of the country. According to Academia Barilla, gnocchi is the forefather of all pasta; it evolved into other shapes through the manipulation of the dough, either by hand or through the use of simple tools, to produce local variations. And if Italians are so proficient at making pasta, it stands to reason they are expert at cooking it.
And yet, whether it's human nature in general or American hubris in specific, a lot of people these days keep coming up with ways to “improve” the process. “Use less water,” they say, or “use cold water.” They're all over the place about salt and time and they're constantly foisting off “pot ready” pasta and “gluten-free” pasta and similar aberrations.
Fine. Whatever. You want to be an innovator? Go for it. You want to create your own “superior method” of doing something Italians have been doing for centuries? Be my guest. But I'm here to tell you if you want good pasta, you've gotta do it the right way and that's the traditional Italian way. With that in mind, here are seven simple rules for making pasta like an Italian.
Rule Number One: Boil It and Don't Oil It
Ignore the heretics who tell you you can get perfect pasta out of a shallow pan and two cups of cold water or some such nonsense. Pasta needs lots of boiling water. Four to six quarts. And boiling. Only boiling water will gelatinize the starches in the pasta, making it tender and digestible. And keep the water boiling from start to finish. If you turn it down to a simmer after you've added the pasta, you'll wind up with mushy pasta.
Pasta needs room to swim. The reason pasta sometimes sticks is because it gets too crowded to develop and release those starches we were just talking about. Big pot, lots of water. Somewhere, sometime, some well-meaning somebody who didn't know the first thing about pasta decided that you could put oil in the water to inhibit the sticking. Uh.......no. Basic science: what happens when you mix oil and water? The oil separates and you get an oily film floating on top of the water, right? Then you drag the pasta up through it and all it gets you is oily pasta to which nothing will stick, including whatever sauce you're putting on it. Remember: Lots of water, boil it, and don't oil it.
Rule Number Two: Salt It
Salt gets a really bad rep these days. As an essential nutrient for human life and health, salt – or at least its sodium component – is a vital electrolyte and osmotic solute. You simply can't eliminate salt from your diet. However, since excessive salt consumption – unfortunately common these days – can increase the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases, it's usually a good idea to keep your intake to a minimum. So when I tell you to add about three tablespoons of salt to four or five quarts of water, you're likely to suffer a heart attack just thinking about it. But it's true. È vero. Italians will tell you the water should “taste like the sea.” “Aaaarrrrghh!” you cry. “All that salt will kill me!” But laboratory research has determined that the pasta being cooked doesn't actually absorb that much of the salt: given three tablespoons of salt to five quarts of water, the pasta only absorbs ½ to ¾ teaspoon of the salt. The rest is discarded with the pasta water. So it's not really an issue.
What is an issue in some circles is when to salt the water. There's a great debate among the factions that say add the salt to the cold water, add the salt to the boiling water, and add the salt after the pasta is placed in the boiling water. And the answer is.....there is no answer. The problem with adding salt to cold water is that salt is corrosive and can eventually pit and damage your cooking pot if it's left sitting on the bottom while the water heats up. The problem with adding it after the pasta hits the water is one of possibly uneven distribution. So most experts agree that salting the water at the full boil and giving it a few seconds to disperse before adding the pasta is the best way to go.
Why salt the water at all? Because pasta has essentially no flavor of its own. And the only opportunity you have to add flavor is through salting the water because that's when the pasta is most susceptible to absorbing its flavor. Salting pasta after it's cooked will give you nothing but overly salty pasta. The noodles have already opened up, released their starches, and set. You have to get the salt in there during that cooking process or your window of flavoring opportunity closes.
One of my restaurant cooks prepared a batch of spaghetti that was absolutely bland and flavorless. I asked him how he had cooked it and he told me “with a little salt in the water.” How much was “a little?” About a teaspoon. In two-and-a-half gallons of water. “Throw it out,” I told him, “We're starting over.” And he watched with wide eyes as I dumped about a half-cup of salt into the fresh pot of boiling water. “Taste that,” I told him. “What does it taste like?” He replied, “Like salt water.” “Perfect,” I said. “Remember that.” And when he tasted the finished product a few minutes later, he enthused, “Wow! You can really tell the difference. I'm going to make it that way at home from now on.” Lesson learned.
