“Finish Cooking Your Pasta IN THE G**D*** SAUCE”
Everybody knows that professional chefs and experienced cooks have a few tricks up their sleeves which enable them to elevate simple fare to a level unachievable by mere mortal cooks. Wanting to discover some of these tricks, a curious Reddit user recently posited the question: "Chefs of Reddit, what mistakes are we lay people all making in the kitchen?"
The answers were pretty straightforward – don't try to catch a falling knife, measure before you start cooking, don't try to put out a grease fire with water. Common sense stuff. But there was one answer I can really get behind and push into the collective consciousness of every home cook and faux-Italian restaurant cook in these here United States; “Add sauce to your pasta before finishing cooking.” Or as Reddit user Wahpaw more colorfully expressed it, “Finish cooking your pasta IN THE GOD DAMN SAUCE.”
I do not know nor will I ever understand from whence came the practice of cooking up a heaping pile of naked pasta, slapping it onto a cold dinner plate, then pouring about a quart of runny red sauce over the top of it. You see it everywhere and it's just got to STOP! Moms cooking spaghetti for your families, stop it! Volunteers cooking for church or civic functions, stop it! Restaurant cooks, especially you “Italian” cooks, basta! Do you not realize you are crushing the Italian soul? The only thing you could do that would be worse – and you're also doing it, believe me – would be to break up the pasta before you cook it and then to further desecrate it by piling it on a plate, drowning it in horrible sauce, and cutting it into tiny little bite-size pieces before stuffing it in your face. If a fairy drops dead every time someone says, “I don't believe in fairies,” I am warning you an Italian suffers the same fate every time you mistreat spaghetti.
From time to time we have the opportunity to teach relatively informal “hands-on” classes on various aspects of Italian cooking. We have a few studenti we are mentoring right now, in fact, and the very first lesson involved cooking and serving a proper spaghetti dinner. I started by busting every myth to which they had been exposed and by utterly eradicating everything their mothers had taught them or that they might have otherwise observed in local restaurants with names that end in vowels. A pinch of salt in a quart of water is not enough; don't ever put oil in the water or on the cooked pasta; don't rinse the pasta in cold water; don't break spaghetti in half before you cook it and don't cut it up after you plate it; and above all, don't throw naked hot spaghetti on a cold plate, dump a gallon of lukewarm sauce on top of it, and then cover it in salt, pepper, and grated “crap in a can” fake Parmesan. If this is the way you are accustomed to eating spaghetti, it is high time for you to start a new custom.
Before you tell me “well, that's the way the real authentic Italian restaurant down the street does it,” let me tell you something about most “real, authentic” Italian restaurants: they cater to their customer's tastes. That means they dumb down their menus for your benefit. I have several Italian friends in the restaurant business. I'm not talking about second or third or fourth-generation Italian-Americans. These are people born and raised in Italy. When I ask them why they serve exaggerated heaping portions of inauthentic gawdawful Italian-American dishes that would never, ever be found in their kitchens or on their tables at home, their answer is always the same; “If we cook in the restaurant like we do at home, the people would just go to Olive Garden.”
I'm not going to give you the whole “spaghetti dinner” master class here. What I am going to do, however, is reiterate the “Finish cooking your pasta in the sauce” rule.
Assuming you do everything else right – plenty of water, plenty of salt, no oil, no breaky the pasta – cook your pasta to just shy of al dente. I realize in addition to being a foreign phrase, that may be a foreign concept to many of you, so here's a simpler way to say it; cook your spaghetti about a minute or two less than what the package directions tell you. Reason? It'll finish cooking in the sauce.
Don't dump your cooked pasta into a colander and drain it desert dry. A little cooking water clinging to the noodles is a good thing. Reason? It helps evenly distribute the sauce. If I'm not cooking large quantities of pasta in big pots with special inserts, I just fish the pasta out with tongs or with one of those specially designed spaghetti server things. Either way, the noodles are a little wet when I drop them in the sauce. And I also reserve about cup of the cooking water on the side. Reason? It can be used later to help develop the flavor and texture of the sauce.
Now, there's a pot or pan of sauce already simmering on the stove. Meat sauce or plain tomato sauce; doesn't matter. Cream sauce or butter sauce; doesn't matter. Whatever sauce you're using, it should be hot and ready to receive the pasta. When you remove the pasta from the water by whatever means you choose, drop it directly into the waiting, simmering pot or pan of sauce. Add anywhere from a few tablespoons to a fraction of a cup of the reserved water and start stirring. Reason? You're sealing in the flavor.
A lot of nifty physical and chemical stuff happens when pasta cooks. Pasta is just flour, egg, and water. This means it's nothing more than a glutinous matrix of starches and proteins. Dried pasta, obviously, has had a lot of its moisture removed. When you drop it in hot water, several things happen. When the dehydrated starch molecules get warm, they start to absorb moisture. They rehydrate. Eventually, they kind of over-hydrate and burst open, releasing their starches. That's why pasta sticks like a mad thing if you don't have enough water. At the same time, however, the noodles are also absorbing flavor from the surrounding liquid. That's why you need salty water. If there isn't adequate salt in the cooking water, the finished product will be flat and bland. You can dump salt on cooked pasta until it gags you and all you'll get is overly salty pasta. It won't have a nice delicate flavor because the little flavor absorbing molecules are already done absorbing and have sealed up. That's also why you finish cooking pasta in the sauce – or the goddamn sauce, if you're Reddit user Wahpaw. Cooking it for that final minute or two in the warm sauce will enable the pasta – with it's little flavor absorbing molecules still operating – to better absorb the flavor of the sauce. That's something it can't do if it's been drained and dumped on a plate and had sauce poured over the top of it. Stir as you might, the sauce will never incorporate as completely. And you'll never get the same flavor and texture. It will never be a harmonious marriage of pasta and sauce. It will always be just a furtive affair of the two trying to come together. Sounds kind of sad and pathetic when you put it that way, doesn't it? That's because spaghetti cooked and served that way IS sad and pathetic! So stop it! Basta!
Seriously, finishing in sauce is the most authentically Italian way to cook pasta, it's the most authentically Italian way to serve pasta, and it is definitely the way to enjoy the most authentically Italian flavor in your pasta. Never mind the way your third-generation mother did it and forget about Frankie down at “Nunzio's.” Hell, even Chef Boy-Ar-Dee cooks the sauce and the pasta together. Do yourself a favor and a flavor; finish cooking your pasta in the sauce. You'll taste the difference.