If cooking pasta were as easy as boiling water, then we wouldn't continue to turn out languid lumache or clumpy rafts of rotini.
Pasta may be simple, but it's not stupid. Considering its pleasure-to-cost ratio, it deserves tip top treatment.
There's just so much conflicting advice on the matter--and scattered over sources far and wide.
So, to those equipped with tested and timeworn pasta cookery skills, forgive me for the repeat; but if I can save even one farfalla from a senseless floppy fate, then who would I be not to try?
On dry vs. fresh
- Fresh pasta--typically enriched with egg and not dried--has a shorter shelf life than the semolina/water-made dried pasta, which can be stored indefinitely.
- Dried pasta swells in size, so one pound feeds four people (generously); use a pound and a half of fresh pasta to feed the same size crowd.
- Reserve fresh pasta for more delicate sauces, or else they'll collapse under the weight of Nonna's meat-a-balls.
- Fresh pasta cooks in barely enough time to pour yourself a glass of wine, so plan accordingly.
- Strands (spaghetti, capellini, linguine, etc.) do best with olive-oil based sauces capable of slicking their entire lengths.
- Ribbons (fettuccine, tagliatelle, pappardelle), even in their fresh iterations, stand up well to ragùs and cream sauces.
- Tubes (penne, rigatoni, ziti, etc.) show off thicker, chunkier sauces that can travel inside and out. Many come with ridges (labeled: rigate) which help with sauce adherence.
- Shapes (conchiglie, fusilli, orecchiette, etc.) offer all sorts of nooks and crannies for peas, pancetta, crumbled sausage, and other surprises to hide.
On whole wheat vs. white pasta
- Pasta made entirely with whole durum wheat flour (rather than refined flour) save a handful of calories and carbohydrates while adding some protein and fiber. If you like the taste and texture just as well, whole wheat's the more healthful choice.
On the cooking water
- Unless you are preparing a single portion of pasta, use a big stockpot filled with 5 quarts of water.
- Covering the pot will bring the water to a boil 30% faster. Take it from America's Test Kitchen if my word's not enough.
- Because pasta cooks by absorbing water, you want it to be generously seasoned so that the pasta will come out suitably seasoned. Add 2 Tbsp. of salt to 5 quarts of water just as it's coming to a boil.
- Do not waste olive oil by adding it to the cooking water. It does nothing to prevent pasta from sticking together. It does, however, prevent the water from boiling over, but so does a swift temperature adjustment. Your call on how you spend your liquid gold.
On cooking the pasta
- Wait until your water is bubbling like a witch's cauldron before adding the pasta, and then add it all at once.
- Stir it immediately, before the pasta's starches have released from their exteriors out into the water, and you'll be out of the clumping danger zone.
- Time the pasta from when you dropped it, but if your water doesn't return to a boil straightaway, cover it until it does.
- Start testing pieces of pasta 2-3 minutes before the package instructs. You've likely heard the expression al dente, ad nauseum, but remembering that it means "to the tooth" will help your own tooth determine when it's no longer crunchy at the core, but still has some chew to it. How much chew you leave depends on how long you plan to cook it in its sauce.
On draining the pasta
- Just before taking the pot to the colander, dip a heat-safe liquid measuring cup into the water to fetch between a 1/2 and a full cup. Even if you don't end up using it, the salty, starch-laden water does wonders to knit together a sauce.
- Do not rinse your pasta after draining it (unless you are making a cold pasta salad and want to halt the cooking process). Sauces will slip-and-slide right off, which promises to be distasteful and messy.
On saucing the pasta
- Even if it's just jarred marinara that you're using, introducing hot pasta to hot sauce for at least a minute before dishing them up means maximum flavor absorption.
- Allowing pasta and sauce some time to get to know one another will ensure that the pasta tastes like a united, meant-to-be dish. This is also when adding some pasta water can loosen a thick sauce, or give a thin sauce a more luxuriant, coating texture.
On finishing the pasta
- Pull the pan from the heat before stirring in any cheese or herbs, and then hustle it to a serving bowl.
- Pasta can rarely wear too much olive oil or cheese, so deck it out and then bring the whole bowl to the table to encourage conviviality and second helpings.