Pasta is a wonderful thing. Whether fresh or dried its versatility is almost as limitless as the number of shapes it comes in. Pastas form the basis of some of our most popular dishes; spaghetti (with or without meatballs), lasagna, pasta salad, and the number one comfort food of all time, macaroni and cheese, just to name a few. It is such a wonderful, versatile, delicious food that I just can’t understand why so many people are so determined to ruthlessly murder it.
Knowing that I am an Italian cook, a dear relative of mine recently decided to treat me to a spaghetti dinner. I was braced for it.
To her credit, she had a good pasta cooker. A nice, tall ceramic-coated steel pot with a colander insert.
She put about a quart of water in it (not nearly enough) and added a couple of teaspoons of table salt to the water. (Again, not nearly enough.) When the water was hot – almost boiling but not quite – the murder began.
First off, she viciously snapped the poor, inoffensive spaghetti in half. I promise you, as an Italian cook, I can actually hear the screams that spaghetti noodles make when subjected to this treatment. It’s not a pretty sound.
Then she threw the battered and broken spaghetti into the insufficient amount of almost boiling, barely salted water. And she cooked it to death.
Twenty minutes later, the unfortunate pasta that had seemed so full of life and promise a short time ago was unceremoniously dumped into a colander, showered in cold water and slathered with oil. Then, limp, lifeless, and bloated, it was poured into a cold serving bowl and coated with tomato sauce. How tragic!
Okay, maybe I’m being a trifle melodramatic, but that’s the way most Americans prepare spaghetti. I mean, that’s the way it looks when it comes out of the can, right? With the noodles overcooked to the diameter of pencil erasers, right? Wrong!
Properly cooking pasta is not difficult. Once you learn a few basics your pasta should come out perfect everytime.
Basic Number 1; DON’T BREAK IT UP!!! Sorry, I just had to vent. Seriously, please, please, please, for the sake of all that is Italian, leave long pasta l-o-n-g. There’s no basis for it in nutrition or flavor or anything. It’s just the way it’s done! Pragmatists will screech about how breaking long pasta makes it easier to cook and to eat. Purists will respond that there’s a reason they call it “long” pasta. I happen to be a purist.
Second, cooking pasta is best done in an appropriate pot, preferably one specifically designed for pasta. If you don’t have one of these, any large tall pot will do. Such a cooking vessel will allow you to maintain a rapid boil while giving the pasta plenty of room in which to swim around, thus reducing clumping and sticking together and also reducing the likelihood of a messy boil over.
Now, I mentioned that my well-meaning hostess used about a quart of water in cooking her spaghetti. This would have been fine if she had been cooking four ounces or so of pasta. Unfortunately, she was cooking about a pound. As a general rule, you should use at least four quarts of water per pound of pasta. Mario Batali recommends six quarts, and who am I to argue with His Orangeness?
Mario also recommends “aggressively” salting the water. How aggressive can you get with a teaspoon? Tablespoons are called for here; at least one or two per pound of pasta. And ditch the table salt. Relegate it to the table where it belongs and use either kosher salt or sea salt in your cooking. Salt imports a nice flavor to the cooking pasta, which, in and of itself, is pretty bland. No amount of salt applied to the pasta after cooking will produce the same depth of flavor as salt added to the cooking water. However, if you are on some sort of dietary restriction regarding salt, you can obviously reduce or eliminate this step.
There is debate regarding whether you add salt at the beginning or the end of the boiling process. Indulge yourself. Just make sure the salt is in there at least two minutes before you add the pasta, allowing it ample time to dissolve. The only reason to wait might be that salt dissolves faster in hot water than it does in cold. And there is little truth to the myth that adding salt speeds up the boiling process. Okay, it does. But you would have to be cooking with sea water in order to significantly affect the boiling point.
Cover the pot as you bring the water to a boil. Unlike salt, this will actually speed up the process. And make sure the water is at a full, rolling boil before you add the pasta. None of this “Ooo! I think I see a couple of bubbles” stuff. Let me repeat; a full, rolling boil. Why? Glad you asked. Pasta added to water before it starts to boil gets a good head start on mushiness. Pasta quickly begins to break down in tepid water as the starch dissolves. You need that intense heat of the rapidly boiling water to "set" the outside of the pasta, which keeps it from sticking together. That's why the rapid boil is so important; the water temperature drops when you add the pasta, but if you have a good rolling boil going, the water will still be hot enough for the pasta to cook properly.
Okay, now that you’ve got your water at a full, rolling boil, add the pasta to the water all at once and give it a stir. The aforementioned starches begin to develop during the first minute or two of cooking. Gently stirring at this point will help keep the pasta separated as the starches that make it stick together start to form. An occasional stir after this point is still helpful, but stirring during the first couple of minutes is most important. Also at this point, you can re-cover the pot for a few minutes as that will help bring the water back to a boil a little faster. But then finish cooking with the pot uncovered – unless you really enjoy cleaning your stove top.
