Oh, so you want to make pasta, do you?
Oh, so you think it is just about boiling some water?
If you want to cook pasta like an Italian, there are rules, dear Lord, there. are. rules.
It seems simple enough: water, salt, oil, pasta.
TRICK! That was a trick!
There is no oil.
Want to know what else you have been doing wrong when cooking pasta for all these years?
Here are the 10 commandments, the undeniable truths, of cooking pasta like an Italian:
- Thou shalt not break thine pasta. Ever. I don’t care if it’s long, that just means you did not put enough water in the pot. If you hold up a packet of spaghetti and break it over the pot, that cracking sound you hear is the sound of 1,000 Italian grandmother’s hearts breaking. (Just kidding, you would probably get straight up smacked for being so ridiculous). Let me repeat: you do not break the pasta. The pasta is produced in that size for a reason, and all you need is a tall pot and a bit of practice swirling it around you fork. Basta.
- Thy serving size shall be 100g! 150g if we are being generous! This is a meal, not an eating contest. A pack of pasta is usually 500g, which means that it is sufficient for 4 to 5 people.
- The salt of the earth shall be addeth to thine water only once said water hath begun to boil. First, I suppose we should clarify that salt is non-negotiable. The seasoning will make or break your pasta from the very beginning. It will help the flavor as well as the texture. Give your pot of water a heathy pinch of sea salt. However, salt raises the boiling point of water, so let the water start to bubble before you add the salt, then give it a minute to dissolve before adding the pasta. OH DID I NOT MENTION THAT YOU ONLY ADD THE PASTA WHEN THE WATER IS BOILING? That one matters, people. You do not have to keep the pasta at a rolling boil the whole time, but the water has to be ready if you want the pasta to turn out well.
- Thou shalt not add any oil to the water. None. I’m sorry, were you not listening to step 3? It is actually salting that keeps the pasta from gumming together. The oil is unnecessary and will coat the pasta when drained.
- Thy pasta shall be prepared al dente. Mushy pasta is just a no. However, cooking pasta al dente (“to the tooth” – so that you can bite it) is also better for you. Pasta that is al dente takes longer to digest, keeping you full longer. Overcooked pasta raises its GI index (which is bad news for your waistline and your heart).
- Thou shall useth only the right shape for the right sauce. Do you know how many times I have been served angel hair pasta after 6 years in Rome? Zero. If a recipe calls for a specific shape of pasta – use it. Here are 250 pasta shapes to give you an idea of the diversity.
- Should thine make thine sauce, thou shall begin with the holy trinity: onion, carrot and celery. Well, there are lots of kinds of sauces but I am assuming that we are talking ragu here. (Ragu is delicious). A soffritto (“under fried”) is the perfect base for many Italian soups and some of the heartier northern sauces. Two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery is cooked down in a bit of olive oil to become the base.
- Thou MUST conserve the pasta water. The starchy water is essential for helping to bind the sauce. Just before you drain the pasta, save about 1/4 of cup of the starchy water to add to the sauce. It will thicken the sauce and help it bind to the pasta.
- Thine sauce is not the main attraction. Speaking of sauce, it’s secondary. The sauce should coat the pasta, not drown it. The 100g of pasta (see step 2) is what this is all about. The sauce is a condiment so use it sparingly.
- Thine bread shall sop thine sauce. But if you do end up with an abundance of sauce – go ahead and fare la scarpetta.
There you go. All the advice about cooking pasta that you never asked for.
Did I miss any?
(HINT: I am sure I did. Dear Lord, the rules. The rules of pasta cooking! There are so many!)
If you want to learn to cook pasta at home, I highly recommend Pasta: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome. In Rome, you can also take a pasta making class.