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A guide to Italian pasta: cooking great pasta every time

August 14, 2011

Cooking pasta might seem easy, but how much water to use, which pot, and the right combination of pasta and sauce should be chosen carefully if you want to prepare the perfect pasta meal.

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Of course there are some rules and tricks of the trade for enjoying the best pasta you could possibly make. And I’ve selected a few:

  • Use a tall, large pot filled no more than ¾ with water. If there is too much water in the pot it could obviously boil over, but too little water will not allow the pasta to cook properly. Keep in mind that all your pasta should be in the water while cooking. Anything sticking out, will remain uncooked (again-obviously).
  • The temperature of the water used to fill the pot does not really affect the cooking of pasta but using hot tap water will allow the water to come to a boil faster, that’s all. We could all use a time-saver. 
Salting the water
  • Salting the water brings out the natural flavor of the pasta.
  • Salt should be added once the water has started to boil. If the salt is added too late, it will not be absorbed correctly into the pasta. Adding salt too early could result in boiling time.
  • In a perfect, perfect world, you should always allow the salt to dissolve before adding the pasta.
Add the pasta and quickly return the pot to a boil
  • Pour in the pasta and increase the heat source to bring the water back to a boil.
  • Do not cover the pot.
  • Stir the pasta gently several times while it is cooking, approximately every three minutes. Good pasta shouldn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, but it is a good idea to stir the pasta so that it cooks evenly.
Do not add oil to the water
  • When poor-quality wheat is used, the pasta releases too much starch and sticks together. This is will not be the case if you use high-quality pasta.  
  • Also, olive oil does nothing for the taste of pasta and its use will only make the pasta slippery, which in not something you want when you’re trying to scrape every last bit of sauce off your plate. You want the pasta and the sauce to play nicely together.  
  • I used olive oil (back when I was young and naive) but since then I’ve realized that Italians do not use it when cooking pasta. Instead, I’ve switched to another brand, a high-quality durum wheat pasta, which doesn’t need oiling of any kind. Oh, happy day!
Always follow the cooking times on the package.

You may think you know better, but those guys have been making pasta and perfecting the art for a couple of centuries now. I think we should try to trust them when it comes to this one, folks! However, it is a good idea to taste the pasta, it should be soft on the outside, but firm on the inside, the perfect al dente pasta!

Drain pasta immediately after it is done cooking
  • Drain pasta into a large colander and toss it gently to remove excess liquid.
  • The pasta should remain moist but not dripping wet.
  • Pasta should not be rinsed after cooking unless it’s a pasta salad recipe. The natural starches released from the pasta complement the pasta meal because they help bind the sauce that is to be used, and allow the sauce to adhere better to the pasta.
  • Always save a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water. It is used to dilute the sauce or in sautéing the pasta with the sauce before serving.
  • In Italy, pasta is usually undercooked in the water by about three minutes. Pasta is then transferred to a sauté pan with the prepared sauce, and then cooked with the sauce for the additional three minutes, allowing the pasta to absorb the flavors of the sauce. Mmm, yummy!
Add sauce and serve immediately
  • When pasta is drained it is still cooking. Therefore, the sauce should be added quickly.
  • Pasta should be served hot.
  • Italians use very little sauce with their pasta—just enough to coat it.
  • To finish the pasta, top with Parmesan cheese, a little freshly ground black pepper, or olive oil. And dig in! Buon appetito!
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