Day 82: How to not screw up pasta

linguine all'astice
linguine all’astice

Noodles. One of the world’s easiest foods to prepare. Goes with anything. Boiled, re-baked, cut into squares, served cold, lasagna, endless variety of sauces and preparation methods. Well chances are, you’re doing it wrong. Here are a few time honored tips and traditions to help steer your pasta prep back in the right direction.

Salt the Water: News broke last year, that the antichrist of Italian eateries, Olive Garden, has long been committing a cardinal sin of pasta preparation, by not salting it’s water. The problem with leaving out the first step in pasta making 101 is that the salt will add flavor to the pasta as the water enters the noodle and it swells, otherwise your pasta will taste bland. Pasta alone is three ingredients; flour, eggs, water. Thats it. So the salting of the water adds the initial flavor in the cooking process, and then the rest is up to you. Look at the ingredients on your box of pasta carefully. You shouldn’t be seeing anything strange on the list.The general rule of thumb is to add 1 gallon of water for every pound of pasta, and to each gallon of water about 1 oz of salt. Since we’re not doing quantity food preparation here, season your water so it’s obviously salty, but not so much that it’s unpleasant. Result, better tasting pasta.

Don’t Over Sauce: If you haven’t been salting your water, you’ve probably felt the need to cover up your bland pasta with too much sauce. The beauty of an authentic plate of pasta, is that the sauce is rarely the main event! Granted, no one will order a plate of noodles with nothing else, but the sauce should be seen as the garnish, or the dish enhancer.  Sometimes, a quick perfect meal can be cooked dried pasta, grated parmesan cheese, olive oil, and nothing else. Just don’t forget to salt the water, and don’t go crazy with the cheese and oil. If you can’t taste the pasta, you’ve added too much sauce.

pappardelle anatra
pappardelle anatra

Never add oil to the water: Someone once told me that by adding olive oil to the water you avoid the pasta sticking to the pan when you drain it. That might be true for only one reason, you are cooking your pasta too long! If your pasta is sticking to the side of the pot, you’ve cooked it to the point it’s begun to disintegrate, and is therefore beyond al dente, and beyond saving. Oil in the water will also prevent your pasta from absorbing the sauce, leaving you with flavorless noodles, and sauce on the side.

Don’t over cook: No one likes soggy noodles. General rule of thumb is ten minutes boiling, but some pre-packaged pasta takes longer or shorter than others. Fresh egg noodles require even less time, sometimes as little as three minutes. Gnocchi should be removed as soon as it floats. You can’t un-cook pasta, so if you over-cook it, either enjoy a soggy mess, or start over. Once it’s done, remove from the water immediately! Pasta continues to cook in hot and even lukewarm water even if it isn’t boiling.

Rinsing the noodles: Unless you are making a cold pasta salad, don’t rinse the noodles. It serves no purpose other than to flash-cool your pasta which then makes it impossible for the noodles to absorb the sauce of your choosing once you try to mix it in. The only thing rinsing will do is remove the starch making it less likely your cold pasta salad will gum up, but it is counterproductive otherwise.

Right pasta for the right sauce: Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just add any sauce to any pasta. Certain pastas are made for different sauces. The texture and size of the pasta should compliment the sauce. Fusilli has the ridges and valleys to capture the pesto, Spaghetti and Linguine allows you to soak up the flavors of seafood, and Penne is ideal for holding the classic “angry” arrabiata flavor. There are literally a thousand possible combinations. And if one person says it’s the right combination, the next town over will say you’re an idiot and have no idea what you’re talking about.

the main event - bigoli with duck sauce - simple awesomeness bursting with flavor
the main event – bigoli with duck sauce – simple awesomeness bursting with flavor

When we finish boiling the noodles to al dente perfection, remove from the heat, drain, and then place immediately back in the saucepan with the sauce of your choosing, allowing the pasta and sauce to combine until that “magic moment” where the pasta and the sauce become a dish. Only then will the flavor of the pasta and the sauce combine and turn into the incredible meal you’ve been waiting for.

So take this for what it’s worth, or don’t change a thing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned living in pasta-land (Italy) for a combined eight years, everyone has their own methods, tips, and tricks to make the hungry people at their dining room table happy. We just happen to think these tried and true methods will make your attempts at pasta perfection that much more enjoyable.  Buon appetito.

One thought on “Day 82: How to not screw up pasta

  1. Love this one. I had a friend who lives just outside of Bologna that once spent almost an hour teaching me which types of pasta go with what types of sauce. I sort of boiled it down to; spaghetti goes best with cream based sauces as they stick to the noodle better, ragu should be a thicker pasta with ridges (penne, etc.) as it holds the sauce better. My favorite pasta was orechietti which was great with several different types of sauces and such.

    Also love your apt description of Olive Garden. It’s embarrassing, but if you have the nerve to criticize it, people accuse you of being uppity and stuck up, blah blah blah. Unless they’ve been to Italy, they will never understand. The main problem with “Italian” pasta in the US is just what you said – they DROWN it in sauce. At some places, Virginia asks for “very very little sauce” and it’s at least palatable. One of my favorites there was spaghetti al olio, aglio e peperoncino. Simple. Basic. Delicious. Perfect.

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