And here’s the part where a big pot and plenty of water come into play. In case you hadn’t noticed, pasta swells up as it cooks. Imagine jumping into a half-filled kiddie pool with about a hundred of your closest friends. Things get pretty sticky pretty quickly, don’t they? And that’s assuming your friends don’t swell up when they hit the water! Now imagine a nice Olympic-size pool with plenty of water in it, allowing everybody lots of room to swim around. Now picture the people as pasta noodles and…well….you get the idea.
Before we get to The Big Question, let me slip in a few slick comments about oil. There is no purpose served in oiling your cooking water. No matter what tale some old wife told you, it will not keep your pasta from sticking. If you remember your basic science, oil and water don’t mix, so pouring oil into the water in order to help keep the pasta from sticking is an idea that is doomed to failure from the start. I would imagine that, given enough oil, you could eventually create an emulsion, but …yuck! The secret to non-stick pasta is lots of water and an occasional stir. That's it. No oil. Some people say that adding oil to the water helps prevent boil-overs. This is true, to an extent. But having a big enough pot and turning the heat down a notch after the boil is achieved will also prevent boil-overs. Oil in the water reduces surface tension and thus limits the potential for boil-overs. But it doesn't prevent them entirely and if a boil-over occurs with nice oily water, you've just got a bigger mess to clean up.
A couple of quick words, too, about cooking times. They vary. (I said it would be a couple of quick words.) Dried pasta, the kind you buy in a box at the grocery store, has really good cooking directions printed right on the box. Follow them. Different sizes, shapes, and textures of pasta have different cooking times and variances of as little as a minute or two can make the difference between pasta that is done and pasta that is overdone. Most dried pastas cook in 8 to 12 minutes. Fresh pasta is a whole different story, usually requiring only a minute or two to cook. Oh, and by the way, cooking time starts from the point where the water returns to a full boil after the pasta is added.
And now, The Big Question; when is the pasta done?
For some reason, Americans like to cook the very life out of their pasta, resulting in a soft, mushy noodle that bears little resemblance to its Italian cousin. Just because the stuff that comes out of a can of “Chef Boyardee” today is all soft and mushy doesn’t mean that that’s the right way to do it. You can be sure that the real Chef Boiardi (yes, there really was one) didn’t do it that way.
Let me introduce you to Al Dente, the Italian guy who invented pasta. No, really, al dente is Italian and it means “to the tooth.” But what, exactly does that mean? The term al dente imparts the idea that the pasta should have a slightly chewy or firm resistance when you bite into it. It should not have a hard center, indicating that it is underdone, nor should it be soft and overdone.
The best way to test is with your teeth. Lift a piece of pasta out of the water – using a spoon or fork. (That’s for those of you who need that “cook before eating” warning on the frozen pizza box.) Being mindful that it has just come out of a pot of boiling water, blow on it a little and take a bite. Firm? Chewy? Done! Start checking for doneness about five or six minutes into the cooking time. Bear in mind that pasta that is going to go into a baked dish should be removed from the water a minute or so short of the full cooking time since it will finish cooking in the oven. Depending on the dish, I sometimes short-cook the pasta by a minute or so, then mix in the sauce and return it to a low heat setting for another minute, stirring and blending in the sauce as the pasta finishes cooking.
And I’m sorry to disappoint you, but throwing spaghetti at the wall, while loads of fun, is not a reliable way to test for doneness. You generally wind up with sticky, undercooked pasta and messy walls.
You still have one more opportunity to ruin perfectly good pasta, and that’s by improperly draining it. Two general rules when draining pasta; don’t rinse it and don’t oil it. Either of these actions remove the surface starch from the pasta and you need at least a little of the starch to help the sauce adhere to the pasta. Two possible exceptions to the rules would be if you were going to be using the pasta in a cold dish, such as a pasta salad. Then it’s okay to rinse the pasta. And lasagna can be a little sticky and hard to handle, so a little oil might help there.
A big metal or plastic colander with handles on the side is the ideal instrument for draining pasta. However, with certain pastas – stuffed pastas, for instance – it’s better to remove the pasta from the water using a slotted spoon or some other device that allows you to gently lift the pasta, avoiding damage to its delicate form. Don’t drain your pasta completely dry unless the recipe specifically calls for it. In fact, you should always try to reserve a little of the pasta water to help develop your sauce.
Which brings us to our final pasta point. Assuming by now that you haven’t broken, oiled, or boiled your pasta to death, don’t drown it in sauce.
In Italy, a piatta di pasta, or a pasta dish, is all about the pasta. The sauce is intended as an accompaniment to the pasta. There should be just enough sauce to lightly coat and compliment the pasta. Italians are constantly amazed by the American penchant to oversauce, often leaving pools and puddles of sauce lying in the bottom of the bowl or plate. When it comes to pasta sauce, less is more.
Now, go forth and pamper your pasta. Proper preparation procedures will produce a pleased palate.