It seems like pasta should be the simplest food in the world to cook, but actually it’s the simplest food in the world to mess up. This article shows you the steps required to cook pasta perfectly, as Italians eat it, and to improve your experience of an already much-loved dish. I also hope to bust a few myths.
I grew up absolutely loathing the thought of being served pasta for dinner. Back in the UK of the 1980s – a time when the Vienetta ice cream was thought of as the height of sophistication – nothing filled me with more foreboding than going to a friend’s house for food and discovering that someone was trying to be “exotic” by cooking “Italian”: the leaden humid odor of sticky penne in the air, and a creeping dread about what I was about to be served.
And then on the plate would arrive a lumpen tower of spaghetti the texture of wallpaper paste with the taste of gruel, with a paltry splodge of “bolognese” on top. I would eat the sauce, avoiding as much of the pasta as I could, and to be polite I’d force a little bit more down my throat by covering it copiously with “powdered cheese” that smelled faintly of vomit.
As I grew up, in restaurants in the UK and the US, the rare times I ordered pasta I was always disappointed: I would overeat vast overflowing bowls of oily, overly-flavored, slippery noodles, sometimes crunchy in the middle and tasting of disappointment.
When I started dating an Italian I was still loath to cook the stuff because firstly, badly-made spaghetti with artificially-flavored Dolmio sauce from a jar is still gross, and secondly of course, she’s Italian and I was scared to try.
When we first met I was also relying on crazy myths like throwing pasta at the wall to see if it was ready (my girlfriend looked on in total confusion when she saw this: “what the hell are you doing?” she asked. “Have you lost your mind?”).
Then I moved to Rome.
And I totally re-evaluated my relationship with this marvellous foodstuff; not just slightly, but to heights of love I never thought possible. I can now cook pasta to the level that Italians compliment me on it – and not just because I’m a foreigner doing my best. And now I want to impart that knowledge to you.
1. To cook the best pasta, you must buy the best pasta.
Buy “made in Italy”.
Firstly, when buying dry pasta look for Italian brands: Rummo, Barilla, De Cecco, Di Martino, etc. that are made in Italy (not just a manufacturer in your country that’s been licensed by an Italian company). Not because they’re necessarily better, but because the people they primarily manufacture pasta for – Italian consumers – are really exacting. Any food manufacturer can set up a pasta making machine, but only Italian manufacturers are guaranteed to have to keep their customers consistently happy with the right texture and bigh-quality raw ingredients.
Buy posher pasta.
Secondly, it’s usually true that the more expensive the pasta, the better the experience.
But surely pasta is just flour and water (and egg)?
Well, yes, but the way it’s made does change how it behaves when cooking and being eaten. Most dried pasta is made by extruding the dough from a machine, then cutting it into lengths.
It follows that the faster the machine runs, then the cheaper they can make it. To make the machines run particularly quickly, many manufacturers coat the extrusion nozzles with Teflon. The result is that the pasta, once dried, has a very smooth, almost sealed surface at a microscopic level, and is therefore far less likely to absorb any of the other flavors in the dish.
Pasta that has been extruded from more traditonal metal or ceramic nozzles is slower to make and therefore costs more, but will have a rougher texture, will absorb the taste of the sauce, and will therefore be more flavorful to eat as well as having a more interesting ‘mouthfeel’.
Where it comes to buying fresh pasta (in Italy pasta all’uovo), by the way, it is almost certain to have been made with the slower method.
As for the shape: generally pastas with large holes in them are best for lumpy sauces like ragù (meat sauce); longer pasta is used for more sticky or creamy sauces. However this isn’t a hard and fast rule: in Rome you’ll find that tubular mezze maniche or penne are usually used for the four Roman pastas (carbonara, gricia, cacio e pepe, amatriciana) despite their not being particularly lumpy.
2. To make the perfect pasta, you must weigh the pasta.
One thing you’ll notice about eating pasta in restaurants in Italy is that the portions are small, probably way smaller than you’re used to if you’re not from Italy. Far from the vast “family sharing” bowls popular in Italian-American restaurants, Italians rarely eat more than their own plate of 3-4 oz (80-100 g) of dried pasta per person. This works out to about 7-8½ oz (200-240 g) when cooked (for fresh pasta, use the cooked weights as a guideline to measure portions).
This is because pasta is traditionally served as a primo – a first course (after the antipasti – appetizers eaten ‘before the meal’) – which is designed to be followed up with a secondo (the entree). You don’t want to fill your stomach with heavy starch before tucking into a bistecca or saltimbocca. Of course these days, most weight-conscious Italians tend to choose either a primo or a secondo and rarely both – unless they’re at nonna’s house or a wedding – but even then they still don’t load up on a ton of pasta before eating their protein and vegetables.
So leave your guests wanting more: treat the pasta dish as a delicacy, not a huge amount of fuel.
(I visited a friend in England recently who threw a kilo – more than 2 lbs – of dried fusilli into a giant pan for four of us, two of whom were small children. This is officially WAY TOO MUCH! In fact it’s a disgusting amount. More on that horrific experience later.)
3. To make perfect pasta you must salt the water.
You may have high blood pressure; that means that traditionally cooked pasta is not for you (or you must use your favorite low-sodium alternative) – because the water must be salted. Health considerations aside, failure to use salt in cooking is the second most common reason that non-Italians mess up the use of this versatile product.
The brine penetrates the pasta while it’s cooking, bringing a lightly salty taste to its heart. This is why much pasta outside Italy is tasteless gloop.
Don’t be shy: to cook pasta for two to four people, the salt should be a really big pinch – around a teaspoon. Traditionally, use sale grosso (kosher or sea salt grains) as it’s too easy to over-salt the water with fine-grain salt, which is far worse than under-salting it.
