Pasta. It’s one of the most generic terms used to refer to an expansive, regionally specific, and centuries’ long part of Italian food culture, but even the most ambiguous of terms is enough to elicit sighs of fondness for one of our favorite starches. From early childhood to poor college life and beyond into adulthood, pasta is one food we all enjoy. In theory, it’s relatively quick and easy to make, inexpensive, and I can’t think of one single person who doesn’t enjoy it. That said, there are just a few quick tips to be aware of when buying and preparing that will enhance both flavor and texture and, ultimately, just make life more delicious. The next time you find yourself craving a plate of pasta, keep these tips in mind:
Fresh isn’t Best – seek out pasta cut on bronze dyes
There’s a strange myth going around that fresh pasta far exceeds air dried. Not so, dear friends. The vast majority of regions in Italy prefer air dried. Unless you’re making something usually made by hand rather than extruded through a machine like cavatelli or a filled pasta, chances are, a quality air dried pasta will better suit your needs (and desires). There are two materials used most often to extrude some of our favorite shapes of pasta: bronze and Teflon. While Teflon is more efficient and easier, the resulting pasta is slippery and lifeless. While this may be ideal for slurping a la kindergartners, that slipperiness also leaves behind that amazing sauce you’re about to make.
Bronze dyes are the stuff of ages, and for good reason. When artisan pasta makers use a bronze dye to extrude their pasta (family-run Martelli in Lari, Italy, for example), the end result is well worth the extra time. On a microscopic level, bronze dyes extrude a pasta that is rougher with far more surface area for sauce to cling to. These days, when bronze dyes are used, artisans are often using higher quality durum semolina that will offer a toothsome bite, a lovely wheat flavor, and an all around better, tastier end product.
When a high quality pasta is used, it will be the star.
Prepare a sauce intended for your shape of choice, and don’t overdo it.
One of my kitchen heroes is Marcella Hazan. If you’re not familiar with her, think of her like the Julia Child for Italian cooking in the U.S. Marcella’s first cookbook, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, introduced American cooks to a lesson all Italians grew up with – your sauce is determined by your pasta shape. Italians don’t match sauce to pasta willy nilly. Each shape is created to marry with one or two particular sauces. Think bucatini and amatriciana, pappardelle and bolognese, spaghetti alla vongole; these weren’t paired together on accident. You can, of course, not follow these traditions, but a true match makes for a truly transcendent meal.
Don’t forget: the sauce exists to compliment the pasta, not the other way around. We don’t want noodles swimming in a bowl of sauce. Rather, we want a bowl of pasta kissed by a sauce that allows the pasta to shine. Remember, when a high quality pasta is used, it will be the star.
Use a big pot, lots of water, and liberal salt
Of all the pasta sins that exist, I beg you to use your biggest pot. And for the love of pasta, quit adding oil to the water! A large, roomy pot of boiling water gives each cut room to absorb the necessary amount of water at an even rate and will prevent noodles from sticking together. Salted water helps season the main component of your meal without over-seasoning and using too much salt in the finished product and aids in even cooking. Added oil would make cooking uneven and coat the pasta in a film, causing every possible drop of sauce to slip away between your plate and mouth.
Pay attention and don’t rinse
While it likely goes without saying, pasta should not be ignored while cooking. In those last minutes of time in boiling water, consider yourself married to that pot of cooking pasta. That fine line between true al dente and bloated, overcooked pasta is impossible to recover from. We cook pasta to al dente so it can continue to cook and finish cooking while being tossed with sauce. Pull your pasta from the water at a place when it is almost done, but feels like it could use another few minutes to be completely cooked through. It will finish cooking in the time it takes to toss with sauce, plate, and serve. Don’t stop these final moments of cooking with a rinse in cold water. The rinse will result in underdone pasta that is bound to be stuck in your molars for hours after your meal and seized starch that won’t hold a sauce as well as a hot noodle. Instead, remove your pasta to a colander if needed, or right into a sauce pan and sauce.
Pasta waits for no one
When it’s ready, it’s ready. Don’t waste any time between tossing with sauce and eating, or you run the risk of over-cooked pasta at an unpleasantly tepid temperature. Start eating as quickly as you can and enjoy every moment.