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.
Want to know more?
Check out my other site devoted to REAL authentic regional Italian cuisine.
Now for the cooking. 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!
Want to know more?
Check out my other site devoted to REAL authentic regional Italian cuisine.
Thankyou sooo much, Those look really good 🙂
My second wife, not Italian thought I was being silly about cooking pasta for 10-12 minutes. Then after I got to cook for her a few times, she converted. Unfortunately, none of my cooking knowledge came from my Sicilian Nonna, but tv, books, and some from actual cooking jobs. A lot of actual trial and error. When it cones to pasta, mostly trial. I’m wanting to learn how to make gravy/sauce do you have any blogs on that? Also, when making baked dishes, such as a lasagna or ziti, would you do the same process?
Hi Vinni, and thanks for your comments. I don’t have any recipes for the Italian-American gravy/sauce, but there’s a recipe for the sugo di pomodoro in my email series (if you want to sign up, it’s here; it’s free and it comes with a restaurant guide: http://rickzullo.com/italy-restaurant-guide/ ) Regarding lasagne, it depends on what type of pasta you use. For the traditional, you should boil them just long enough to be workable…in other words, VERY al dente. Then there are other types of pasta that don’t require any boiling at all.
Fortunately in recent years I have learned how to cook pasta the Italian way. Your post is an excellent reminder. As for bbq sauce, it should never have been invented. Thanx Rick
Agreed on the BBQ! As far as cooking pasta, I used to think that any such rules were superfluous, but I’ve since seen the light. Hallelujah and pass the Parmesan!
Hey Rick, no kidding…bbq. sauce, yuck! If you have visited my blog you will see that I am a pasta-aholic! Properly prepared…thanks for sharing…good info if you want the real thing. Italy Today had a similar write up a while back too! And what’s with that spaghetti & meatball thingy?
Good question, Phyllis! Cooking pasta is so simple, yet all too often people screw it up! Thanks for your comments…I’m going to check out your website!
Let me know if you have had a chance to check out my website.
Ciao Phyllis! Yes, and your recipes look delicious and simple. I like the look of that lamb yesterday. And I think it’s something that even I could manage!
Thanks for your comments Rick. I specifically wanted to put in recipes for every level of cooking skill and not ones that are intimidating. And…as we both know Italian cooking is about simple ingredients, cooked well. A motto to live by!
Absolutely, Phyllis! Couldn’t agree more!
Rick, thanks for the post; I was doing good until I reached the “jumping” section. Yes, I am guilty of spooning the sauce on top of the pasta and letting my guests do the tossing, this won’t happen again!
Bravo, Tom! Yes, I did the same thing until Jessica taught me better. Honestly, I was skeptical that it would make a difference, but after 3 years cooking/eating with her, I can tell you that it does!
Hi Rick, Tom, I’m 100% Italian, but from northern Italy. While to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce is the correct thing to do (and something restaurants ALWAYS do), my mom has always served the sauce on top, directly in the plates. She did this simply because more practical for her – also because she knew that everyone in the family would have jumped on it immediately, stirring it all together. Personally I think that this is acceptable with short pastas and gnocchi, especially when served with sauces that are already relatively thick. So, of all sins, I’d say this one is not a mortal one 🙂
Hey Paolo! I’m always glad to have your input! As you know, my wife is from Sicily, and perhaps the “rules” are a little more stringent there! ha, ha! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!
Good post Rick, or should we thank Mrs Z?! Pleased to say I’m abiding by the Italian rules so far when it comes to pasta, or “pastas” as my 2 year old calls it. Need more info on the sauce next, passata, fresh toms, both………..? We eagerly await the next post!
Oh yes, my wife actually wrote 90% of this post. Sadly, I committed many of these sins myself not so long ago. But now she’s put me on the path of righteousness!