What’s so hard about pasta?
Types of pasta
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
- It stops the cooking process so things don’t get mushy
- It rinses some of the starches off the outside of the pasta, reducing stickiness
Homework: Exercise 1
- 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.
- grated parmesian
- chopped sun dried tomatoes
- sauteed vegetables
- browned chicken