Cooking Pasta

A few simple steps transform the mundane into the amazing

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What’s so hard about pasta?

Nothing! Pasta is one of those deceptively simple foods. We all muster through, but too many people take it for granted and nearly slaughter it in the process. The purpose of this article, like my previous one on buttermilk pancakes, is to give beginning cooks the confidence to prepare more meals at home. We’ve all cooked pasta, it seems easy. However, a few simple tips will take it to gourmet restaurant quality.

Types of pasta

Before we get to the cooking, let’s talk about the buying. Most people get into a pasta rut and just get spaghetti every time. The cooking process is identical so why not try something new?

My guess is that people don’t try new pastas as they don’t understand which types of noodles to use. The simplest rule is that fine, thin pastas are for thin, simple sauces. Of course, this means that heavy big pastas like penne or rigatoni are for heavier, hearty sauces with lots of chunky ingredients. That’s it really. There are more little rules but this one alone can get you a long long way…

Fun trivia: did you ever notice that some pastas have ridges on them on and some are smooth? The ridges are there to catch onto and hold a sauce better. It’s not something to worry about, I just think it’s fun to know there are people that take pasta so seriously that they worry about things like this…

Dry vs Fresh Pasta
It’s quite popular now to see fresh pastas in the store now. These are great and definitely fun to try. However, unless you’re getting some thing exotic, the dry pastas really work extremely well. If you’re new to cooking, stay with the dry at first as it is a bit more forgiving, cheaper, and, in most cases, just as good.

Cost Savings
One more thing on purchasing: don’t buy cheap pasta. You’re not going to save much this way so spend the extra 70 cents and get a good quality brand. Scrimping at this level is not going to speed up your retirement goals.

Cooking

Yes, it’s just boiling water but humor me, lets go through a few details:

Get a big pot and put in lots of water
Don’t go crazy, but it’s important you don’t crowd your pasta: small pots with little water makes the pasta cook slower and worse, stick more. In general, a 4 quart pot 3/4 full will do nicely for up to 1 pound of dry pasta. Be sure to heat up your water to boiling before putting in your pasta.


Use salt!
It’s hard for people to really appreciate this but PASTA HAS FLAVOR! Salting the water brings this out. Most people put far too little salt in the water; use at least a tablespoon for that pot of water. If you balk at that much salt, please realize that most of that salt will go down the drain.

SILLY TIP: If you add the salt into the center of the pot just as bubbles start to form on the bottom, you’ll get this really cool cloud-like blooming effect on the bottom of the pot. Maybe it’s just the junior scientist in me, but it’s fun to watch and my kids thought it was cool.

REAL TIP: Taste your pasta right after draining. It should have a distinct, even nutty taste. Do this the next few times you cook pasta as it will help you learn how much salt you really want. I’ve even sprinkled salt over my drained pasta when I’ve used too little. It really makes a significant difference to get this right.


Stir frequently, especially the first few minutes
If your pasta just sits there the first few minutes, the starches will soften and glue everything together. It’s critical that you stir your pasta a few times those first few minutes. This is one reason why your water needs to be boiling when you first add the pasta, you can stir for less time and get on with the rest of your meal preparation. If you just plunk it in tepid water and come back later when the water’s boiling, its too late.

Set a timer
You know those cooking instructions on the back of the box? Use them! If your water is boiling when you add the pasta, just set the timer, stir your pasta and then relax, all the guess work has been removed.
Purists of course will dip in ever few minutes and taste, looking for that perfect ‘al dente’ moment when your pasta is done. This is not one of those situations in life that requires eternal vigilance. Bad pasta is overcooked pasta. If you set your timer, you’ll be fine.


Drain properly
Such a simple thing, I’m surprised that so many people have trouble with this. Just buy a nice big pasta colander (I have a cheap stainless steel one from IKEA) and dump everything into it all at once: pasta and all the water. Give the colander a good shake or two and let it sit in the sink for a second while you get your serving bowl ready.
It is so much easier this way than trying to drain with a lid over the top. This is dangerous and likely to loose bits down the drain and worse, leave everything sitting in a water bath.


Serving

The biggest sin here is to let your pasta just sit there in a bowl for 10 minutes. This just lets the starches bind together and you get a twisted yarn like ball of mess that is impossible to serve. There are basically three choices here:

Mix the sauce in immediately
This is the most common. Have your sauce ready, dump your freshly drained pasta into a bowl and dump the sauce over the top and toss gently. This allows everything to be evenly coated and prevents sticking. It’s also much easier to serve.

TIP: After tossing the pasta with the sauce, let it stand just a few minutes. Those starches are still binding and a few minutes of rest will thicken things up a bit. This is a really good thing to remember if you’re making a thin sauce with a thin noodle: letting them rest just a few minutes will work magic and make the dish more luscious and velvety.

Toss with a little olive oil
Sometimes you just don’t have everything ready. By tossing your pasta with olive oil, you buy yourself a little time and if you want, can even serve the pasta and sauce separately.


Rinse with water
This is a more advanced point but if you’re going to make a pasta salad, you’ll want to rinse your drained pasta in cold running water. This does two very important things:

    1. It stops the cooking process so things don’t get mushy
    2. It rinses some of the starches off the outside of the pasta, reducing stickiness

Homework: Exercise 1

Now that you’ve made it this far, it’s only fair to have a simple homework assignment to get you started. Go out and buy a fun new shape of pasta such as penne, farfalle (bowtie), or campanelle (little horn shapes). Follow the instructions above. If you buy a 1 pound box, just cook approximately half for 3-4 servings.  As the pasta cooks, put the following into a microwave safe bowl:

  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon of ONE of the following herbs: basil, oregano, rosemary, chives, tarragon, or sage. Most people will have dried which is fine (as long as it isn’t 2 years old….) If you happen to have fresh, that’s much, much better. Just be sure to use at least 2 tablespoons instead as the fresh is much bulkier than the dried.
Microwave all of this for about 40 seconds. This melts the butter and let the spices mix with the oils and distribute their flavors. Once the pasta is drained, toss and enjoy this as a side dish. It beats the pants off of mashed potatoes. 

If you like this, you can add endless variations. You can add any (or all!) of the following:
  • grated parmesian
  • olives
  • chopped sun dried tomatoes 
  • pesto
  • sauteed vegetables
  • browned chicken
The more you add, the more you transform this from a side dish into a main course. This is where you can’t go wrong and cooking becomes an adventure. I’m sure you’ll love this and I hope you have fun!