Let’s face it, cooking pasta is a serious affair for an Italian. There is nothing that makes my blood boil more (ok maybe pineapple on pizza…but that is an argument for another day) than watching people cook pasta incorrectly.
In all my years living in London and traveling the world visiting friends etc, I have seen it all. From soaking pasta pre-cooking to recipes that have never once touched the table of any Italian family. I am looking at you, fettuccine alfredo!!! I am such a purist when it comes to pasta, or maybe I have just been lucky to have learned the best secrets on how to cook pasta from my nonnas, that all my non-Italian friends now, don’t dare to cook it for me when we have dinners together! To be honest, I am not alone in this. Check any cooking blog, Instagram foodie account, and under all those weird cooking methods or recipes you will find an onslaught of indignant comments from Italians. Check out Italians Mad At Food if you want to have a good laugh!
The thing is…the way the pasta is cooked, the shape, and the sauce pairing will affect the end result in ways you probably never had to think about. So, to make your life a little easier, here are some tips directly from my Italian nonnas to you!
Quality comes first
Quality matters and it will make a difference to your final dish. Look for 100% durum wheat!
It’s all about the water
Pasta needs water to cook, a lot of it! Always, always cook your pasta in a very large pan of boiling water (we will talk about the salt in a minute). If there isn’t enough water, the pasta will simply not have enough room to move around, and it will end up sticking together.
Boiling the water is a must, you cannot cook pasta in simmering water. To have the pasta al dente, so that it still has a bite, the pasta must have as little contact with the water as possible. Having the pasta simmer in water for a longer time will turn it into a big gooey mush.
As a good rule, it usually works out as one liter of water for every 100g of dried pasta.
Salty as the sea
Always add salt once the pasta is boiling and don’t be shy about it. Adding the salt before the water boils will delay the process so wait for it to boil before you do anything. Be generous with the salt, the water should be as salty as the sea! I cannot think of anything worse than unseasoned pasta.
To oil or not to oil
I have no idea where this idea to add oil to the water comes from but please don’t! It makes absolutely no difference to the way the pasta will cook, remember the non-sticking comes from how much water there is in the pan. Also, once you then go and drain the pasta it will end up coated in oil which will prevent the sauce from sticking to it.
Pasta should never be overcooked! The only way to know when the pasta is ready is to bite it. Forget all about throwing pasta on the wall to see if it sticks, which by the way would just filth your kitchen and it’s extremely unhygienic. You will know when the pasta is cooked once you bite into it and not feel a crunch, but will still have a bite to it. If you really want to be sure, look for the Punto Verde, a thin segment right in the middle of the bitten pasta which is paler than the rest. If it’s gone, your pasta is no longer al dente but overcooked.
Save a cup
Before draining the pasta, make sure to save a cup of the water the pasta has been cooking in. You can then use it to add to the sauce if it is too thick. Also, please do not rinse the pasta once cooked. During the cooking time, all the starches of the pasta would have risen to the top and need to stay there to help the sauce stick to the pasta.
Here comes the sauce
Once the pasta is drained it goes back to finish cooking together with the sauce. Don’t just plate it and top it in sauce, the pasta needs to be completely covered in so let it sauté for a minute or two whilst you mix it with the sauce.
Shape and sauces
I know, I know, most of you probably grab the first box of pasta available in your kitchen and mix it with whatever sauce you have been cooking. Fine, this is me being very picky here, the pasta will still taste good but it will never be amazing. The pairing is important to extract the maximum flavor from each bite.
So here are a few basic rules.
Long Pasta – Pasta Lunga
Let’s start with the most complicated one as pasta lunga comes in a lot of different thicknesses. Generally, long and delicate types like capellini (angel hair) will pair nicely with light creamy or oil-based sauces. When we think of thicker ones like tagliatelle or pappardelle then switch it up to richer sauces like a ragú or porcini sauce. For long pasta like spaghetti, seafood always works a treat.
MUST: never break long pasta in half! It’s long for a reason just go with it!
Twist – Attorcigliata
The nature of the twist pasta with all its crooks and turns makes it the perfect companion for a lighter sauce made of finely chopped ingredients like pesto. Think of shapes like trofie, fusilli, strozzapreti. Just make sure to match the size and curves of the twist to the chunky parts of the sauce. It’s all in the details.
Tube – Tubolare
There is a reason why this pasta is hollow, to capture as much sauce as it can so that when you bite into it, there will be an explosion of flavour in your mouth. Shapes like penne, rigatoni paccheri, all pair well with rich chunky sauces like an arrabbiata. You can also use this shape to create delicious baked pasta dishes.
Filled – Ripiena
Think of ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti. These kinds of pasta are already super-rich in flavour and should be traditionally served with a light butter or oil sauce. Some regions of Italy even serve them in a hot broth, this is one of my favourite meals! Try it if you have not had it before.
Mini – Pastine
These are the perfect matches for soups, pasta salads, and broths. Stelline, orzo, fregola are designed to puff up and soak up the tasty soup or broth, plus they cook in a few minutes.
Oh and one more thing, grated parmesan cheese or any grated cheese, never belongs with seafood!
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