4. To make perfect pasta you must really boil the water.
The water must be absolutely rolling boiling before you put the pasta. DO NOT PUT OIL INTO THE WATER! This is another myth. All you need to do to stop pasta from sticking is to give it the occasional stir.
Pour in the dry pasta, give it a quick stir with a long spoon, and cover until it re-boils then partially uncover, stir it again, and leave the heat medium-high to simmer.
(Going back to the terrible pasta experience I had in England, my friend put the dry pasta into a pan, filled the pan with cold, unsalted, water, then put it on the heat. The horror.)
5. To make good pasta you must time the cooking absolutely exactly.
This is the #1 reason that non-Italians mess pasta up. We’ve all heard of pasta needing to be al dente (‘with bite’), but few of us understand how important the texture of pasta is.
The pasta box or bag you bought it in will almost always have the correct cooking time for the pasta written on the label. This timing has been tested ad infinitum by the manufacturer to keep Italian cooks happy, and therefore must act as your Bible: respect this timing to the second. (The exception to this is if you live at a high altitude, when you should add a little extra time; you will need to use trial and error to find out how much.)
Set a kitchen timer for the exact number of minutes required, and set it going the moment the pasta goes into the water; strain the pasta the moment the timer goes off. Don’t mess around tasting it or throwing it at the wall (unless you live at a very high altitude, when you will probably want to test its texture before straining, but still don’t throw it at the wall). And don’t run water or anything else over your pasta while straining.
For fresh pasta, two to three minutes is all that’s needed. Into the roiling water, quick stir, leave it just for a little while, check that the texture is good, and take it out.
There is another issue here with Teflon-extruded dried pasta: sometimes the surface of the pasta is so smooth that it creates a sort of ‘seal’, so that the water doesn’t penetrate the core of the noodle and it leaves a nasty, crunchy core in the center. This is not how it’s meant to be – and it’s definitely not al dente. Worse still, to cook the middle of this type of paste to perfection, one would have to overcook the exterior of the noodle. A crunchy middle is gross and in a restaurant, any self-respecting Italian would send such pasta back to the chef.
6. To make perfect pasta you should keep back a bit of the pasta water just in case.
Reserve a bit of the starchy water in which the pasta was cooked to loosen up the sauce if it’s too thick.
7. To make perfect pasta, the sauce should be made separately, and be minimalist, but fresh.
Don’t just buy a jar of pre-made ragù full of powdered garlic and preservatives and hundreds of other compounds, to throw it over the pasta. You’ve just cooked the perfect pasta but now you’re going to ruin it? No. Make your own sauce with fresh ingredients. Simple, tasty ideas below.
One-pot pasta? No way.
(To conclude the horror story of my English pasta experience, as well as a kilo of dry pasta and cold water, my friend also threw a bag of frozen peas and a packet of ham before boiling the entire thing for half an hour. When it was served I had to pretend I wasn’t hungry. Let us now draw a veil over this and instead do it how the Italians do it.)
8. To make perfect pasta, you must stir the pasta through the sauce.
Rearrange your thinking about sauces: the star of the show here is the pasta; the sauce is merely a tasty accompaniment to enhance it.
That said, no pasta dish is ever served in Italy as a blob of sauce on top of plain pasta. The idea of the sauce is to gently coat all surfaces of the pasta, to allow it to absorb and soak up the flavors, and not to drown it.
Your sauce should be prepared in a second pan. Put the strained pasta into the pan with the sauce and gently turn the pasta in the sauce until it’s covered. Loosen it up with a spoonful of pasta water if it’s a bit thick. You should be able lift the coated pasta out of the pan to plate it up; there will likely be sauce left in the pan. Don’t be tempted to pour it over – let the pasta speak for itself.
(For the excess sauce you can always fare una scarpetta with a piece of bread after the meal – clean your plate and then the pan using a piece of bread or two as a sponge. It’s the ultimate compliment to the cook.)
9. Now eat the perfect pasta.
As with most Italian foods, the key is the simplicity and quality of the ingredients. Don’t add salt and pepper at the table: all seasoning should be taken care of by the chef in the cooking process.
If you do want to dress the dish with cheese – and definitely don’t do this if there’s already cheese in the sauce – don’t use pre-grated or powdered cheese: get fresh parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, or grana padano, and grate it. Not cheap, but makes a world of difference.
Super cheap and easy fresh traditional pasta sauces eaten in Italian homes:
Pasta al pomodoro: tomato passata simmered gently for 15 minutes with a glug of high-quality olive oil, a pinch of salt, a couple of basil leaves, and optionally a bit of finely-chopped onion. Serve with fresh grated parmigiano. Don’t ruin it with “cheese powder”.
Pasta bianca: half a tablespoon of butter melted into the strained pasta and grated parmigiano stirred through to make a tangy sauce, with a couple of sage leaves thrown in to the melting butter.
Pasta aglio e olio: a clove of garlic sauteed in extra virgin olive oil, then (usually in Rome) removed, stirred through the pasta with a few chilli flakes and parsley.
Pasta cacio e pepe: grate a load of black peppercorns and toast them gently in a dry pan while the pasta is cooking. Grate about 7 oz (200 g) hard pecorino cheese (if you can find it, or parmigiano if you can’t) into a bowl. Strain the pasta and throw it (with some pasta water) into the pan and stir through the pepper. Meanwhile mix the grated cheese into a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta water until it becomes a creamy paste, pour it over then stir it through the peppery pasta.
Who’d have thought that something so simple could have so many steps? But these are actually just slightly different ways of doing the steps you already likely do. Follow the above and you’ll find yourself transforming something many people think of as a dull “fall-back” meal, into a dish worthy of compliments to the chef.
Finally remember: the perfect pasta is inexpensive and simple to make, but it’s neither cheap nor fast food.