How to Cook Pasta
Pasta. Nothing says “Italian food” quite like it. We can’t envision an Italian table, restaurant, or family dinner without picturing a heaping dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce, right? Fair enough.
But let’s examine our picture a little more closely. Are you sure that you know how to cook pasta properly? Are those spaghetti as hot as they should be? And are they perfectly al dente? Do they meet all the requirements of a dish of spaghetti, worthy of the name association?
In countries outside of Italy, all too often, the answer is a resounding, “no.” I’m afraid that what we frequently see is an anemic, overcooked glob of sticky noodles served as a side dish to just about anything. We need to raise pasta awareness. We shouldn’t take the matter so lightly. So if we really want to know how to cook pasta properly, let’s start from scratch.
What is pasta made of exactly? Some time ago in Italy there was a commercial for a pasta brand whose slogan declared: “It’s not just pasta.” They meant to say that you cannot go into the supermarket and randomly grab any pack, assuming that all pasta is the same.
It’s not. Good quality dry pasta (pasta secca) should contain only durum flour (semola di grano duro) and water. Never semolina di grano tenero. Fresh pasta (pasta fresca or all’uovo) might include eggs in the formula and sometimes small amounts of grano tenero. But not in the dried pasta. This is very important regarding the “feel” and texture of the final product.
Now for the cooking. We have chosen our pasta carefully; so let’s try not to ruin it by making some blasphemous mistake in this simple procedure. These are things that any native-born Italian totally takes for granted from the cradle to the grave. But for the rest of us, it might be useful to peek behind the curtain and see what the wizard is up to…
- Put the water to boil and use plenty of salt. Note that the salt should be generous; and coarse sea salt is preferred for this purpose. It has a better flavor than table salt and is easier to dose. We’re going to use a big pot, with a lot of water, so do not assume that all the salt you add will be absorbed by the pasta. Most of it will just remain in the water and consequently discarded. A tablespoon of sale grosso in 2.5 to 3 liters (about 3 quarts) of water is about right.
- Add the pasta. Stir at least every couple of minutes. You don’t want the pasta to attaccarsi, to stick together. For certain shapes that have a tendency to do so (orecchiette, fusilli), you might want to stir more frequently. Do not abandon your pasta! Let it know you care. Stir with tender love and don’t traumatize it in the process. Adding oil to avoid sticking is a topic that’s been hotly debated. If it is true that this procedure might help prevent some sticking, it is also true that making your pasta oily might cause your sauce to slip off afterward. If you stir properly, you won’t need to add oil.
- Let it cook. Now, how long do we cook our pasta? You want to avoid overcooking at all costs—it is the worst and yet most common mistake. No Italian would ever eat overcooked pasta. If you follow the instructions on the package, you’ll want to reduce to cooking time by a couple of minutes. Not because they fib about the actual cooking time. But because you need those couple of minutes to make the pasta “jump.”
- Make it jump! When your pasta is ready (a minute or two undercooked) you are going to drain it, but not the way you think, with a drainer (colander). No, that is only used for very large quantities or for some very particular kinds of sauces. If you’re just cooking for yourself and your partner/family, all you’ll need is a big kitchen spoon with holes, or in the case of spaghetti, a prendispaghetti (literally, spaghetti taker).
We are taking it for granted that you had your sauce ready all along, well before you started cooking the pasta. (It’s beyond any rational concept of Italian logic that you can cook your pasta, and then abandon it while you make the sauce. So, you have your sauce ready.) OK. your pasta is two minutes undercooked and you’re draining it with the proper tool. In fact, you’re not draining too much, because a little water will be absorbed during the jumping.
As you transfer your pasta to the saucepan, turn the fire on again. You are actually going to complete the cooking process, for a couple of minutes, by making the pasta jump (tossing it) with its sauce. If you’re not an expert, you can just stir carefully. And adding a little of the salty water (the one where you cooked the pasta) if the sauce seems to thicken too much is a great tip. Pasta will absorb liquid, so you might actually need a little extra. In Italy, there is no such thing as cooking a plain dish of pasta then putting the sauce on top. No. You stir, you jump. Every single rigatone must first flirt, then embrace, and finally consummate the relationship with its portion of sauce.
- Serve immediately! Now you have cooked your pasta to perfection. Serve immediately, as you don’t want to spoil it all by making another 10 minutes conversation with your guests. Your table must be already set. Your kids’ hands washed. When pasta is ready, everybody sits down and eats. (Italians aren’t typically too concerned about being on time for most things, but the pasta course is a notable exception when their sense of punctuality surpasses that of a Swiss watchmaker.)
- Are your plates warm? What if you have thick, beautiful, ceramic plates that are cold? Do you want to risk dropping the temperature of your perfectly cooked pasta? No, of course not. (This is the little-known 4th law of thermodynamics, proposed by Galileo a full two centuries before Carnot, et al) Italians keep their plates warm. There are various techniques: put them in warm water while you’re cooking, or else keep them around the stove. Whatever you do, just don’t let them get cold.
Is that all we need to know about how to cook pasta? Well, that’s the basics, but of course there are subtle nuances in cooking pasta that are as mysterious as witchcraft and they can’t be so easily explained. It requires practice.
With this in mind, I’ve begun writing the final chapters of my next book, “Eat Like an Italian,” under the watchful eye of my Sicilian wife. She has been a great inspiration in this endeavor. Indeed, I must confess that she wrote the bulk of this blog post—I merely edited it to increase the ratio of sarcasm to common sense. You see what I mean? We stranieri are always messing around with simple things that are better left alone.
P.S. One last bit of advice. I shouldn’t have to say this, but experience has taught me that it’s necessary to point it out: Don’t reheat pasta leftovers from the day before. Wasting food is a sin, but eating day-old pasta is a mortal sin. Please—think of the children!