This past fall I turned in the manuscript for a cookbook on pasta. Kind of funny for a girl who grew up eating only ‘noodles’, never pasta. I guess that week I spent in Italy turned this noodle girl into a real pasta girl.
In my Basics class I teach at Tante Marie’s we spend one entire week on cooking pasta. This is an intro class so we don’t make it homemade. We cook a lot of recipes with quick sauces, meat ragus, and baked pastas. Someone once asked me how I could spend an entire four-hour class talking about and cooking pasta but you’d be amazed at what most people don’t know about the simple ingredient.
First, no matter what your mom told you, do NOT put oil in the water when you cook your pasta. Oil in the water is a lame way to prevent your pasta from sticking together. Pasta should be cooked in a big pot of rapidly boiling water. For a pound of pasta I use my huge stock pot and fill it about 80% of the way with water. If you have enough water and a big enough pot, your pasta will cook evenly because the entire surface will be exposed to the hot water. When you cram your pasta in a small pot, no amount of oil will keep it from sticking together-there just isn’t enough room to cook it. If it has that extra room, the oil is totally unnecessary. The problem with adding the oil is that it sticks to the exterior of the pasta. When you drain your pasta, that oil clings to it making it impossible for the sauce to be absorbed. Any sauce you put on will simply slide off the pasta, losing flavor and consistency along the way.
Second, when you drain your pasta, don’t rinse it. You not only cool your pasta down but you rinse off the starchy exterior, which is the part that clings to the sauce. Cold water, like oil, is an enemy when it comes to saucing your pasta. The only time you will ever rinse your pasta is if you need it to be cold immediately. If you’re serving it warm, which I hope you are, just drain it and get it in the sauce.
Third, save some pasta water. The secret of great sauce on restaurant pastas is a little bit of pasta water. If you think about the fact that pasta is starchy, that starch leaches into the water as it cooks. This makes the water a great tool for ‘lengthening’ sauces. So, if your sauce is too thick to really cling to the pasta, a little pasta water will thin it out but, because of the starch in it, you wont end up with a watery mess. I always ladle out a cup of pasta water before I drain my pasta.
Fourth, salt your water! In Italy, the core of any pasta dish is the noodle itself, not the sauce. Because of this you need to season the pasta just like you would your sauce. The only way to do this is to generously salt the water in which it cooks. This ensure that the salted water penetrates the pasta while it is cooking and seasons it all the way through. If you try to salt it after it cooks, the salt sits on the surface but does not season it very thoroughly. My rule, and the rule of many others, is to salt your water until it tastes like sea water. For a pound of pasta in my big pot this means 1-2 tablespoons (that’s right, tablespoons) of salt.
Fifth, keep your pasta from getting cold when you serve it. It makes a huge difference to heat the bowls or plates in which you serve your pasta. If you’re serving family style, heat the serving bowl and if you’re plating your pasta heat the individual dishes. I do this by warming them in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes or so. Better yet, if your oven was on and you just turned it off, pop the dishes in for a minute or two. Finally, I saw someone drain their pasta over the serving dish then pour the water out. This heated the dish up quickly-great idea.
I could go on and on. Don’t over sauce, finish cooking your pasta in the sauce, cook your pasta al dente (‘to the tooth’) so it has a bit of a bite and doesn’t get soft, etc., etc.,….
Now do you see how we spend those four hours?