Rule Number Three: Don't Break It
Don't ask for an explanation of this rule, just accept it. It's an Italian thing and it is what it is. I tell people all the time that Italians can hear the screams of the poor pasta as it's brutally broken and tossed in a pot. Actually, there is an explanation: long pasta is long for a reason. Otherwise it would be short. The reason long pasta should be left long is so that it catches and holds more sauce as you twirl it around your fork. Of course, if you are one of the unfortunates who cuts your spaghetti into bite-size pieces that can be scooped up with a spoon, may I recommend “Spaghetti-Os” and respectfully suggest you stay out of Italian homes for your own safety.
Rule Number Four: “Bite Me”
I don't know who the whackadoodle was who first came up with the idea of testing the doneness of pasta by throwing it at a wall and seeing if it sticks. Maybe there was alcohol involved. Personally, I think such people should themselves be thrown at a wall to see if they stick. The only thing you'll get out of this ridiculous method is sticky, messy walls and pasta that says “bite me.”
Perfect pasta should be cooked al dente – literal translation: “to the tooth.” What this means is that the cooked pasta should be soft enough to bite into without feeling a crunch, but still quite firm at the center. And the only way to test if something is done “to the tooth” is to get your teeth involved. Take a piece of pasta out of the water, blow on it to cool it a bit, and take a bite. In the center of the pasta, you should be able to see a thin core that is lighter in color than the surrounding outer layer. That is called the “punto verde”, or “green point,” and its presence indicates that the pasta is al dente. If the pasta is crunchy throughout, it's undercooked. If it's the same color and texture throughout and you don't see that “punto verde,” the pasta is probably overcooked.
Rule Number Five: No Rinsing, Please
Cooked pasta is covered with a light coating of the starch it produces as it cooks. And some people erroneously believe there's something healthy and desirable about rinsing away that starch. So under the faucet the colander full of cooked pasta goes, and down the sink goes the starchy coating that helps pasta hold on to the sauce. There's really only one time when you want to rinse cooked pasta and that would be if you are using the pasta in a cold application like a pasta salad or something. Rinsing also stops the cooking process so you're not throwing hot pasta in your cold salad. Otherwise, don't rinse it. In fact, most experienced pasta cooks just lift the pasta straight from the boiling water with a pasta fork or tongs. And always remember to reserve about a cup of the cooking water. You'll see why in a minute. Using a colander to drain pasta is okay if that's your thing, but don't rinse the pasta and don't leave it laying in the colander, either. Which leads us to the next rule.....
Rule Number Six: Cook It In The Sauce
Somewhere Americans got the notion that the proper way to prepare pasta was to cook the life out of it, drain it dry, pile it on a plate, and dump a quart of runny red sauce over the top of it. And nothing could be further from the truth. The proper way to prepare pasta is to cook it until just a minute or so shy of al dente, drain it lightly, and immediately drop it into a pot or pan of simmering sauce to finish cooking for the final minute or two. If the sauce seems a little too thick, that's where the reserved cooking water I mentioned before comes in. Mixing in just a fraction of a cup of this starchy, salty goodness will “finish” your sauce like nothing else. Preparing pasta this way allows it to fully absorb the flavor of the sauce in a way that dumping the sauce on top will never achieve. The pasta and the sauce marry and incorporate for a perfect – and perfectly delicious – dish. You can't get the same results by using your fork and mixing up the sauce on top with the pasta on the bottom once it hits your plate. It just doesn't work. I know, I know – that's probably the way your local “Italian” restaurant serves it. And I'll tell you why: because that's the way Americans expect it. For example, I advertised that the spaghetti served in my restaurant was prepared “Italian style.” And wouldn't you know there were a few people who complained that, because the sauce was already mixed in, it looked “like yesterday's leftovers.” We eventually found that if we cooked the spaghetti “our” way but served it with an extra little dollop of sauce on top, people like that would accept it. Several very Italian friends of mine serve “American-style” spaghetti in their restaurants simply because they have to. Of course, when serving me they lay out a plate of properly prepared pasta because they know that I know the difference. And now you do, too.
Rule Number Seven: Serve It Hot
There is an oft-repeated Italian saying that goes, “pasta waits for no one.” Cooked pasta is at its very best when it's fresh out of the pan and piping hot. Italians drop everything when the call “è tutto pronto” is made. You'll never hear, “Okay. I'll be there in a minute.” When dinner is ready, diners need to be ready, too; ready to sit down and enjoy a plate of perfectly prepared pasta cooked in the traditional Italian way.