What to Know When Cooking Pasta
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years about cooking pasta:
1. You don’t need to use a huge pot of water, just enough to give the pasta enough room to cook. About 3 quarts/3 liters of water for 1 pound/500 grams of pasta should be plenty.
2. Salt the water generously before you bring it to a boil.
3. Don’t put oil in the water “to keep the pasta from sticking together.” It doesn’t work. Just stir the pasta as soon as you immerse it, and a few more times while it cooks.
4. Don’t overcook pasta. I happen to like pasta secca not just al dente — literally “to the tooth,” meaning that you will get a little resistance when you bite into it — but what my Roman friends call filo di ferro, “iron string,” meaning that a very thin core of barely cooked dough runs down the middle of each noodle. You may not agree, in which case al dente is fine. If you cook pasta too long, though, it gets unpleasantly gummy.
5. Unless you have a consistent supply of pasta or a very good eye, the only way to tell whether store-bought pasta is done is to taste a bit of it. Dried pasta can be three months old or three years old, and the latter will take longer to soften than the former. Homemade pasta, if it is used fresh, should never take more than three to five minutes to cook properly.
6. Drain the pasta, but for heaven’s sake don’t rinse it. It’s the starch that remains on it that helps the sauce to cling.
7. In general, cooks in northern Italy transfer the cooked pasta to a big bowl (preferably warmed in advance), then add the sauce and toss it. (I sometimes use the pot in which the pasta was cooked as a stand-in for the bowl.) Their counterparts in the south often dump the pasta into the pan where the sauce is cooking and mix the two together there. This is a matter of personal preference and convenience (your frying pan may not be large enough to accommodate the latter technique, for example), though in general I toss fresh pasta in a bowl and dried pasta in the pan.
8. Most pasta sauces — there are certainly exceptions — can be made in the time it takes the pasta itself to cook.
9. Don’t overdo the sauce. It should be a condiment for the pasta, not an end in itself. Click here to see Colman Andrews' Basic Tomato Sauce Recipe.
10. Smooth sauces or simple dressings (like olive oil or butter and cheese) or sauces in which the ingredients are small or cut into small pieces are most appropriate for long noodles like spaghetti and fettuccine. Chunky sauces, like those with pieces of sausage or cauliflower, tend to work better with short shapes like penne or farfalle. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule — like spaghetti with clams — but when I see angel hair pasta garnished with a pound of mixed seafood, as I often do on American menus, I suspect that the cook doesn’t know much about pasta.
Adapted from "The Country Cooking of Italy" by Colman Andrews (Chronicle Books, 2011)