Welcome to the second installment of the course in Pasta. Perhaps even more intriguing than choosing and measuring pasta are cooking and eating it.
I know I like my pasta cooked al dente, but what exactly does this mean? Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian and refers to the doneness of pasta, risotto, or vegetables. It suggests a firm resistance when bitten but not soft (overcooked) nor hard in the center (undercooked). So how do we cook this perfectly al dente pasta? Read on…
- Pasta should be cooked right before serving. Use enough water. This means one pound (16 ounces) of pasta requires about four to six quarts of water. This will wash away excess starch thereby preventing the pasta from sticking together and cooking unevenly.
- Begin with cold water, and bring to a rolling boil on the stove. Add salt only after it has started boiling. I use only kosher salt in my kitchen, and here’s why. Salt helps bring out the natural flavor of the pasta and won’t raise the sodium level of the dish. The reason you’ll want to add salt after it’s come to a boil is because: (1) unsalted water reaches boiling point faster, and (2) salt dissolves faster in hot water. Adding salt to cold water may cause it to crystallize onto the sides of your pot. Add about two tablespoons per pound of pasta. This may sound like a lot but it’s necessary for the flavor and most of it will wash off in the water. The water should taste like seawater.
- While What’s Cooking America (where I got all of this good information) doesn’t recommend adding any oil to the water because it prevents sauce from sticking later, I like to add just a little–maybe two teaspoons of olive oil–so the pasta is likely to stick together after draining. Another alternative is after draining, add pasta back to the pot and toss with some butter or olive oil.
- Don’t add the dry pasta until the water is at a rolling boil. Adding it beforehand will result in mushy pasta because the starch will begin to break down before it gets to finish cooking.
- Stir pasta frequently while it is cooking to prevent it from sticking together and to the pot. (Yes, it seems like a lot of pasta cooking involves preventing it from sticking.)
- Cooking time is a tricky thing. I find that my stove boils things rather quickly so I can’t rely on typical times suggested on the package or online. The best bet is after four minutes, begin checking the pasta by biting into it. (Throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks can also work for testing long thin pastas.) Watch the pasta closely because it can overcook very quickly. Remember that pasta also continues to cook a little bit even once it’s out of the water.
- For pasta that will be used in a casserole (e.g. baked ziti) or cooked again, you can cook it in 1/3 less of the allotted time. Boil until just flexible but still firm.
- Do not rinse the pasta after draining unless the recipe says to do so. The starch will help the sauce stick to the pasta. DO rinse wide pasta (e.g. lasagna) or else it will be difficult to separate them without tearing. Also, rinse pasta if using it for cold salads.
- As soon as it is drained, transfer the pasta back into its warm pot or a warm bowl. Toss it immediately with the sauce.
- Don’t over-sauce the pasta. Italians say that Americans eat too much sauce with their pasta. There should only be enough to coat the pasta, not drown it. I.e. there should not be a puddle of sauce at the bottom of your bowl. (This is how I like my pasta–nice to know I have the taste buds of a true Italian.)
- Serve pasta in shallow bowls so that you can use the sides of the bowl as leverage to turn the tines of your fork when twirling pasta. It is not proper to use a spoon in addition to a fork, and it is definitely rude to slurp the pasta. Cut the pasta into smaller pieces with the edge of your fork if necessary.
- If you need to store the pasta, lightly toss it with some oil so it doesn’t stick.
And that concludes the Pasta class. Any questions?